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Simon Pegg interview: ‘Nothing is as inspiring as pain’

Simon Pegg is known for playing the daft bloke-next-door. But it was heartbreak that drove him to write his first comedy script

Kaleem Aftab
Saturday 02 August 2014 10:51 BST
(Rex Features)

Simon Pegg is the British actor who has conquered zombies, aliens and Hollywood. Now on the back of starring in two Star Trek films and being an vital cog in the Mission: Impossible franchise, he is now returning to more Earthly, human pursuits, and the UK, in Hector and the Search for Happiness. In the film, perhaps the first aimed squarely at an audience more his own age since 2008’s How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, the 44-year-old plays Hector, a psychiatrist dealing with a crisis many of us might have faced at some point in our lives: am I in the right relationship? His relationship with his live-in girlfriend Clara has gone stale, so he decides the time is right to broaden his horizons and duly abandons his girlfriend and patients to travel the world.

“The thing about Hector is that he sets out to find out what makes people happy but he is really trying to find out what makes him happy, because he has no happiness,” says Pegg. The film is adapted from the 2002 debut novel by François Lelord, a French psychiatrist. Like Hector, whose shelves are full of books by Freud and Jung, Pegg believes that what happens to us in childhood defines us as adults. “A lot of us still go through life regarding love and sex as we did when we were seven,” he opines. “And we take that into adulthood.”

Pegg was seven when his parents divorced. Born Simon John Beckingham in Brockworth, Gloucestershire, his father was a jazz musician and keyboard salesman and his mother a civil servant. He took the name Pegg from his stepfather. Many of the characters he has created as an adult and writer, and those he has been drawn to as an actor, have been recovering from broken relationships. The TV show Spaced starts with Pegg trying to cope with the aftermath of a break-up. Shaun of the Dead, the first of the so-called Cornetto Trilogy that he wrote to be directed by his friend and collaborator Edgar Wright, sees him put his friends before his girlfriend. In both Hot Fuzz, where he plays a lonely policeman redeployed in Gloucestershire, and The World’s End, in which he plays an alcoholic trying to recapture teenage glories, his character is defiantly single.

Does this fascination with broken relationships go back to his childhood and his parents’ divorce? “Well, that’s the interesting thing, not just with Hector, but also in [his 2012 horror film] A Fantastic Fear of Everything, there is the idea of the wounded child,” he responds. “We all have it, this moment when we realise that we are an entity separate from our mother, we are individual and we are going to die, all that kind of stuff. Our relationship with all the key emotional touchstones of life, they are established at a very young age and you never really look back on it, unless you have therapy. You never go back and think: ‘Oh, that’s why I’m like that with women. That’s why I’ve been looking for that kind of person. That’s why I’ve been trying to find a father, a mother, whatever...’”

If it wasn’t for a break-up, he reveals, he would never have had the motivation to write Spaced, the 1990s TV show in which he made his name. “There was a key moment in my life when I broke up with a girlfriend – about 20 years ago now – and that formed the basis of Spaced. That kind of heartbreak, which was partly because there is nothing so inspiring as pain. There is no greater friend of creativity than upset.” Creatively, then, every cloud has a silver lining. “People say burn your house down or get rid of everything. Getting your heart broken or having to re-evaluate yourself in the face of loss can be therapeutic. I was happy coasting along doing nothing, but when this girl left me, I was so kicked in the balls by it that I wrote a sitcom. Sometimes we all need a kick in the balls.”

He’s happy now, but he insists that isn’t because he’s rich or famous. Pegg has been married to Maureen McCann, a music-industry publicist for eight years. They have a daughter, Matilda. “Everything is kind of great, but I do remember that time being in relationships where everything isn’t brilliant but thinking it’s better than being out there trying to find somebody. The lesser of two evils.”

More controversially Pegg believes that the high quality of life in Britain makes the nation more prone to depression: “I kind of think that the whole idea of happiness is an interesting one. Our generation, or this kind of society, the late capitalist Western society, is very bored and very unhappy because it’s sort of medicated. It’s medicated by mundanity. I don’t want a war. The fact is that the people who have been through shit are far more aware of what happiness is than the people who haven’t.”

Perhaps this is why Pegg has seen it as his mission to put a smile on the faces of the nation. Over the years, he has successfully cultivated an image of comedy bloke next door and sci-fi fan boy. His autobiography is called Nerd Do Well. “I think that I have somehow partly engendered this notion of Mr Ordinary Guy, projected onto me, and projected from me,” he says. “It’s no accident that I’m doing what I’m doing. I didn’t win a competition or anything.”

Moreover, his knowledge of sci-fi is disarming. He read theatre, film and television at Bristol University, where he wrote a thesis on a Marxist interpretation of Star Wars. What would his student self make of his Cornetto Trilogy? “All of them are about a homogenisation of a faceless, seemingly benevolent group. Not the zombies, they were more like a metaphor for urban living and literally being consumed by the collective. Certainly with Hot Fuzz and the The World’s End, I guess if I was a student I’d talk about them being metaphors for capitalist societies that have hegemonic means of controlling people where there is no outward aggressive coercion. It’s all about sucking stuff in and making it about you, the corporatisation of culture.”

Having conquered Hollywood, Pegg is now once again casting his eye at the small screen. “Television has become an interesting prospect because it’s evolved so much as a medium. Even our television sets are becoming more like cinema screens. But perhaps you don’t get the same community as you do in a theatre.”

That said, real-time commentary on social networks now means that watching television can feel like a shared experience. “Which is why you have to stay off Twitter otherwise you get a spoiler. Like I did with Game of Thrones, which I was so angry about... Recently I did a pilot with Frank Darabont called Mob City, which didn’t get picked up because TNT [TV network] were wary of how expensive it would be, as it was a period piece. But it’s an arena that’s now more attractive to film-makers because you can make a 13-hour film. What a gift that was to see Bryan Cranston play Walter White, from classic teacher to Scarface.”

When we meet it is not long after the death of Rik Mayall. “The Young Ones was the whole reason I got into comedy as a kid,” he says. “I worked with Rik on my first film [Guest House Paradiso], so it’s super-sad.”

He is oddly concerned with how to react publicly to the news. “It’s funny that the first thing you have is Twitter. (Pegg has 4.19 million followers and at the time of writing has sent 15,000 tweets). “I try to lay off writing epitaphs because every time you watch the news, they’ll do a list of what you said and what you think and really what does it matter what someone said? It’s a weird thing projecting everything through the prism of famous people, like that means anything or validates it in any way. I want to say something about Rik Mayall but I don’t want it to be used in that way.” (In the end, he opts for the brilliantly unquotable “R.I.K.”)

Pegg is currently shooting Mission: Impossible 5, his third appearance in the franchise. As with many of today’s blockbuster films, you don’t just sign on for one movie, but several. When his one-off character Benji was turned into an agent in Ghost Protocol he agreed to become a regular in the series. Is this just a sign that he’s becoming part of the Starbucks of the movie business? “I suppose so. But this is another thing that I’ve come to realise in terms of happiness. I have to enjoy the process. The product is something else, it has to be an afterthought in a way, the most important thing has to be the process because it’s about getting up in the morning going on set and if I don’t have some degree of belief in what I’m doing then I would feel it.”

There is also his friendship with the director JJ Abrams who initially signed Pegg up for Mission: Impossible III, then gave him the part of Scotty in the Star Trek reboots. Given Pegg’s standing as a sci-fi aficionado it’s no surprise that he’s been getting the lowdown from Abrams about the new Star Wars film. “I don’t really have to bug him because JJ is very… He has a reputation for being secretive especially when there are potential spoilers that might be released, but I have had dinner with him recently and he’s willing to talk about it. If anything, I have to stop him.” The excitement in his voice is infectious. There’s no question about Pegg’s happiness, now that he’s a family man doing the job he always dreamed of doing.

‘Hector and the Search for Happiness’ is out on 15 August

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