Out now in hardback, Simon Pegg has just released his autobiography, Nerd Do Well. A terrific read, it tells of his early years, his Star Wars obsession, and the foundations of his career.
And he spared us some time to talk about it, and what he’s up to…
There’s a really lovely footnote in your book which is worth covering first. It said that when you were doing press for Shaun Of The Dead, you dropped in there that you wouldn’t want to do something like Mission: Impossible III.
I’m wondering if you want to try the same trick on any other forthcoming movies that you don’t-but-do want to get involved with? Indy 5? Die Hard 5?
[Laughs] That was quite a moment of extreme hypocrisy by me! I didn’t even know Mission: Impossible III was being made, I just picked it out of the air and said it!
That happened with Land Of The Dead as well, that was just complete serendipity. Someone said maybe Simon and Edgar could do it, to a journalist, and then they phoned George Romero and asked if Simon and Edgar were going to be in Land Of The Dead. And he said okay. So, that was that!
It’s difficult. I’m managing to pick off my favourites. How about a Coen Brothers movie…?!
Perfect. We’ll pass that on!
You spend a lot of the opening of the book putting across that you’re quite a reluctant autobiographer, and yet, by the end, you concede that you’ve given away a lot more emotional material than I think you were intending to do. Was that really how it panned out for you?
Totally. The whole thing was a learning experience. Writing the book, I had to find something to fill that amount of words, and I realised quite early on that the most interesting stuff happened before everything kicked off, because that’s the most relatable stuff to talk about.
If I start talking about my adventures in L.A., it’s a bit ‘so what’? It’s like talking about a party that the reader didn’t go to. It’s kind of boring. I realised that the childhood stuff was a little bit more engaging, and a little bit more insightful.
I also came to appreciate the fact that it was okay if I was disseminating the information. What I don’t like is having to talk to journalists who use it for their own ends. You let them in and suddenly you want to take pictures of your kids and stuff. And I find that really invasive.
It was definitely a process that I learned every day I can say this, and even now I look at the book, and it’s even though it’s so exciting to have it in my hands, I look at the pictures and say, “oh no, people are going to see those.”
The earring and the quiff, right?
Oh man, what a look!
It’s a weird thing to say about an autobiography, but this one was far more focussed on the very personal than usual. You must be battling an expectation, to a point, that people are expecting you to go through Star Trek, through Spaced, through Hot Fuzz. If anything, the book struck me as a chronicle of small, influential moments. Is that how you see it too?
Absolutely. That’s the way I found my way into it. These little moments have had a massive influence. And that’s interesting. People might want me to talk about Spaced and Shaun Of The Dead, but arguably, there are a few anecdotes I could tell that would be vaguely interesting, but they wouldn’t fill a book. Yet, everyone has moments in their childhood that stay with them, and influence their behaviour. And that’s, for me, a more intriguing route to take.
And yet you don’t stop. You mention Spaced, and yet you seem to talk about it quite a lot, without mentioning it that much.
Yeah, I leap forward because you have to see these little things in context.
Spaced is obviously something I’m very, very proud of. It means a lot to me. It was the first thing I wrote with Jess, so it has enormous significance. And what’s weird was it was a reflection of a lot of my interests and my personality, and there are a lot of things in Spaced, like that great Star Trek quote in Spaced that I went on to disprove. There are lots of moments that were reflecting those interests that I had.
One question about the show, though. Did you know how good it was – and you offer a hint of this in the book – when you were putting it together? Did you get the feeling that it was really something special?
We felt like we were making something that was different, and we were very pleased with what we were making. We didn’t know just how far it would go. We didn’t know we’d be doing commentaries on it with Quentin Tarantino. We certainly knew that it felt fresh, and it felt good, and confident.
We just knew that the people we were speaking to, which was a very specific group of people, were going to appreciate being spoken to. If you try and appeal to the mainstream, you generally end up appealing to no one. But if you talk to certain people, you end up with something that people really love, and respond to absolutely passionately. And that’s what happened.
There’s quite a selfless streak to the body of work that you’ve done, both as an actor and a writer. And yet writing an autobiography is surely one of the most introspective and lonely things you could do?
It is, very much so. It is just you. But I did also have a great team at Century, including my editor, Ben, who crops up in the book.
It was a new process for me, it helped me shape it and stuff. I wasn’t totally alone. I felt like I had a support network, which was great.
I know what you mean. I couldn’t tell a joke over the table to Nick, and then spend a few hours in HMV. I had to get on with it.
When I got the end of the book, I did wonder if you’ve left two or three more books’ worth of story to tell. But you’re keen to get across the economy of storytelling in the book, which you discuss in relation to Star Wars. Is that as valuable a lesson as you’ve picked up?
Yeah, I’ve just been around those films and watched a lot of that stuff and seen how it’s made, seen what works and what doesn’t. I’ve been a film student, I’ve done the theory.
It’s the sort of stuff that stays with you. And I’ve certainly tried to channel that into my writing and filmmaking. And you can see it in the films of others as well.
You talk about the small pivotal moments that influenced you along the way, yet one of them that you cite is the small cue John Williams shared in the music of E.T. and Star Wars, and how you learned that’s how the audience will fill in the gap. That seemed to open up a lot of ways of thinking for you?
Yeah, that for me, that moment was pivotal was because a lot of what we did in Spaced was kind of predicated on that notion. That you’re talking to people who already know a certain amount of what you’re talking about, so you don’t give them everything, you just give them enough to put it together themselves. You get a much more gratifying sense of inclusion.
A lot of the time in Spaced, we’d give people the set-up, but not the punchline. And they’d have to get the punchline by putting it together. It makes you feel included, and that you’re not being taken for a dummy.
It’s hard to test that, though, when you’re writing something that’s not going to be seen by people for many, many months? Whereas a lot of your earlier work in amateur theatre and stand-up comedy, you had an instant response?
Yeah, I used to hope the audience would get the punchline before you tell it. But there were times where you’d just leave it in the air, and someone would start laughing, and then the whole audience would laugh. You didn’t have to say the punchline. That was always really nice.
You talk as well about the stuff you did in amateur dramatics. You seemed to have a real wide-eyed love of it. Do you have any yearning to go back to stage at any point and go full circle?
I’d like to do theatre again. That was something that was very dear to me at the time. I couldn’t go back to an amateur drama production because I might overshadow it, only because of my other work. Just the theatre side would be nice, though.
The thing about amateur theatre is that it was done just for the love of it, and it was something I really enjoyed being part of. There were a lot of people who just had that passion, who got together and did it for free because they loved it. They were inspiring people to be around, really.
I have to ask, too: you cite your sister as an oracle of spotting good TV shows in the book. What’s she watching at the moment?
She very much got into Being Human, and she’s gone off radar into America’s bloody Top Model or something! I can’t remember what it was she was watching! It’s not American’s Top Model, it’s something Catwalk! She’s always been very good with US TV import stuff.
One of the films I’m most looking forward to is Paul, for a collection of reasons, including the fact that I loved director Greg Mottola’s Adventureland…
Yeah, a great film.
The union of you, Nick and Greg has been a long time in the making, though. Could you take us through how it came together, as it seems to have been in your life for some time?
It’s been around for seven years, and we thought of the idea as a joke while we were making Shaun Of The Dead. I made a poster of it, spitballing it back, the whole idea. It became a gag, and we were sitting around one afternoon, waiting for the sun to come out. And we did this fake movie pitch being Paul. I ended up drawing a poster, which is now on my pinboard. And it’s been seven years.
Then Edgar [Wright] went off to do Scott Pilgrim, and he had Ant-Man on the cards as well. And he said, “Why don’t you and Nick do Paul?” So, Nick and I went off and wrote it.
And we shot it last year, and now it’s had to go through a lengthy post-production process to put Paul in the film. It’s actually worth it. He looks extraordinary.
It’s seven weeks from being locked now, it’s all very exciting.
I’m really looking forward to it.
I saw it the other night, a rough cut, and it’s pretty looking pretty great. I’m very, very happy with it. It’s a great movie.
What also struck me is that you’ve got two films that you shot a while ago that have since been waiting for effects work in post-production. The other is Steven Spielberg’s Tin Tin movie. Tin Tin you describe in the book as your Jim’ll Fix It moment. You touch on working with Spielberg, yet you talk about talking to George Lucas as a filmmaker in the book. Presumably you had that moment with Spielberg too?
Yeah. Steven was aware of our stuff, because he got me, Edgar and Joe Cornish to do some work on the script. Then I went to see Steven about doing a part, and he said, “Do you want to be in it?” And I said, “Yeah, of course.”
At first I was going to do both Thompson Twins, but then they realised it was going to be difficult to do that. So, they said, “Can we get someone else?”, and I immediately said, “Nick Frost”. And Steven said, “Oh, yeah. That’d be brilliant.” Because it’s performance capture, and it doesn’t matter how we look in the real world.
And that was it. Me and Nick went on set last January and had a great time. Working with Steven was genuinely thrilling, because he’s such an easy going and amazing creator.
I have to quickly do the predictable questions. You can do one-line answers, if that helps!
Number one, the third film with Edgar. Any timeline on it yet?
No timeline. We just need to get in a room together, that’s all. He’s in L.A. at the moment, and I’m filming Mission: Impossible 4. We’ll get to a point soon, and we’re talking about it all the time, so it’s definitely going to happen.
I’m glad you mentioned M:I:4. Can you tell us anything of how your role evolves this time around?
You’ll have to see! [laughs]
Start date for Star Trek?
Star Trek is probably starting… I’m hearing rumours of summer next year for starting it. But that’s all.
Finally, you’ve also got the distinction, we should tell you, of having the only autobiography to commend the film King Frat. That’s the farting dog, isn’t it?
[Laughs] It had a talking penis as well!
You should have put Flesh Gordon in there too, and finished off the double bill!
Yeah, that would have been great! [Laughs]
Simon Pegg, thank you very much.
Nerd Do Well is published by Century, and is available now.