From his early days on the cult British TV series Spaced to the famed Cornetto Trilogy – Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End – with Edgar Wright, from his wry comic turn as Benji in the last two Mission: Impossible movies to his reinvention of the iconic Enterprise engineer Scotty in the rebooted Star Trek films, Simon Pegg is a fan favorite as well as a versatile actor whose presence is welcome in every film he does and whose love of genre material shines through in the many genre movies he has appeared in, written or both.
With his new movie, Kill Me Three Times, Pegg takes on a slightly darker role as Charlie Wolfe, a hitman who finds himself caught in a nest of betrayal, sex, greed and murder in a backwater Australian town. This sixth feature from Australian director Kriv Stenders (Red Dog) is a slick mix of black comedy and post-modern noir that makes Pegg the linchpin of a cast that includes Teresa Palmer, Alice Braga, Sullivan Stapleton and legendary Australian actor Bryan Brown and finds him acquitting himself quite well as the dapper, muscle car-driving, jocular yet deadly assassin.
Pegg will also be seen this July in director Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, once again alongside Tom Cruise, and at the same time he has been handed the monumental task of writing (with Doug Jung) Star Trek 3, following the departure of producer/writer (and briefly director) Roberto Orci. With a new director on board – Justin Lin of Fast and Furious fame – and the movie set to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Star Trek franchise, Pegg has quite a task ahead of him, especially since cameras will roll this June. We spoke with the British actor and writer in Los Angeles this week about Kill Me Three Times, Mission: Impossible and, of course, Star Trek 3.
Den of Geek: We’re seeing you in a little bit of a different light in this film, playing a cold-blooded killer. Is that what appealed to you about doing it?
Simon Pegg: Yeah it was. I love the notion of taking the most sort of fundamentally corrupt character. I’ve been a lot of very corrupt characters, maybe not corrupt but certainly kind of amoral. Having him be the way in for the audience, you know, it’s his back we ride into town on, made for an interesting dynamic in the movie because you’re essentially siding with the most evil character. But there’s something kind of delightfully — because what he’s walking into is essentially a town of idiots that you kind of are quite happy to see dispatched. There’s a joyousness to be along for the ride because you kind of want him to do it. And he’s also a kind of great white shark. He’s this bizarre sight of a man in a black suit in the desert, which just seemed to me like a great fun thing to play. From the first read it was like, this is clearly a film that’s having a laugh. It’s not entirely serious. It’s not an outright comedy particularly but it’s definitely very light hearted.
[Related: Kill Me Three Times Redband Trailer]
The way you play him, you get the sense that he just wants to get on with whatever he’s got to do — that he would rather be lying on the beach somewhere but first he’s got to knock off these people.
Exactly. And I think one thing he prides himself on is his professionalism and they’re all such amateurs. It’s maddening for him. I’ll never forget the scene in Grosse Pointe Blank when John Cusack has a psych test and they identify a kind of amoral aspect about him. And that’s what I really — Charlie is in the great tradition of Martin Blank and Leon from The Professional, these kind of guys who just have this completely blank kind of moral code. They have no compunction about just killing.
It’s just a job to them.
It’s the job. Yeah absolutely.
Did you make your own back story for how this English guy in this tailored suit ends up in this backwater part of Australian?
Well, I had quite extensive discussions with Kriv early on about what Charlie would look like, and we came up with the moustache. I wanted to do the moustache just because I thought it would be fun. He has a scorpion tattoo on his neck, which you don’t always see, but it’s there. We felt like Charlie is probably ex-military and wound up for some reason in Australia, probably getting away from something. And he has taken to being a professional killer with 100 percent devotion. Like he’s read the book on it — “Okay, I’m going to wear a dark suit.” He borders on parody because he’s doing it how he feels like a hit man should behave and look. And also that strange kind of thing of seeing somebody so out of place, it really marks Charlie out from this crazy town that he walks into, this open-air insane asylum. He looks so out of place it helps to communicate that aspect of it I think.
The tattoo thing is interesting. Do you do stuff like that, which we might not even see or notice, for every character?
Not always. It depends how Method I want to get. I’m not a Method actor at all. I always remember Olivier saying, “Just act, dear boy” to Dustin Hoffman. But sometimes it’s fun to just have something, which is a little key into the character. I remember on Shaun of the Dead, Nick Frost was like, “I want a bit of my hair shaved off.” And we were like, “Why?” He said, “I don’t know, it’s just like one of his friends would have attacked him with a pair of clippers.” So every day he had this little square shaved out of his head. We never explained it. We never said or mentioned why it was there but it was just something Nick wanted to do. And for me, the mustache and the tattoo, it’s just a little way in. It’s nothing serious. It’s not like I need this. “I can’t be Charlie unless I have this.” (laughs) It’s just a fun thing to do.
Somebody said, “Comedians make the best villains.” Iss there something to that statement?
That’s Kriv that said that and I do agree with him in a way because a lot of villains are — unless they’re complete psychopaths or emotionless murderous monsters — there’s usually something a little kind of fun about their villainy. It’s a way of making them a little bit more relatable. You see films where the villain is simply horrible, and it’s actually kind of hard to take. Whereas if there’s a glee to the villainy, If it’s slightly pantomime-ish, it makes it a little bit more palatable. It certainly makes it more fun. This film is about very amoral people doing terrible things to each other. I think it would be like being hit across the head with a blunt instrument if there wasn’t a level of joy to it. You can get worn down by violence. It’s very easy to be worn down by violence. Violence is very unpleasant. If it’s not required then I think it’s always better to make it a little bit more theatrical, a little operatic and yeah, make the villain to be fun, particularly when, like I said, he’s the way in for the audience so you kind of want him to be likable in a weird way.
You shot in some amazing locations in Australia.
That house that we shot in was extraordinary, the view from the house. I had a bit of a quandary when I got the script because I really liked it. I liked the way that it played with time. It felt very sort of artful and as I say fun. But I had been away from home so much that year that I found it really hard to just say, “Yeah okay I’ll go to Australia for six weeks,” because I have a small child and I don’t like being away for too long at a time. So I basically said, “I’m not going to say no to this but if you can shoot me out in two weeks I’ll do it,” expecting them maybe to come back and say that’s impossible. And they said yes. So for me it was like a holiday. I went to Perth for two weeks. We did everything with Charlie in that time, which meant we shot the beginning of the film and the end of the film in the same 10 days and met a whole bunch of great actors who I’m friends with now still. Even though it was a very intense little time we just spent two weeks together and came away having had a blast. It was a nice bit of work.
The trailer for Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation just came out. Are you done filming and what can you say about the movie?
Yes. I think so. We wrapped like two weeks ago so whether we do any pick-ups and stuff — I certainly never completed a film of this size that is coming out so soon. It’s going to be out in July and it’s just great. I love the fact that they’re that pumped about it that they’re happy to kind of like blast it through post-production. The post-production process has been ongoing through the shoot obviously. It’s not like it’s already edited and now they’re completing effects and all that kind of stuff so I hope it won’t be too scary for everyone in post. But it’s a Mission: Impossible film, which means there’s lots of great locations; it’s extremely fun; it’s America’s James Bond. It’s what you expect and hopefully it will also surprise you. And Chris McQuarrie, who I really enjoyed working with, has done a great job.
It’s always fun working with Tom (Cruise) because he’s just, you know, Mr. Committed. He’s brilliant to be around because you’re like, “Yeah, yeah, let’s do it! Let’s do it!” I did a lot of fist bumping. We had a lot of fun driving around in Morocco in the car just crashing. He’s an extraordinary driver. I never saw a stuntman drive the car in the whole film. It was always Tom. And it’s very important to him. He’s obsessed with actually making sure the audience gets a real thrill out of knowing that it’s him, that it’s us doing it. It’s a problem I think with CG these days because you can do anything. It stops us from saying, “How did they do that now?” You can see the most incredible elaborate fucking superheroes fighting and smashing and just go, “Meh, computers.” That’s the answer. It’s a slightly abstract concept because you don’t know how they did it but you know essentially it starts with a keyboard and that explains the whole thing. Whereas when you see Tom hanging off the side of the plane you say, “How the fuck did they do that?” Which is great. I don’t know if there are many actors that still kind of engender that spirit. It’s important to him and I admire him for it because he gives a shit. It’s not just the paycheck for him. It really mean something to him. So to be part of that was fantastic fun.
And you’re co-writing Star Trek 3.
I am. I should be doing it right now.
50th anniversary of the franchise, following up a movie that I think it’s fair to say was divisive (Star Trek Into Darkness), new director…so no pressure doing this.
It’s terrifying. We learned a lot. It’s interesting actually, I had certain issues with Into Darkness as well. It’s interesting to be able to take those forward and be at the helm a little bit. You’re always learning when you’re working with a series of movies because you go okay, what did people like there? What did people not like? What did we like? And that’s a crazy way to work because we’re shooting in summer come hell or high water. So Doug Jung and I are just sort of hashing out the story and meanwhile people keep coming in and going, “So can we build that? Can we design that now? Can we make that costume? What are you wearing? How many people? How many planets?” You’re like, “I don’t know. Let us try and fucking think of the story.” But that’s how the process is working. “Necessity is the mother of invention” is our mantra at the moment and it’s bringing out the best of us. It has to. We have to come up with the goods. It’s good because there’s not room to be kind of like, “Yeah we’ll take a break today; we’ll sort that out next week.” It has to happen and we have to write it and it cannot be bad. It has to be good and it has to meet a certain criteria which we set for ourselves. So it’s an interesting process.
Are you starting with your own fresh idea? You’re not working off the previous script?
No. It’s completely new. I haven’t read Bob (Orci)’s script and they didn’t want us to. So we went back to the drawing board. We had creative meetings with Justin and there were things he wanted in there. I haven’t written like this before. I’ve never been a custodian of something, it’s usually mine what I’m writing. Whereas with this, you’re given a bunch of stuff — “Look we want this in it and this in it.” Or Justin will say — he’s got an amazing visual mind, Justin. He’s great at that kind of choreography. So he’ll say, “What if this happens?” So Doug and I go, “Okay, right, let’s try and get that into it.” So it’s an interesting process.
Are there things from the original series that you want to maybe see brought back into this film in some way, without just saying, “Let’s stick a Gorn in there” or something like that?
Yeah. It’s more about spirit. It’s very easy these days, in the kind of post-modern era, to get bogged down in self referentiality or thinking, “Oh let’s put Harry Mudd in.” In a way I felt like if anything — and I really, really am very proud of Into Darkness — but I feel like the thing that for me was kind of jolting was that it kind of wanted to embrace itself a little too much, rather than take off and do what Star Trek did, which is to go off into the depths of the galaxy. It was about referencing not only a previous film but also kind of hanging onto the coast of Earth a little bit. So for me it’s now about the spirit of adventure and exploration and also, in modern terms, just how would that be for people, to be away for that amount of time and that kind of stuff. We’re trying to evolve the story at the same time as not letting it go.
I have a lot of thoughts on these ideas but we don’t have enough time.
Yeah I know. As does every fan. It’s one of those things, it’s a beloved franchise and we’re very aware of that. And also it’s also fun. These days people kind of think, “Oh, things have got to be serious.” You’ve got to see a lot of soul searching and what if you saw this character being all dark? Star Trek was very, very optimistic — it was all about forward motion and the human condition. I feel like that’s what it needs to be.
We have to wrap up, but could you say a word or two about Leonard Nimoy?
What a man. What a lovely, lovely man. It was hard for all of us. There was a lovely email exchange that went around between the new cast about Leonard because we all loved him, and particularly Zack (Quinto) who was very close to him. It was extraordinary. I remember just learning not to underestimate him in any way because he was 80-something when we did the first Star Trek and always kind of — if you were in any way a bit reverential around him he would immediately shoot you down. He had a very dry sense of humor. But he had such a good heart, that man. He was a genuinely beloved and special person. It’s a shame and I think really he was completely there as well. It wasn’t like he became an old doddering man. I think it was just the physicality of life that got him in the end. He was still a steel trap mentally. So it’s a great shame and he’ll be missed.
Kill Me Three Times is available via VOD starting Thursday (March 26) and is out in theaters April 10.