Simon Pegg interview: Hector, British film, blockbusters

Simon Pegg tries to find the secret to happiness in his latest film. He chats to us about its making, British cinema and more...

Simon Pegg is back in cinemas this week, in Peter Chelsom’s Hector And The Search For Happiness. Ahead of that, the man himself sat down with us for a chat, that led to us – genuinely – being locked in a hotel room together for a minute or two.

It was not helped by us holding a packet of Love Hearts at the time. It’s probably best you don’t ask.

Anyway, we kept our professional composure, and this is what happened…

Given what a globetrotting movie this one is, how are your passport stamps looking?

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It’s ridiculously stamped now!

Did you film any of it in Liam Neeson’s fake plane from Non-Stop? That would have made it easier.

We were working out how long we spent on planes last year making this, and  we realised that there was another 12 or 24 hours on planes that had just landed that we’d been filming on as well. It was a plane year!

I like the rickety plane sequence in particular. And it brings me onto – non-ironically – my favourite moment from the Spice Girls movie. There’s a big build up sequence in that movie to a bus jumping over a bridge, and it cuts to a model version of it instead.

Oh yeah!

It made me think that Peter Chelsom, your director here, should have made that movie.

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Spice World?

Yeah.

[Nods. And laughs. But also nods.]

The lateralism of his approach is all over Hector. There are nods to all sorts of things in there, even The Dangerous Lives Of The Altar Boys at one stage. How did you and he come together then?

Well, it’s interesting you mention Spice World, because he did the Hannah Montana movie.

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Yes!

And I think Disney allowed him to be a bit Chelsom-y. But I was a big fan of Hear My Song, and Funny Bones, both of which I thought were uniquely British films. I love the feel of those movies. Whimsy isn’t a great word, but that kind of thing.

When I heard he was directing it before I read it, I was immediately interested. Hear My Song is one of those films where if it’s on, I’ll always watch it. I read it, I realised he’d also co-written it. Then we met, we had a lovely dinner in L.A., and we went out into the car park, and he had his computer with him. He’d made this little short film, that was like a mission statement for Hector. He got an actor friend of his, and he set it all to Hall Of The Mountain King, and it was all these images…

I thought I love this amount of commitment and preparation. He was so excited to make the film, that was more in line with his own sensibility than he had done in a very long time. He left England, went to L.A., did Hotel New Hampshire, had a bit of a nightmare on that. I think he was overjoyed to be returning to where he felt most comfortable. It’s kind of like the film in a way: he went through all of that and [redacted for spoiler reasons].

It was Peter, and the script. 

I remember spending around an hour walking around Birmingham looking for the Hear My Song video before someone told it was W H Smith exclusive.

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Oh really. But it’s a tough film to find.

Where do you pitch the character of Hector, then? Last year we saw you as a loner with a very different slant with Gary King in The World’s End. Watching this film, I’m first thinking that there’s a bit of Forrest Gump, but then it edges more towards Peter Sellers in Being There. Edging quite hard towards that.

Absolutely, yeah.

There’s a real steel to Hector that comes through. This isn’t an easy role at all. You go through lots of very distinct chapters. But how do you come to something like that?

Well, funnily enough Being There was always one of our key films, a reference point for us. I had a couple of conversations with a psychiatrist, to get behind what they’re about and how they regard their jobs, and whether they believe in it or not. That thing of is this real science or is this giving people what they want.

That was really the amount of prep I did. I didn’t read the book, because I thought let’s concentrate on the screenplay, and then focus on that, and not let it be coloured by anything else. I really took it a day at a time. The shoot was all over the place.

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We had to shoot [redacted bit about the ending] first of all, so I did the last scene where Hector has been through everything on day four. And I kind of wish I’d been able to do it at the end of the shoot, because I went on a journey, a little bit like Hector in a way, and by the end had been through enough to emote like I do in that scene in a minute.

I’m of the Laurence Olivier ‘just act, dear boy’ school. I take each scene as it comes, and because of the way we were jumping around, sometimes it would be something goofy, and the next day I’d be lying on the floor with a gun to my head. But I like that. The challenge of it. 

Unusually for someone so high profile, your acting scales up and down quite a lot in terms of the projects you take on. There seems an ongoing commitment to make sure British movies happen.

You’ve got Absolutely Anything for a start coming up after this one. Why are British films so important to you, and how difficult are they to slot around commitments to major franchises such as Star Trek and Mission: Impossible?

It’s slightly more selfish and less altruistic than it sounds! Obviously the British film industry is important to me, and it’s where I’m from. I don’t want to desert it. But as an actor, you have to go where the work is. At the same time, if I work in the UK, it means I can sleep in my own bed, and that’s where I’m at my happiest! I like to be near my family, I don’t like to be away for too long.

Fortunately this year is a great example of the UK being an attractive place for filmmakers from all over the world. Not only did Man Up and Absolutely Anything shoot here, Mission: Impossible 5 will as well. Also, we have Avengers shooting here, Star Wars is shooting here. The British Isles is an attractive place for filmmakers.

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I’m kind of lucky. Sometimes they’ll come to me! Not literally to me, but the big movies, I’m just very lucky this year that Mission is shooting in Leavesden. But there’s always time. You have to keep a good eye on your calendar. The next five months are going to be out, but I have this time here. You only need six or eight weeks to shoot a small budget film. The big ones do block out periods of time, but you just have to plan your year in a way that it all kind of works out.

You realise once you’re in the film industry what a minefield and puzzle casting is sometimes. It’s not just we want this actor, they have to be available and they have to be available at this time. So does that actor, and that one. Whenever you hear the first list of actors a director wants for a film, it’s never the ones they get.

And yet we always get in interviews about how everyone was the first and only choice!

Yeah! [Laughs] It’s not always true!

You mentioned Mission: Impossible 5. Clearly you’re aware that in the first Mission: Impossible, it’s the tech guy who dies. So presumably you’re on borrowed time there?

I know, yeah. 

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Speaking to a friend who’s directed a British film or two. He put to me that the worst thing the British media can do is present British films or smaller films as British films or smaller films. To make an issue of those facts. How do you feel that the British magazines, websites and film media is representing film, particularly British movies?

It depends where that definition is taking place. If you’re talking about Hollywood, and how Hollywood regards those kind of films, to the American movie machine, then they are British films. By the very nature of our industry, we can only really make smaller films. We can’t make big budget films unless it’s Bond, or Harry Potter, or stuff that’s backed by the big money machines over there.

Sometimes I find that the film media and press are very enamoured with American cinema. And they’re arguably a little too cosy with the big corporations. You would be hard pushed to find a small British film on the cover of any movie magazine. It’s usually Captain America or whatever.

But that’s a survival mode. That’s like, you couldn’t be so naive as to say why don’t you put Shane Meadows’ new film on the cover of Empire. The fact is that Empire need to sell their magazine in order to stay alive. Inside the pages of that magazine, then there’s space to have serious profiles, break new ground and expose new artists. I think our British film press generally does do that, even if they have to pay the bills with the big movies. It’s kind of like actors do!

That said, I would actually refute that I do big films like Mission: Impossible and Star Trek so I can do smaller films. I do those films because I love doing those films. They’re fun films to do. It’s great to work with those kinds of people, and those kinds of resources. But I also like to do small films as well. But it’s not like I’m funding my small film career with the big films!

For me it’s just an important thing. I’m so proud of our film industry. I’ve worked here all year. Our crews are so good. There’s such solid professionalism here, in every facet of production. On the ground crew, post-production facilities. They’re all here, you know? It’s not an accident that we’re hosting so many huge movies. That can only be a good thing for British film. 

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You go back 16, 17 years and we were saluting Howard’s End. And that was it. I quite liked Howard’s End, but it was barely choice.

Yeah.

While we’re got you, can you quickly tell us about The Boxtrolls? We’re huge Laika fans.

I haven’t seen it. I’ve seen bits of it. I love the Laika people, I really think they’re great. Their animation technique is joyous. It feels old school but it’s still modern. I love ParaNorman, I love Coraline, and I think it’s going to be really, really good. They have a Grimm fairytale thing about it, they’re happy to embrace the darkness, and kids love that stuff.

And are you writing again?

I will be. I’m writing something with Crispian Mills at the moment for Bad Robot, and that’s to get on with once I’ve cleared my current franchising duties!

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Simon Pegg, thank you very much.

Hector And The Search For Happiness is out in UK cinemas on the 15th August.