”You often get scrutinized as an actor for the choices you make. You sort of get slammed for them sometimes, and it’s like, well…” Simon Pegg says, searching for the right words, ”Shut up, it’s my job.”
He’s having a laugh, but when the co-writer and star of cult favorites Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz talks about his latest outing, the comparatively mainstream comedy Run Fat Boy Run (in theaters on Friday), he turns surprisingly earnest. The film follows ordinary British bloke Dennis (Pegg), who leaves his pregnant fiancée Libby (Thandie Newton) at the altar, then decides five years later to try to win her back. The plan: Finally prove to her — but really himself — that he’s worthy, by going the distance in something…like the London marathon, which he says he’ll enter only because Libby’s new, more accomplished boyfriend Whit (Hank Azaria) already has. It’s the feature directing debut of our old Friend David Schwimmer, whom Pegg acted opposite in HBO’s 2001 miniseries Band of Brothers and again in the 2006 movie Big Nothing.
Pegg phoned EW.com for a heartfelt chat about the romantic comedy genre, fans’ mixed reactions to his casting as Scotty in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, Fox’s forthcoming (and figuratively unauthorized) remake of his beloved British sitcom Spaced, and the nicest definition of geek you’ll ever hear.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You share the screenwriting credit on Run Fat Boy Run with Michael Ian Black (The State, Stella). Did he simply pass the script off to you once the film’s location was changed from New York to London, or did you actually write together?
SIMON PEGG: The draft I got was just a first or second by Michael, and then the decision came to set it in the U.K. — based entirely on the fact that the money for the production was coming from there. So I took it on to do a polish. We never actually sat down in a room and worked together, but obviously as a writer, I know what it’s like to have someone else fiddling with your babies. I immediately sent him the script when I was finished with it, and said, ”What do you think?” He was very pleased.
I talked with David Schwimmer earlier, and he said the only film he remembers purposely sitting down and watching before filming was Kramer vs. Kramer, because he knew he had to make the audience see that Dennis was a good father so they’d forgive him. Did you look to any films for inspiration, either as a writer or as an actor?
It really appealed to me to actually write a romantic comedy and not cop out of that by making fun of the genre or undermining it in any way. I thought, Let’s try to write a romantic comedy and hit the requisite beats and fulfill the criteria of the genre and do it properly. There’s always opportunities to be a little more edgy, perhaps not so schmaltzy, to have some sort of wry comment on what you’re doing, but I essentially wanted to make a romantic comedy. So I watched other romantic comedies and saw what to do and what not to do.
What are your three favorite romantic comedies?
Well, that’s quite an interesting question, actually, ’cause obviously romantic comedies have a great sort of history, not just the modern ones that people might bring up. [Thinks for a few seconds] I think films like What’s Up, Doc? with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal and Roman Holiday with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn are great. And then in the contemporary vein, I’d probably say something like Four Weddings and a Funeral, which I think was Richard Curtis at his absolute best writing for a romantic comedy set in the U.K.
What is it about those films that you like?
A kind of depth of feeling and a kind of acceptance of the genre for what it is — which is a slightly emotionally manipulative, but joyously so, kind of film style. It’s the ones that make you care about the characters and want to see them together or not together. You have to root for the relationship above all else, and to do that, you have to have rounded characters that you have some investment in. If you have an unlikable character who’s just a bit of a jerk, you just think, Well I don’t care what happens to you.
And you’re playing a man who leaves his pregnant fiancée at the altar.
That’s what appealed to me about it. I thought, This is a real challenge to have a character who does something so terrible at the top of the film and then do our damnedest to make him the central sympathetic figure. Bring it on. How are we going to do this ’cause he’s such an a–hole? Particularly the women watching this film are gonna think, Why am I supposed to like this guy? And so we contrived a notion that Dennis was so pathologically self-doubting that he considered himself to be a setback, and kind of loved Libby to the point where he figured ruining her wedding day was better than destroying her life completely. He entirely went about it the wrong way, but at the very least, had his heart in the right place. So the idea was that rather than just be a coward and a commitment-phobe, he was a sort of [laughs] deeply sensitive guy who loved his girlfriend enough to care what happens to her.
NEXT PAGE: How J.J. Abrams offered Pegg the role of Scotty in Star Trek — via e-mail
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did any particular films inspire you for Dennis’ marathon training montage?
SIMON PEGG: I think you’re very hard-pushed nowadays after Team America to do a montage and not look a bit foolish, because Matt Stone and Trey Parker sent up that device so brilliantly in Team America with that song [”Montage”]. When presented in the script, as I was, with a montage that Michael had written quite rightly because we needed to advance the plot and see Dennis get slightly fitter, I actually e-mailed Matt and said, ”Look, do you mind very much if we have a Team America poster up in that flat?” Matt checked with Paramount for me, and said, ”Go for it.”
I noticed that poster and was going to ask whose idea it was.
That was me saying, ”Look, I know I’m using a montage, but I kinda have to,” and anyone with the wherewithal to spot the reference wouldn’t be totally disappointed in me. [Laughs]
A preemptive apology.
Exactly. That’s what it was: a preemptive apology.
Let’s talk about another e-mail. I read that’s how J.J. Abrams offered you the role of Scotty?
[Laughs] I was getting off a plane with my wife when the e-mail came through. I just sort of stared at it, and then showed it to her and she stared at it and burst out laughing. Then I burst out laughing. J.J. is that kind of guy. He phoned me for Mission: Impossible III personally, and then we got on like a house on fire, and then he just sent me this e-mail out of the blue for Star Trek. He just said, ”Do you want to play Scotty?” I knew he was doing Star Trek, and I’d head rumors about James McAvoy playing the part and I was thinkin’, Ah, that’ll be fun. It didn’t even occur to me to phone J.J. and say, ”Hey, think about me.” I thought I was too old, and it wasn’t gonna happen. So when I got the e-mail, I was like, ”F— Yeah!,” to quote Team America.
Did you find the mixed reaction to your casting perplexing?
Not at all. I completely understand it and I would have the same reactions myself. On one hand, there’s been really positive [responses]; on the other hand, people have said ”I don’t understand. Why is he playing Scotty?” I think people are worried that I’m going to undermine the franchise by being outwardly comic, which is absolutely fair enough. They’re fans of that series, and it’s very dear to them. I don’t begrudge anyone’s opinion in that respect. I would hope that I can put their minds at rest and tell them that I am approaching it with complete and utter dedication to the original series. James Doohan’s character was a wonderfully robust, rough-and-tumble, part genius/part street fighter. He’s a great character to play, and James played him with an enormous amount of sympathy, and I tried to approach the role like he did. Get the character and say, ”Okay, he works in outer space, he’s a physics genius and an engineer, and he comes from Linlithgow in northwest Scotland” — and not go out there and try to do an impersonation of James.
And your wife is a Scot, so she helped with the accent?
She’s a Glaswegian, so she was there for me on set. She was the best gauge I could have because she’d tell me, ”You’re too East Coast. You should say this or that.”
NEXT PAGE: Pegg’s U.K. sitcom Spaced comes to the U.S., and the true meaning of the word ”geek”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: There’s another remake for us to talk about, Fox’s American redux of your sitcom Spaced [which he co-created with costar Jessica Stevenson]. You’ve expressed your frustration at not being contacted by anyone involved in the show. [It will be produced by Granada America, Warner Bros. TV, and McG’s Wonderland Sound and Vision.] Have you heard from anyone yet?
SIMON PEGG: There was an attempt [but] the damage is completely done…. What they have professed is they were such big fans of the show. Well, if they were, they would’ve found us straightaway. I’m sure Robert Rodriguez called Frank Miller at his house the second he decided to adapt Sin City. To go ahead and actually write the script without even consulting us — particularly when every reference, every joke comes from something very personal to us — it just drives me up the wall. I saw the front page of the script and it said: ”Spaced by Adam Barr.” And I just thought, Spaced isn’t by Adam Barr. Spaced is by Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson. It also said: ”Based on the BBC series.” It was never on the f—in’ BBC, so it just shows how much they’ve done their research…. I just feel like creative people should stick together and be in touch with each other…. I don’t want the Spaced remake to take place, because I don’t particularly think there’s any point to it, but if someone was gonna write something in the spirit of it, and take on our mission statement, then I would have no objection. But Spaced was written for very specific reasons, by specific people, and to see it as a commodity that can be bought up as just some sort of high concept format is galling to me. [Editor’s note: Warner Bros. and Barr, a veteran American-TV writer and producer who won an Emmy on Will & Grace, had no comment. Granada and McG had not commented by press time.]
Your Spaced will finally be released on DVD in the U.S. in July, right?
Nearly 10 years after it came out in the U.K. We’ve just been in the studio here in L.A. We had Matt Stone, Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, and Diablo Cody do commentaries on it. We’ve got new artwork, some amazing quotes from some amazing people. I think, basically, they kind of underestimated the wrong fan base.
The next film you’re writing is Paul. You and Nick Frost play two friends who drive across the U.S. for a comic book convention?
Yeah, two sort of geeks — people like me, really, but slightly more geeky. It’s a road trip with those guys across the Midwestern interior and all sort of hilarity ensues. We researched it last year by driving from California to Denver via Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming, and just had a blast and got lots of ideas. America is an amazing place. When you get out there into the middle, it’s kinda like, ”Where the f— is everybody?” [Laughs] It’s like 235 billion people here or whatever, and you can go 100 miles and not see a soul. Nick and I have finished our second draft of that, and I think it’s gonna be a crackin’ film. It’s gonna hopefully go into production in September.
Wait, let’s go back. Are there people more geeky than you?
Oh, I’m sure. Honestly, I’m a self-confessed geek, but when [Spaced, Hot Fuzz, and Shaun of the Dead collaborator] Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino get together and talk, I’m lost. They’re talkin’ about actors I’ve never heard of and films I’ve never seen. I think geek is the word for people who are just unabashedly enthusiastic, and you take that to whatever level you want. Some people have it consume their whole life; some people, it’s a hobby. I’m proud to be a geek, but there are bigger, better ones out there.