For the past 20 years, Simon Pegg hasn’t stopped. From Spaced to Star Trek and Shaun of the Dead to Star Wars, Pegg’s ascent from cult television hero to red carpet regular has been a breathless watch. It’s no wonder then, that when he greets NME on the phone from his home in Hertfordshire, where he’s staying with his wife and daughter, Pegg sounds grateful for the enforced rest that lockdown has brought.
“Yes, it has been a lot,” Pegg laughs when we recount just a fraction of his packed CV. “I’ve enjoyed lockdown. My absolute favourite thing is to be at home with my family and I’ve relished the chance to have an extra bit of that for the last few months.”
In the past decade alone, Pegg has written and starred in The World’s End (the final instalment of the Edgar Wright-directed Cornetto Trilogy), appeared in three Mission: Impossible movies and the Steven Spielberg-directed Ready Player One. He’s set up a production company, Stolen Picture, with his best friend and long-term collaborator, Nick Frost, and made a new sitcom with him, Truth Seekers, about a ghost-hunting team of paranormal investigators. On top of all that, he’s started to move away from comedy towards more dramatic parts with recent film noirs Terminal and Inheritance.
Pegg’s latest release, Lost Transmissions, continues this venture into the serious. In a return to his indie roots, the low-budget, Katharine O’Brien-directed drama sees Pegg take the lead role of Theo – a record producer who, whilst at the top of his game during the ‘90s, develops schizophrenia after taking one too many batches of bad acid. Based on a true story (Theo was a well-known music producer before his illness), the harrowing tale is a far cry from Pegg’s comedic origins.
“With people who do comedy, it tends to result in you being pigeon-holed”
“It was a nice surprise to get sent the script,” Pegg says, adding that he’s now being considered for roles outside of comic hero and wacky sidekick. Despite his early days as a stand-up, Pegg never intended to begin his professional life making people laugh. In fact, as a student at Bristol University during the early ‘90s, he initially dreamed of a career in theatre.
“With people who do comedy, it tends to result in you being pigeonholed,” Pegg explains. “My ambitions as a drama student were entirely different. They were more theatrical – I wanted to do Shakespeare and just be an actor. I think I had a love for comedy and was able to do it – it just sort of seemed the way to go when I started off.”
After being spotted at one of his stand-up shows, Pegg was offered jobs on British sitcoms like Big Train, Hippies and Asylum, where he met long-term collaborators Jessica Hynes and Edgar Wright. After those early successes, Pegg wrote Spaced with Hynes (Wright directed) and the show quickly became a cult hit on Channel 4. Soon after, Pegg and Wright penned zombie parody Shaun of the Dead which remains one of the biggest British films of all time. From there, Pegg’s career skyrocketed as he went on to work with the likes of Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, J. J. Abrams and Tom Cruise.
Lost Transmissions was filmed in 2018, just after Pegg wrapped Mission Impossible: Fallout with Cruise – a project which lasted 10 months. In contrast, Lost Transmissions was shot in just 19 days – something reminiscent of his earlier, indie filmmaking projects with Wright.
“Indie films feel a lot more personal and heartfelt”
What was it like, getting back to basics? “I always like to make sure I stay in contact with that mode of filmmaking,” Pegg says. “That’s where I came from and you get to make very interesting, slightly more challenging, less entertainment-based movies with really interesting characters. That’s not something that I ever want to lose touch with. No disrespect to the big movies, but with indie films, you’re making something that feels a lot more personal and heartfelt.”
For Pegg, Lost Transmissions hit home because some of the issues surrounding his character’s mental health experiences chimed with his own. 18 months ago, the actor revealed he’d entered rehab for alcohol addiction in 2010 after years of battling depression. The news came as a shock. On the outside, Pegg had seemed happy, his career going from strength to strength. Behind the scenes, however, he was extremely unwell.
“I think with Theo in Lost Transmissions, his tendency to have a huge internal storm going on, whilst he’s outwardly seeming okay, was something I had experience of. The idea of a lot of stuff going on inside whilst also trying to maintain a sort of normal experience,” he says. Pegg was at his lowest ebb during a visit to San Diego Comic-Con. He went missing for four days after drinking himself into oblivion – and when he returned to the UK a few days later, he ended up in rehab clinic The Priory.
“I didn’t want to talk about it at the time like a badge of honour,” Pegg says candidly. “Sometimes, people talk about it like ‘oh my booze and drugs hell’ or whatever, like they’re trying to sound a bit more rock and roll. I certainly didn’t feel like it was anyone’s business.”
“People talk about their ‘booze and drugs hell’ like they’re rock and roll – I didn’t want it to be a badge of honour”
Did being on the set of a film exploring mental health issues help him to open up more? “Well, we were having lots of conversations about it and I came to realise that the best thing you can do is talk about it. The worst thing you can do is stay silent because there are so many people having similar experiences – way more than you might expect,” he says. “My initial silence was less about the taboos within the industry, but I do think there’s still a lot of it. I guess that you do worry that people will think, ‘Oh, I can’t trust that person because they’ve got reckless impulses.’ Yet, because I was on the other side of it, I felt like I could speak about it as something that happened to me and that I survived. I came to realise that it can hopefully give a positive message to people who are in the midst of it all now.”
He adds: “There is a dialogue now and people are speaking out more, but it’s still a very stigmatised position to be in. I mean, it says a lot that if you want to to discredit or silence someone, you call them crazy.”
Pegg’s research for his role in Lost Transmissions was meticulous. He became friends with the real-life Theo, spent time in a mental health facility with schizophrenia patients and later with the homeless community in ‘Skid Row’, LA, where Theo ends up after he stops taking his medication. “I think schizophrenia, generally as a mental health issue, is fairly misunderstood,” Pegg says. “People think it’s about a split personality and that’s not what it really is at all. It was important for me going into this to get it right and not approximate what I thought it was or just play crazy, which is done a lot. People often just act silly when they want to portray someone with mental health issues, when obviously there’s a lot more complexity there.”
“Mental health issues are still stigmatised – if you want to discredit someone, you call them crazy”
In one scene, Theo is in the midst of a delusion when he is approached by the police. Moments later, they pull guns on him, not realising he’s unwell. In a climate where America’s policing is under more scrutiny than ever, the scene chills.
“He’s very lucky in that moment, you know, because it could have gone a completely different way and I’m sure when you’re dealing with the homeless, they probably don’t get those kinds of breaks, if they get arrested,” Pegg says. “People are reluctant to get involved with people that have mental health issues because they think they’re going to be trouble. The fact is, the majority of us suffer from them to some degree, even if it’s only mild, even if it’s just a phobia or a kind of anxiety. It all comes under the umbrella of mental health. It’s just easy when you see someone who’s really suffering, like a schizophrenic, to distance yourself from that and say ‘well, it’s not me.’”
Pegg admits Lost Transmissions can be a difficult watch at times, but one that will ultimately, he hopes, stays with viewers. “I think as human beings we prefer the path of least resistance… I always feel more sated after I’ve watched a film that’s challenged me, than I do one that’s just entertained me.”
With Lost Transmissions out online now (the pandemic put pay to a theatrical release), Pegg is looking forward to restarting work on Mission: Impossible 7 and 8. Just hours before he was due to fly to Italy to start filming in March, the entire production was halted due to COVID-19.
“I’ve been ready for this situation for a while,” Pegg jokes, referring to his history of playing characters who find themselves in apocalyptic situations. In fact, he and Frost reprised their famous Shaun of the Dead roles at the start of the pandemic, releasing a video of tongue-in-cheek survival tips. It clocked up more than 2.5 million views on YouTube. Social media, meanwhile, was flooded with memes of Pegg and his zombie fighting crew taking refuge at The Winchester pub.
“Generally, in times of adversity – Brexit, ‘The Best from the East’ – whatever apocalyptic situation it is – that meme of us will always pop up,” Pegg laughs. “This situation now is of course much more comparable with people being told to stay at home, to shut their doors and stay safe. It’s hard to be glib in this terrible situation but it’s an odd testament to the film’s longevity that it’s still relevant,” Pegg says of his and Wright’s classic zom-com.
“The next two ‘Mission: Impossible’ films are going to be a lot of fun”
Whilst he’s expecting more memes of him and Frost when the pubs reopen later this week, Pegg himself will be waiting for things to blow over at home until he can get back to filming. What can we expect from the next M:I instalment? Pegg says the supporting cast will have bigger roles, with each getting their own storyline. “I know the basic story of the two movies and it’s going to be a lot of fun. With me and Ving [Rhames, who plays Luther Strickell], you know, we’ve put the hours in now so we’d hope we would get some kind of payback to give our characters their own arc, something really interesting to do and I think we have that now.”
As with Lost Transmissions, Pegg relished the opportunity to venture into the limelight more. “It’s great because it obviously gives you something to get your teeth into as an actor and you don’t want to be hanging around waiting to do stuff on set. You want to be on set and if you are the main actor, then you do get to do that the most. It was really nice. I hope I can continue to do that.”
“I hope I can continue to be the main actor on set”
Will Tom Cruise’s rumoured lockdown village be a reality when filming starts again this autumn? “I’ve heard about that. I don’t know how true it is, but I’ll wait until I get confirmation from the source.” And what about Cruise’s plans to make the first film shot in space with Elon Musk? Will the Star Trek-loving Pegg be following him up anytime soon? “I’d love to go into space, it would be amazing! But you know, you have to also think about your family and safety and stuff,” Pegg laughs. “Tom never does anything recklessly and all of his stunts are meticulously designed, rehearsed and trained for. If he does it, it will be really safe. So, I don’t know, you never know.”
For now, Pegg is keeping his feet firmly on the ground, remaining at home with his family. Until filming restarts, he’ll be writing lots (during the first few weeks of lockdown, he dashed off eight episodes of a new, under-wraps TV series) and he’s planning more indie filmmaking as his production company, Stolen Picture, continues to grow. He beams when he talks about both, sounding happy and content.
“I’ve really relished being able to just get my head down and do some writing,” he says. “It’s been really fun [with Stolen Picture] to actually have some sort of autonomy or control over what we’re doing, to have some say, to have some space where we can create our own stuff.” Pegg’s non-stop work schedule shows no signs of slowing post-lockdown. Stepping out as a fully-fledged frontman and filmmaker, the next 20 years promise to be his most exciting yet.
‘Lost Transmissions’ is available online now