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“It was all or nothing so we put everything into it.” How Simon Pegg became the coolest man in Britain

His sitcom is beloved today. His Cornetto trilogy is a classic of British cinema. He stars in two Hollywood franchises. Meet the powerhouse that is Simon Pegg

Simon Pegg

Three tell-tale signs that you’ve made it:

1) You’re a key player in two of the most successful film franchises of the 21st century, capital B Blockbusters that not only generate revenue streams large enough to give King Midas a hard-on but also impress the critics with their scope, craft and overall panache. Despite clocking up multiple instalments, Star Trek and Mission: Impossible prove that familiarity needn’t breed contempt and bigger doesn’t automatically mean worse.

2) Your own films, specifically the trilogy you dreamed into being with a few close friends, are considered among the finest comedies of the 21st century. Their dialogue is quoted from memory, their iconic status beyond dispute. Even today, the Cornetto Trilogy of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End inspires a devotion that could be described as cultish if it wasn’t so widespread.

3) Tom Cruise recently landed his helicopter in your back garden. 

Yeah, Simon Pegg is doing alright. Indeed let’s not undersell – dude is thriving. The day after our interview, Paramount announced a fourth Star Trek adventure for the rebooted crew will commence filming in the coming months. (Thanks, guys. Nice timing.) Mission: Impossibles 7 and 8 loom on the horizon. Next year will mark a decade since The World’s End and the triumphant conclusion of the Cornetto Trilogy – where does the time go? A question that plagues the film and Pegg’s Gary King, still his favourite of all the characters he’s played.

And we’ll get to all of that – but I suppose we should give Tom Cruise top billing. The biggest movie star of the last half century who, in the words of Pegg, “landed his fucking chopper in my garden just before Christmas and came round for a cup of tea.”

Pegg and Cruise have been friends for more than 15 years, since Pegg took the role of IMF agent Benji Dunn in Mission: Impossible III. In recent months, the pair became neighbours: Pegg lives in Hertfordshire, Cruise was filming nearby and renting a cottage in the adjacent village as he presumably didn’t fancy bunking on the sofa. Naturally, he travelled to set by helicopter because he’s Tom Cruise. “He’d always buzz the house as he went over – so we’d run into the garden and wave.” Pegg giggles at the memory. “It was really silly!”

Simon Pegg Newsstand cover – Square Mile
Simon Pegg Subscribers' cover – Square Mile

One afternoon, Cruise wanted to show Pegg the sizzle reel for the next Mission: Impossible. He decided to drop in on the way back from work. Pegg duly popped over to the neighbours to give them the heads-up. ‘Hey guys, just to let you know, Tom Cruise will be flying a helicopter into my back garden later, you might want to keep an eye on the horses.’ (Another sign that life is going good: your neighbours own horses. Horses which might be startled by the impending arrival of your good mate, Tom Cruise)

Anyway. The helicopter descended, Cruise emerged. “Came in, had a cup of tea. We watched this thing, then he fucked off again.”

Cruise isn’t the only esteemed visitor to Chez Pegg. Last November, square mile travelled to Hertfordshire for a photoshoot that we can all agree turned out rather well. Now I presumed Simon Pegg would own a nice house – see the opening paragraph. But I hadn’t prepared for Simon Pegg to own perhaps the most lovely house I have ever visited: full of books and artwork and dogs, three of them, and photographs and happiness and life. The house has been there since 1655; Simon, Maureen and their daughter a mere decade, but Pegg expects to grow old there.

“It’s our forever house,” he tells me. “I don’t see myself moving ever again.” Ah – the fourth sign that you’ve made it. Everlasting contentment.

How’d he pull that one off? Well…

Simon Pegg

From Shakespeare to Spaced

Before the cops and zombies and helicopter Cruises, there was a teenage Goth in Stratford-upon-Avon who wanted to work in the Royal Shakespeare Company. All three of these things – Gothness, Stratford, actorly ambition – occurred around the time Pegg turned 16. He’d grown up in Gloucester, the son of a civil servant and a jazz musician.

“I didn’t really discover that I could possibly be an actor until I was 15. Teenage me, I’m not sure what I was thinking in terms of the future. I knew what I liked and it was performing and movies and all that kind of stuff. But I lived in Gloucester – and Gloucester felt a million miles from anywhere that might have those opportunities.”

His parents divorced when he was a kid and some years later the family moved to Stratford. It isn’t hard to decipher the subsequent ambition to join the RSC. At this stage, the screen held zero interest – plays were the thing. “I wanted to do Shakespeare and theatre. I wasn’t really considering a career in film and television at all. I just wanted to be an actor in the very traditional sense.”

Being a Goth lasted until university. He went proper Goth. Painted nails. Eyeliner. “Print hair. Feathers, leather and all sorts of shit. That was kind of 16 to 19. I still love that look. I still have a lot of Goth in me.” I can believe that, I say, noting the abundance of tattoos that decorate his forearms. “I’ve got lots of ink, yeah.” He chuckles. “They get covered up with makeup. There’s a big industry now in tattoo coverage.”

It’s funny: there’s this perception as Pegg as the geek come good, the nerd who penetrated Hollywood’s cool crowd, but he resembles a grizzled rock star and is even friends with a couple. (Notably Chris Martin; Pegg is godfather to his daughter.)

Simon Pegg

Our second meeting occurs in Little House, Mayfair the day after Valentine’s – and as it happens, Pegg’s 52nd birthday. “The postman thinks I’m wildly popular because I get so many cards on Valentine’s. It’s nice to have a birthday on a non-invasive holiday. Quite like it.”

He’s a warm and relaxed presence, as befits a man who has not only experienced dizzying professional success but also overcome struggles with alcohol abuse and depression. There’s an assuredness to him, a sense of peace. Read interviews from 15, 20 years ago and you will find journalists often comment on his guarded nature, his reluctance to discuss his personal life. Today, Pegg is more than a decade sober and as open and affable an interviewee as I could hope for. Winning comes in many forms.

His designs on the RSC didn’t survive his time at Bristol University. “The course was quite politicised and I came out with quite a dim view of mainstream theatre and entertainment. What I wanted to do was a little bit more avant garde, I guess. I didn’t fancy just joining the theatrical rat race.”

And so he became a stand-up comedian, driving around London every evening to perform at whatever comedy club would have him. “Stand-up comedy was a way of me having my own autonomy. I loved comedy anyway. It wasn’t something I hijacked.” What was his best joke? “Ah fuck, I can’t remember any of my material.”

Nick Frost can. The pair met in the early 1990s; Frost waitered at the same Mexican restaurant as Pegg’s then-girlfriend. Himself an aspiring stand-up, Frost would accompany Pegg to his gigs. He still leaves occasional voicemails on Pegg’s phone, quoting back old material. “He remembers seeing my routine so many fucking times. He’ll just voicemail me sometimes. It makes me laugh so much because it’s such a blast from the past.”

Simon Pegg

Over the 1990s, Pegg accumulated credits and future collaborators. He met Jessica Hynes on the “weird fucking sketch show” Six Pairs of Pants; Edgar Wright on the comedy miniseries Asylum – which also starred Hynes, as well as David Walliams, Julian Barratt and Bill Bailey. There was a recurring role in sitcom Faith in the Future: “It wasn’t really my sort of comedic sensibility, it was more mainstream, but I really liked it… I wanted to be doing stuff that was a bit more edgy and weird.”

The year 1998 was a breakthrough one. He toured with Steve Coogan; starred in the BBC Two sketch show Big Train alongside the likes of Mark Heap, Kevin Eldon and Catherine Tate. “It was everything I wanted to do,” says Pegg of the show. “The first time that I made something that I really fucking loved.” And 1998 was the year he and Hynes wrote Spaced.

Fittingly for a sitcom whose two seasons spanned 1999-2001, Spaced marked a culmination and a beginning. Pegg and Hynes played slacker flatmates Tim and Daisy; their eccentric friends and neighbours included Frost, Heap and Katy Carmichael (another Six Pairs of Pants stalwart). Wright directed every episode. Walliams, Eldon, Mark Gatiss and Peter Serafinowicz were among the many guest stars. A pre-Office Ricky Gervais had the briefest of cameos in season two.

Pegg still recalls the first day on set at Twickenham Studios – the place where the Beatles had rehearsed ahead of their legendary gig on the rooftop of Apple headquarters. The pride he and Hynes felt at seeing their imagination made reality. “Having created that space in our hands, then seeing someone had read what we’d written and created it for real, was really amazing. It was humbling and really exciting.”

If nobody from Spaced had ever worked again, the sitcom would still be fondly remembered. It would still earn its place in the pantheon. But in the summer of 2003, its central players reunited to film a screenplay Pegg and Wright had written in a mere eight weeks. A romantic comedy. With zombies.

Simon Pegg

Blood and ice cream

In 2022, Shaun of the Dead can be grouped with the likes of Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Office, the TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice – a work of such enduring cultural impact that it’s hard to imagine a world without it. This isn’t only testament to its enduring popularity – although the film seems to be shown on TV every other week – but also a legacy that is still tangible today, whether through its imitators or the careers of its cast and crew.

In the year of its release (2004), Total Film ranked Shaun as the 49th greatest British film of all time. That reputation has only grown. In 2007, Time included Shaun as one of its best 25 horror films; in 2008, Empire named it among the Top 500 films, period. (On a 2021 list of the 100 Best British Films, Empire placed Shaun sixth – one below Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter.) Notable fans include Quentin Tarantino and George Romero, with the horror legend even offering Wright and Pegg roles in his 2005 film Land of the Dead.

On every rewatch of Shaun – and I rewatch Shaun a lot – I discover something new: a subtle gag, a throwaway line that pays off 30 minutes later, a brilliant camera shot that I somehow never properly appreciated before. Every scene brims with inspiration.

“We were determined to cram it full of stuff,” says Pegg of the film. “It was a total love letter, that movie. It was made with complete devotion to George Romero, and to zombies. We wanted it to be for people who felt the same way.

“We didn’t even know if we were ever going to make a film again. We barely knew this would get made. It was all or nothing so we just put everything into it.”

Simon Pegg
Simon Pegg
Simon Pegg
Simon Pegg

I ask for a favourite memory and he cites the scene when Shaun distracts the zombies outside The Winchester Tavern, allowing the rest of the gang to attain its dubious sanctuary. “They all came swarming towards me!” says Pegg of the zombified extras.

“I’d been a fan of zombies all my life and suddenly I was fucking surrounded by them! With contact lenses and everything! I’ll never forget that.”

How do you follow one of the finest British comedies of all time? By doing the same but different. Hot Fuzz parodied the buddy cop genre, with Pegg ditching the slacker persona to play clean-cut police officer Nicholas Angel. The blue Cornetto – someone eats a different flavour in each film – Fuzz proved the most commercially successful of the trilogy and, for many fans, its artistic highpoint. It deserves more than the single paragraph afforded here.

Six years passed between Hot Fuzz and The World’s End. In that period, Pegg established himself as a serious Hollywood presence with two Star Treks, another Mission: Impossible and voicing Thompson (or was it Thomson?) in Steven Spielberg’s Tintin. On top of the blockbusters, there were lead roles in Run Fatboy Run, How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, and the alien comedy Paul – another Frost collaboration. He also experienced severe depression and checked into rehab. It’s fair to say, the man kept busy.

The Hollywood stuff is less complicated so let’s do that first. Director JJ Abrams saw Shaun and offered Pegg a role in 2006’s Mission: Impossible III. When Abrams was tasked with rebooting Star Trek in 2009, he offered Pegg a role in that, too. Both films produced sequels, and then more sequels. The goth from Gloucester was suddenly a franchise player – which made his increasing misery even harder to understand.

Simon Pegg

A nice cold pint

Pegg suffered his first bout of depression after his A-Levels. Its cloud lifted but never quite dispersed, trailing him through his twenties and thirties. He kept it at bay with alcohol and work and more alcohol – it’s no secret that the character of Shaun was based on Simon and Simon’s life orbited the pub. (Albeit with far more professional oomph than his fictional counterpart ever mustered.)

The cloud engulfed him again during the filming of Mission: Impossible III. The shooting schedule confined him to days and days isolated in his hotel room in Beverly Hills, crippled with anxiety and doubt. He emptied his hotel minibar. He’d arrive on set a nervous wreck. He got through the days and flew home.

The birth of Matilda should have provided all necessary motivation to sort himself out. He shouldn’t have even needed to sort himself out – because his daughter was here and now everything would be OK. That’s how it works, right? Yet the cloud was still there, darker than ever: “That’s when I knew – this is something other than me. All I know is this is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. I’ve never felt love like it. I’ve never felt more complete as a human being. And yet this thing is still on my back.”

Filming Star Trek offered a brief respite, he even kicked the booze for a while. But then he went to San Diego Comic-Con to promote Paul, across the ocean from his family, and he had a drink and everything spiralled again. He found himself eating pizza on the sidewalk, absent phone, bereft. On flying back to London, he took a detour home via the pub.

Maureen had seen enough. She dispatched her husband to the Priory and thus effected the gradual process of his recovery. He had therapy, went to AA meetings. Let his family and friends support him. “Everything turned the corner a bit. That’s not to say it went away. It’s just that I understand it better and I can cope with it better.”

Simon Pegg
Simon Pegg

Narratively, it would be more elegant if all the Hollywood stuff happened after he got clean but life is rarely so neat. Pegg smiles when I bring this up. “That was another thing that made me face up to things a little better. My dreams were coming true – and I still wasn’t happy. That was a weird feeling.

“But I figured it out. And by the time I was doing Into Darkness and Ghost Protocol and onwards – all those films – I was just giddy. I never had that little black dog following me anymore. It was just like, ‘oh man, I’m here and this is amazing!’. I was able to fully enjoy it – and without any sense of nagging doom.”

In recent years, Pegg has started to share his journey. He wants to help destigmatise depression and addiction. To encourage people who are struggling with either to reach out to their loved ones – because he knows from bitter experience that reaching out can be the hardest part.

“That’s always the problem with mental health. Particularly with men. The idea of actually asking for help is anathema to us because we’ve always been told that to do so is a weakness. That’s why we don’t read instructions, we don’t ask for directions. Because we think that being assisted in any way is somehow unmanly. So asking for help is immediately difficult for men of a certain age – or any men.”

Simon Pegg

And so we reach The World’s End and Gary King: the charismatic protagonist of the concluding Cornetto film. Gary is an alcoholic, suicidal force of nature who persuades his childhood friends to relive their youth via one final epic pub crawl – only for an alien invasion to get in the way

“He’s my favourite character of any character I’ve ever played,” says Pegg of Gary. “He’s such a complicated, funny, annoying, broken person. Which is kind of what you wish for as an actor.”

Gary is Pegg’s dark alter-ego, right? The person he might have been. “Oh yeah,” he says. “If I can use such a lofty term, Gary was my artistic, therapeutic work-through of that state of mind.

“I wasn’t like Gary, really. But someone who is so driven by their addiction that they will serve it at the cost of everyone else around them? I certainly understood that. How when something takes hold of you it can completely consume you and make itself the most important thing in your life.

“That’s what’s so poisonous about any addiction. You grow a second personality and that personality takes control of your life. And so I was able to play aspects of Gary with a degree of veracity. I felt closer to him than any of the others. Even though I was pretty much like Shaun when we did Shaun of the Dead. I was just living in a dirty flat with Nick!”

Simon Pegg

Here’s a thought – one that only struck me on the morning of our interview. One I now put to Pegg. Allow me to don my academic hat – beret, obviously – and spark a roll-up. (A metaphorical roll-up: it would be a shame to get booted from Little House Mayfair for smoking indoors.)

All three Cornetto films depict protagonists who exist / endure a relatively mundane existence. This existence is infiltrated by insidious forces – zombies, alien stimulants, murderous Neighbourhood Watches – forces which the protagonist struggles to identify, forces which are concealed from and / or unnoticed by the wider world. To defeat these forces, our protagonist must first conquer his own demons – inertia, solitude, alcoholism – and enlist the help of his friends and loved ones. Even then, this triumph is never quite absolute: the enemy can be controlled but never entirely expunged.

The above synopsis reads like a pretty great metaphor of depression, no? Feel free to shoot down this theory. “That’s not a theory I’d shoot down at all,” Pegg replies. “When I was a film student, I learnt there are plenty of things that filmmakers broadcast in their stuff that comes from somewhere more subliminal than their creative consciousness. Things which are on their minds.”

Perhaps now is the time to mention that Pegg takes film theory very seriously. His undergraduate thesis famously examined Star Wars from a Marxist perspective. In regards to depression and the Cornettos, he notes: “The main thrust of those movies is the idea of being consumed by something – there’s a force there, a collective force, which is in danger of swallowing up the individual. So that very, very, very much could be seen as a metaphor for depression. A hundred percent. And I was suffering from that all the way through all of those films.”

We discuss the end of Shaun, the zombified Ed kept locked in the shed at the bottom of the garden. “Ed was kind of the spectre of Shaun’s inactivity. If Ed’s his spirit animal, it’s the spirit of his complete fucking lack of energy and enthusiasm. And at the end, he’s kind of shuffled off his problems but he’s still there. Lurking. I think it’s pretty fucking good!”

Simon Pegg

Happily ever after

You may have noticed this profile is some 3,000 words deep and Simon Pegg has yet to promote anything. Basically, we had the opportunity to shoot Pegg last November, and such opportunities should not be turned down. The plan was to sit on the shoot until his next project but a) look at it and b) the exact date of the next project was a little hazy. Anyway, we don’t need a project to put Simon Pegg on the cover. So here he is, looking as cool a man as ever drew breath.

Numerous projects await. A fourth Star Trek, a voice role in the animated spinoff of Amazon superhero TV series The Boys. (Pegg played Hugh Campbell Sr. in season one.) Two more Mission: Impossibles, of course – if you recall, some courier dropped the sizzle reel to his house over Christmas. I could ask Pegg for plot secrets but then Tom Cruise might appear in a helicopter over my house, with less benign intentions than a cup of tea.

Regular Square Mile readers will recall that Henry Cavill was our cover star for Mission: Impossible – Fallout. “He’s a big nerd, isn’t he?” says Pegg, affectionately. “He’s a weird kind of super nerd. Like a walking door.”

He watched Fallout with Cavill in Paris, shortly before the official premiere in July 2018. “I held onto Henry’s arm for the whole thing – it’s like a fucking tree trunk. I was holding onto his bicep because it was so scary, but at the same time I was thinking, ‘Jesus Christ! These are huge!”’

Alas, Cavill and his enormous biceps are unlikely to return for the next instalment of the franchise. But the rest of the IMF regulars should be present and correct, with Cruise approaching his swansong as Ethan Hunt. Go on, then – what’s Tom like?

Simon Pegg

“It’s always an adventure working with him,” says Pegg. “You know you’re always going to have fun, it’s always gonna be absurd. The level he operates on is very extreme. He lives a very rarified life because he’s a movie star. Which I constantly pull him up on and he finds very funny. He doesn’t quite understand the real world sometimes. It’s very endearing.”

While filming Ghost Protocol, the cast were invited to a ziplining experience in Morocco. A lovely offer but they needed to fly to Casablanca that evening. Fortunately, Cruise had a private jet. “We did this crazy zipline day in about an hour and a half. Ran to our cars, drove to the airport, got on his private jet and flew to Casablanca.”

During the flight, Pegg’s assistant got a text from her mum – the family were watching Top Gun with Tom Cruise. ‘Oh really?’ replied Clare. ‘I’m on his jet!’ Pegg laughs as he recounts the story. “I always find that stuff hilarious.” I’m not surprised. The collision of opposing worlds, the everyday pushing against the extraordinary – where have you heard that one before?

In film, the main star gets first billing; but in music, the headliner takes the stage last. The headliner of Pegg’s life is his wife Maureen (along with Matilda, of course). She’s there during the shoot, diminutive, delightful, welcoming three strangers into her house as though we were lifelong friends. She tells me that my hoodie is a print of New Order’s album cover Power, Corruption & Lies. She should know, being a music publicist – although she strikes me as the kind of person who just knows things.

“Maureen has been such a rock for me in the journey I’ve been on,” says Pegg. “In terms of how she’s supported me and been a friend to me as well through the tougher times. If I hadn’t had that, I don’t know where I’d be.”

Simon Pegg

They met in 2000. Fellow North Londoners – she Camden, he Highgate – the pair had moved in similar circles for years without ever quite encountering each other. A boyfriend of hers was a Spaced fan; but as Pegg notes, “she didn’t like Spaced because she wanted to go out on a Friday night.”

Then, on a whim, Pegg and Frost decided to take a trip to Halkidiki in Greece – the exact time Maureen was holidaying out there with a couple of mates. “We met there. But not on a night out. We met on the bus back to the airport from holiday.”

They got talking. Hit it off right away. Disembarking the bus, they discovered yet more common ground: their flight was delayed by ten and a half hours. Thus transpired what in hindsight would be their first date. “We hung out in the airport playing skittles with plastic cups and drinking Amaretto.”

Somewhat less ad hoc drinks occurred in London the following week. “And that was that,” says Pegg.

He smiles. “I remember at our wedding when I made my speech – the sheer chaos theory involved in our meeting! If Nick and I hadn’t swung into that travel agent on Holloway Road, on a whim and thought, ‘let’s go on holiday!’ then none of it would have happened! That terrifies me and excites me.”

Simon Pegg

The intersection between terror and excitement: that’s where fulfilment tends to be found. In work, as well as love. Asked what comes next, Pegg talks of his ambition to move away from blockbusters and comedy, diversify into more serious drama. Perhaps he’ll even do some Shakespeare, fulfil an adolescent ambition.

What’s important is that he retains his sense of wonder: “I’d hate to walk onto a set and not be amazed by it. That would be a sad day.”

He’d surely make a marvellous Doctor Who? “I think that would be unwise,” he replies, speaking like a man whose words are being carefully chosen.

“As I get older, I don’t crave participation in my childhood dreams anymore. I could quite happily not be in another geeky thing ever, really. I don’t play video games like I used to; I don’t read comics anymore. I don’t want to sound like I’ve grown out of it because obviously a lot of people don’t, and shouldn’t.”

But the implication is clear: that period of his life lies in the past. And fair enough. As Muhammad Ali once observed, the world shouldn’t look the same at 50 as it did at 20.

For Simon Pegg – 52 and a day at the time of writing – the world is looking very lovely indeed.

Good times lie ahead. Things should only grow lovelier from here. 

Mission: Impossible 7 is out on 14 July 2023. But Shaun of the Dead is on TV forever 

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