Questions for Simon Pegg
The star of Shaun of the Dead talks about his new book, Nerd Do Well, and his romance with a girl called Meredith Catsanus.
In the first chapter of Simon Pegg's new memoir, Nerd Do Well, the actor and writer claims that he didn't think his life was interesting enough for an autobiography, and would have preferred to write fiction about a superhero and his robot butler: "Geeky boy comes good? I didn't see the appeal." An encouraging editor convinced him that his coming-of-age was just as compelling as the spawn of Rosie, and the result is a charming collection of stories about Pegg's happy youth in Gloucester, what it's like to be living the geek dream by playing Scotty in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot, his collaborations with best friends Edgar Wright and Nick Frost on the movies Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Paul, and his first sexual experience with a girl he calls Meredith Catsanus.
Slate: At the beginning of your book, you emphasize how reluctant you were to write an autobiography. Were you really so reluctant?
Simon Pegg: I resisted actually doing it initially and decided to try to put together some kind of production diary, something less personal. But it was just boring. You go to work, you do your job, and that's it. I realized the really interesting stuff was the more relatable stuff about being younger. So then I had to kind of like, wrestle with the idea of talking about personal things. And I realized my biggest problem with that was usually you have to do it. You're asked questions in interviews by journalists who want to get into your private life. And the reason I resist that is because then it's theirs to disseminate, then they can interpret it, or it can be spun. But if it comes from you, you have complete control over what's said and you are the horse's mouth. I kind of figured, OK, I'll relinquish some stuff that I'm not precious about or I don't feel threatens me or my privacy. And once I got into it, I had a brilliant time. Because you realize your memory is like a zip file on a computer. There's so much stuff you just compress.
Slate: You're particularly vivid when you talk about your early romances with the girlfriends you call "Meredith Catsanus" and "Eggy Helen." Though you talk about wanting privacy, was it easier to talk about your first sexual experience with Ms. Catsanus because it happened so long ago or because it no longer impacts your life?
Simon Pegg: I think a bit of both of those things. My relationship with Meredith—and I got in touch with the real girl and told her about this, and she thought it was hilarious—a certain amount of time has passed so it's OK, it's history. My relationship with my wife now is private because it's still ongoing.
Slate: I'm not a total nerd, so can you explain to me why you and so many other comedians are still so angry about the Star Wars prequels? You describe your relationship with the franchise in the book as "comparable, symbolically at least, to living with an abusive partner." The stand-up comic Brian Posehn compares what he calls the "Revenge of the Shit" to being molested by an uncle as an adult. Patton Oswalt, another standup, said if he had a time machine, he would go back to 1993 or 1994 and kill George Lucas with a shovel to prevent the prequels from happening. Why was the failure of these movies earth shattering?
Simon Pegg: They were just terrible. They weren't very good films. I say in the book, it's something to be let down by someone, but it's something else to be let down by someone you respect. It meant a lot to us as children, obviously all three of us—Patton, Brian, and me—and of course millions of other thirty- and fortysomething adults. And [the prequels] just didn't measure up. It's been something we've played on slightly, because it's amusing to be upset by something so trivial, and ultimately it means nothing. But I like the fact that people got upset about it, because in some respects it does matter, it could have been great, it could have carried it on, and could have evolved and been sophisticated and smart, but it is just sort of a mess.
Slate: You do end the chapter about your Star Wars disappointment on a happy note, when you describe meeting George Lucas, and he tells you, "Just don't suddenly find yourself making the same film you made thirty years ago." It's like he is admitting he knew the prequels weren't up to snuff.
Pegg: And also the idea that it happened because he doesn't trust anybody, by the sounds of it. That's my take on it. That back in the day, he was forced to collaborate, whereas when he was a superrich walking studio, he could just make all these decisions without deferring to anyone. And that's when it all went wrong. Not because he's not smart, but because it's just better to collaborate. I dread the day that my friends stop saying, "Wait a minute, that's bad!"
Slate: You write a lot in the book about collaborating with your closest friends, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright, on many projects. You co-wrote Paul with your best friend, Nick Frost. What's that working relationship like?
Pegg: It's loads of fun. I love writing with Nick because it's silly. When Edgar and me write together, it's slightly more studious. When Nick and I write together I just laugh so much around him, we'll be in tears virtually every day, we'll be laughing at something so much we're weeping. It's a really nice way to go to work.
Slate: Your movies seem to privilege your friendship with Nick—or whatever character he's playing—over romantic love. Why do you think that is?
Pegg: Nick and I always talk about it, it's always played up, this idea of bromance, when really, when women are like that with each other, it's not commented on. Whereas with guys, it's still weird if guys are kind of affectionate with each other, and I just find that really interesting because it comes from guys being very uptight and homophobic. With Hot Fuzz, there was definitely a homoerotic subtext, when the guys are fighting in the rain with their tops off. With Paul it was kind of more the fact that they'd become almost co-dependent and couldn't function outside their own relationship. But if Nick and I are doing the film together, it has to be about that. There was a female character in Hot Fuzz initially called Victoria who ran the local bed and breakfast and who Angel had a relationship with. But it felt really tacked on, like we were only doing it to play lip service to that, when really, what that film is about is the romance between Danny and Nick.
Slate: Not to be your therapist, but do you think your parents' divorce has something to do with the importance of male friendship in your life? In the book you describe the divorce as a good thing, because it galvanized your relationship with both of them—"forming a powerful bond with my mother and facilitating the removal of the kind of male tension that causes rival stags to lock antlers." Did this lack of tension make it easier to be extremely close with your collaborators?
Pegg: Maybe, maybe because my relationship with my dad has always been more like pals, we've all been very affectionate with each other and there's never been any kind of weirdness there. He was never standoffish, he never played that stoic patriarch. That certainly informed my relationship with guys.
Slate: Much of your work seems to pivot off of pop culture you consumed. Why do you think that is?
Pegg: It's part of the postmodern condition. At the moment—it might not always be this way—because we're choosing to work in popular, and populist, culture, we're kind of just putting our hands up and admitting, it's all been done before. If you're going to do an alien movie, then, it's kind of been done a lot. Even this year it's been done a lot. Audiences will feel more included if they're regarded as being literate on that sort of stuff. You're not often regarded as smart when you go to the cinema these days. You're just someone to watch a light show or to tempt into the theater with bangs and flashes. It's not like there's any real challenge. I'm not saying Paul is a challenging movie—it's much broader than anything we've done before—but we still wanted some degree of interaction there.
Slate: I know you're on Twitter. Do you enjoy interacting with your audience in that way?
Pegg: I resisted Twitter for quite a long time. Nick was on it all through Paul, and I thought I don't want to be that available, but then I realized it might be quite smart to get on it because eventually it would become—without sounding cynical—a very effective way of reaching people, a good marketing tool. But I think you can't just assume people are going to follow you. You have to maintain it. So as long as you pepper the shameless self-promotion with some kind of entertaining stuff, it's really good.
I find it's an interesting deterrent in a way. It's like having nuclear bombs or something. Now if there's any kind of slander about you, you can immediately refute it. I've never had to do that, but it's another horse's mouth. The temptation is like, in the U.K., Paul got reviewed quite harshly by some of our critics, because they don't like us going to America. Occasionally, you just want to get on there and tell people to go fuck themselves.
Slate: In the book, you write about your dramatic training as a teen, and about how you were dying to play Hamlet. Would you still want to pursue something more serious, like a Shakespeare adaptation?
Pegg: I don't distinguish particularly between comedic and straight acting at this point. With Paul I think we were being slightly more clowny. But certainly in Shaun of the Dead, we tried to play it as straight as possible to the point where it becomes tragedy. It was more about trying to make it realistic. The next film I'm doing is kind of a semicomedy, but it's much more of an acting job than just telling gags. It's called A Fantastic Fear of Everything. It's about a writer who is paranoid, basically he's going insane. He's writing plays about murderers but he's becoming obsessed with murder and murdering. And he gets a meeting with an agent, but in order to go, he has to visit the Laundromat because his clothes are dirty and he's frightened of Laundromats. So it's this really odd but brilliant script. It's directed by Crispian Mills who is the grandson of John Mills and the son of Hayley Mills, so he's from a great acting dynasty. It's just a little low-budget British film but I'm very excited about it. *
Slate: Are you playing the writer?
Pegg: I am.
Slate: Why is he afraid of Laundromats?
Pegg: It's all about his childhood, and abandonment, and you learn that he had a traumatic experience at the Laundromat when he was very young. I've just been rehearsing it and start shooting when I get back.
Slate: Do you know when you start shooting Star Trek 2?
Pegg: They really keep us in the dark, as much as they can. I think they do it as a favor to us. It's impossible to keep secrets these days, everyone wants a scoop. There are so many movie websites, and Star Trek websites, and they all want to be able to break stories. Now it's like, you can walk into a film and know what happens. In an ideal world for me, Paul would have had the same level of secrecy that Super 8 did. You wouldn't have known it was about an alien. I would have liked people to go see Paul and think it was about two nerds in an RV, and have the moment when he steps out of the darkness be as shocking to the audience as it was to Graham and Clive.
Slate: Do you usually not have any say about what's going to be in the trailer?
Pegg: We do, but they buffer you with statistics. They say, "It tested very well in this demographic. In the fourth quadrant it played very well," and you say, "Oh, OK." So they show you a trailer that they've made, and they've put jokes in that aren't in the film. You've got to sell tickets, it's such a competitive market, and this was a bigger risk and a bigger budget, and you just have to do it. It hurts a little bit. That said, they did a great job.
Slate: Finally, what's the best thing you've seen on the Internet this week?
Pegg: It was the Captain America trailer. I first saw it in the theater, it was this amazing special effect where they put Chris Evans' hunky head on a tiny skinny man's body. I had to look at it again online, it was very strange.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
Correction, June 15, 2011: Hayley Mills' name was misspelled in the original version of this article. (Return to corrected sentence.)