Man on a mission: Simon Pegg on working with Tom Cruise and co-writing the new Star Wars film
There are times when Simon Pegg must feel like he's died and gone to nerd heaven. Starring in Hollywood franchises like Mission: Impossible and Star Trek, he's the uber-fanboy who somehow made it over the crash-barrier to walk the red carpet without being dragged away by security. He knows it, too, aware that the perception of him is the "ordinary guy" who gatecrashed the A-list. "Sometimes I feel like that," he shrugs. "But I also feel kind of comfortable." He pauses for a second. "Well, this is the only thing I can do."
If he has turned Hollywood on us, it has been out of necessity. Like the fact he takes a recliner chair with him to every film shoot - after Jeff Bridges "instilled in me the importance of being comfortable on set" and gifted him one when they worked together on 2008's How To Lose Friends And Alienate People. Then there's his appearance: all toned and sculpted beneath a blue short-sleeved shirt. "I looked like a potato on Mission: Impossible III," he chuckles. "Now, 10 years later, it's all about how many sit-ups I can do."
Fortunately, Pegg hasn't lost that one-of-us quality that made him famous in the first place, initially channelled in Channel 4 sitcom Spaced and later Shaun of the Dead, the zombie comedy film that broke him internationally. Eschewing the sunnier climes of Los Angeles, Pegg still lives in Crouch End, north London, with Maureen, his wife of 10 years, and their six-year-old daughter, Matilda. And, crucially, the 45-year-old still retains that childlike enthusiasm for the job. "I'm constantly pinching myself," he says, mock-studying his arm. "I'm covered in bruises from constant pinching!"
Along the way, he has appeared in Doctor Who, cameoed in zombie pioneer George A Romero's Land of the Dead and even penned a "Shaun" comic for 2000AD. But not even Pegg can probably believe his current slate. This coming week, he returns for Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, the latest in the blockbuster espionage franchise starring Tom Cruise as agent Ethan Hunt. Then, in mid-August, he leads Absolutely Anything, directed by Monty Python's Terry Jones (and featuring the voice talents of the other Pythons).
Most mind-blowing of all, Pegg has just co-scripted Star Trek Beyond, the third in the JJ Abrams-rebooted sci-fi franchise. To date, his writing assignments - Shaun of the Dead and his other films penned with its director, Edgar Wright, Hot Fuzz and The World's End - have all been in the realm of British comedy. But being asked to actually sculpt the next chapter for such an iconic property? To borrow from the title of his 2012 autobiographical book: Nerd Do Well, he doesn't even seem stressed. "It's becoming more and more fun," he says. "It was very daunting at first, but now the story is taking shape."
It was Abrams who first cast Pegg in Mission: Impossible III, and subsequently brought him on to Star Trek, initially to bring a little light relief as the Starship Enterprise engineer Scotty. Pegg cannot hide his excitement about working at Abrams' production company Bad Robot, where the finishing touches are also being put to the Abrams-directed Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Two giant sci-fi franchises under one roof? "It's quite a fun place to be right now! You just walk to get a drink, and you'll hear a TIE Fighter in one ear and somebody talking about Spock's ears in the other."
While he also visited the Star Wars set (this, after all, is a man who once flew to America to see prequel The Phantom Menace on the day it opened), Pegg's 15-year-old self - not to mention his geeky character in Spaced - must be dazzled. "I look back and think sometimes, 'What did I expect from my career or life?' I didn't really have any plans," he says. "But there are huge ironies, in terms of looking back at Spaced, which is very much a love letter to popular culture, and now being part of certain aspects of it, such as Star Trek and Mission: Impossible."
While Pegg is coy on the subject of whether he makes a covert appearance in Star Wars (after he inadvertently revealed that Daniel Craig does, inside a stormtrooper's outfit), he is keen to stress that he doesn't want to be in every pop-culture sensation out there. "I'm a filmgoer as much as a film actor. Someone asked me the other day if I wanted to be in Game of Thrones, and I said 'No'. The reason was because I love the show so much that I don't want to see behind the curtain!"
In the case of Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, it is his third outing in the franchise, one that has seen Pegg's character, Benji, graduate from desk-bound techie to field agent. "He has become more and more capable as an agent, so by this film he is not the new kid on the block any more, like he was in (2011's Brad Bird-directed Mission: Impossible outing) Ghost Protocol. He has been out there for a while. He is a little more jaded in a way. He is definitely more experienced and certainly more confident. But he is still the same guy and has the same outlook on things."
This latest effort, directed by Jack Reacher director Chris McQuarrie, sees Cruise's Hunt the target of a covert organisation, led by a shadowy figure played by British actor Sean Harris. Again, Cruise is pulling off some death-defying stunts for real - and this time Pegg got to be in the passenger seat for one scene where Cruise races a car around the streets of Marrakech. "I never felt unsafe," says Pegg. "He was so in command of that car. He would do an e-brake turn into an alleyway at 60 miles an hour and … I never felt like he was going to crash us."
Rather like Benji, "who has never really lost his admiration" for Ethan, the same could be said for Pegg and Cruise. "It makes me laugh sometimes just how much of a bloke he is," he says. "I think he does get an unfair rap for a lot of things. People just don't know everything about him, but they think they do. I don't know everything about him! I'm good friends with him, but there's a lot I don't know about his life."
Do they ever talk personally? "Sometimes, we'll have heart-to-hearts at the end of the day," he nods.
That Pegg is on close personal terms with Cruise is just another pinch-me moment in a seemingly never-ending procession of them. Last year, after filming Terry Jones's comedy Absolutely Anything - a story about a group of eccentric aliens that confer powers to a mere mortal as an experiment - he was called by the producers to come and cameo, on stage, at the Python reunion at the 02 Arena. For one night only, he starred opposite Michael Palin in the classic "Blackmail" sketch.
Understandably, perhaps, Pegg seems more blown away by working with Robin Williams on Jones's film, just a few months before the star committed suicide last August. Growing up, Pegg "utterly idolised" Williams for his role as an unhinged alien in the TV sitcom Mork & Mindy, Pegg's "favourite" programme when he was young. "I remember doing impersonations of him at school," he says. "To finally get to be in a film (with him) ... I'm very proud that I got to have that moment."
Born in Gloucester, Pegg's artistic leanings were not just confined to the playground. His father, John, was a jazz musician and his mother, Gillian, an amateur actress; when they divorced when Pegg was seven, he lived with his mother, who later remarried (with Pegg adopting his stepfather's surname). After a spell at Bristol University, Pegg tried stand-up comedy but found more success in television, becoming part of a Nineties comic wave that included Steve Coogan and Chris Morris. He worked with both, appearing in an episode of Coogan's I'm Alan Partridge and featuring in the notorious paedophile episode of Morris's satirical show Brass Eye (which led him to be "named and shamed" in the now-defunct News of the World). But, as he once told me, he never set out to be as dangerous as his peers: "Chris Morris wants to shake things up. Steve Coogan wants to make people uncomfortable. And I just want to be loved."
If that's the case, then Pegg has got his wish, handling fame with good grace. "Sometimes it can be tiring when you're out with your family. You don't want to be rude to anyone ever because it would be terribly arrogant to rebuff someone who comes up and says they like what you do." Still, he avoids certain places, like pubs (he no longer drinks, anyway). "Pubs are the worst place because people are a little looser and they are more likely to come over and throw their arms around you, which isn't always pleasant."
It's mainly Shaun of the Dead and the other two films in the "Cornetto" trilogy (so-called due to some wry product placement) for which people stop him in the street. He says he will work with co-writer Edgar Wright again, which is just as well, given how many of Pegg's non-Wright Brit-flicks - films such as Run Fatboy Run and he recent Man Up - have crashed and burned.
Perhaps these films serve as a reminder that not everything he touches turns to gold. But when you are about to boldly go where no nerd has gone before, your career can probably withstand a few flops. Penning Star Trek arguably positions Pegg as one of Britain's most successful comic exports. A Hollywood power-player? He is evidently relishing it, a chance to flex his authorial talents on a grand stage. "Now Scotty's the main character," he winks, "it's gonna be amazing."
- Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation opens in cinemas today