For more than two decades, Simon Pegg has firmly established himself as a performer of extraordinary range. Though known by many for his roles in blockbusters like Mission Impossible and Star Trek, as well as his beloved collaborations with Edgar Wright, he’s appeared in a wide range of projects, from early roles in Band of Brothers, voice work on Ice Age: Collision Course and Boxtrolls, to indie films like Run Fatboy Run or Hector and the Search for Happiness.
His latest film, Lost Transmissions, premiered at Tribeca and received its Canadian debut at the Whistler International Film Festival. Written and directed by Katherine O’Brien, it’s the story of Theo Ross (Pegg), a record producer who befriends Hannah (Juno Temple). Theo suffers from schizophrenia, and when he refuses to take his medication at the same time that Hannah removes herself from her own anti-depressant regimen things go majorly awry. The role requires a great deal of commitment from Pegg, riding the edge of a person out of control but still engendering sympathy. It’s a fine, nuanced take, one that may well surprise and impress fans who know him more from his broader takes in the bigger hits.
/Film spoke with Pegg at length about him choosing such a role, and it’s clear he feels a strong affinity for the project. We also spoke about the fan community that he’s both a part of and serving them content, and of course delved into the controversy surrounding the divide between art, commerce, cinema and “theme park rides”.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity and concision
How did you become attached to this project?
Katharine O’Brien, the writer/director, sent me the script. My agent will usually say this one looks good or I think you’re not going to like this one, and they usually come with a little caveat of anticipation of how I’m going to react. This one simply said “you should read this.” I really liked it, and it dawned on me as I was reading it that I hadn’t actually been directed by a woman in a feature film before which felt very remiss. I was also really kind of flattered that she’d sent it to me because it’s a dramatic role, it’s not the kind of thing I would expect to be pigeonholed as doing. People kind of see me as being someone who’s either a kind of exposition machine in a blockbuster or a funny guy in an Edgar Wright movie. So I was really touched by the fact that she’d sort of thought me for the role so I immediately said yes, I’d love to do this. It was about another year before we managed to get it going, indie filmmaking being the way it is, with my schedule and getting the film funded. But I just stuck with it. There was a point when it looked like I wouldn’t be able to do it but Katharine held on and eventually last year we managed to get it made in LA.
How closely does it adhere to any of your own personal struggles?
Not really. The condition that Theo suffers from is schizophrenia and it’s actually based on an experience Katharine had with a friend of hers. Mental illness has become a thankfully a talking point, it’s something that’s not considered so shameful to admit that you’re experiencing. But there are obviously many, many facets of mental illness and it’s a huge umbrella term and schizophrenia is something very different to say major depressive disorder or OCD or anything along those lines. I think it was really important for me to get that whole portrayal right. It was easy playing Gary King in The World’s End because I’d felt a little bit like Gary and come up against us similar challenges to him. But with Theo, this was something completely new so I had to get out there and do my due diligence.
How did that process go about?
I met with a former carer of the guy who the film was about. I also met with the guy the film was based on first of all and who’s now very well – his condition is managed as long as he takes medications. He’s absolutely “normal” for want of a better word, and got a little bit into his thinking whilst he was having these delusions. They’re very very real, they are your reality, and they’re really complex. They’re the product of your brain sort of rationalizing the overflow of information that you’re receiving. Schizophrenia takes hold and kind of creates these narratives. We’re naturally pattern making animals so if we see lots of things we’ll try and draw connections between things. That’s why we see faces in rock faces. Schizophrenics will create narratives from this this abundance of information, stories that are invariably fairly paranoid. So I got into his story a little bit, and then I met with other schizophrenics, people that were in recovery, people that were in the midst of it. I read stuff, watched stuff, and just tried to get an idea of what it meant to be schizophrenic.
One of the struggles that your character has is whether or not he can continue to be creative when he’s on the pill. On the one hand there’s the debates about over medicalization, while on the other hand there’s this romanticism of being over the edge, where some feel you have to be on heroin to be a great jazz musician, or an alcoholic to be a good actor. Over the decades you’ve actually done that, have you struggled with that, of questioning whether things that are worse for you are actually the things that make you better at doing what you do?
No, not really. When I’ve done stuff and you meet people when you’re touring the film, they sometimes say “oh, you must have been stoned when you wrote that, you must’ve been drunk!” I find that that kind of stimulation is utterly counterproductive. The trouble is when you’re stoned you think you’re the funniest person on earth and you’re probably the most boring. Drunk people are annoying. They’re not funny. I think any kind of ideas that that come up under the influence of anything for me, at least, I wouldn’t trust. They might feel like the right thing at the time but your sort of creative balance is completely offset. You’re literally not thinking straight, and I don’t think that it helps. This film kind of looks a little bit of that idea that maybe a degree of insanity can help the creative process but dispels that fairly quickly. Yes, it might give you access to certain creative impulses momentarily that might for a second all line up to be something rather amazing, but it will invariably go further into complete chaos and dross and something which has no shape or form or merit. Schizophrenics can often access parts of their consciousness that people who don’t have schizophrenia can’t but it’s not necessarily a good thing, you know?
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest you are not a piano player?
[Laughs] I learned for the film. I was taught by the same pianist who taught Ryan Gosling for La La Land, and in considerably less time, I hate to tell you!
Would you trade being funny for being musical?
That’s a really good question. I am fairly musical. I mean, I grew up in a musical family. I don’t play anything to any degree of skill, but I can play lots of things badly. I play the drums pretty well. I would love to be able to play the piano. My dad’s a jazz pianist. When I was learning for the movie, I realized that when I’d broken my hand on The World’s End, one of my fingers it drops slightly, so when I went to play chords, the dropped finger would involuntarily press keys that shouldn’t be pressed. I realized, I’ll never play the piano again – Except, I’d never played it before!, I love that idea of being able to just sit down at piano and just noodle away but that’s quite a solitary thing. Being funny or having a sense of humor is quite social and I like being social.
I think the people probably recognize the time and the effort required to become musical and they might not realize the time and effort required to actually write very good comedies.
All comedy is always underestimated. It is by its very nature non-serious and so it’s not taken seriously. There are no awards for best comedic performance, if there was then Jim Carrey would have to buy new shelves. He’s done so many virtuoso comic performances that no one could touch but was never really rewarded for it other than, yeah, he’s funny guy.
Are there types of comedies we would be surprised that you actually respond to? Jim Carrey is a bit of a surprise, as you, Edgar and the lot tend to do much more cerebral things rather than full on slap stick, but maybe it just seems less silly you battling zombies because of your accents. It is certainly true that at his best Jim Carrey is very smart about being very stupid.
He’s just an incredibly gifted performer. One of my favorite cinematic jokes of all time is the scene in Ace Ventura 2 when he emerges from the arse-end of a rhino. It’s such a meticulously set up joke. The mechanics of it are so intricate to facilitate this final moment where he squeezes his way out of the tiny little hole in the arse end of this rhinoceros in front of a family of tourists. When you watch it, it starts off being, oh, it’s a joke about him being inside of a fake rhinoceros and then it’s a joke about him being very hot in there. The fan breaks so he takes all his clothes off, but all of this is very stealthily setting up him emerging naked through this tiny little hole. I just think in terms of comedic writing, I love that because it sets up something so outlandish very cleverly and very stealthily so that you’re constantly thinking you’re seeing a punchline but really you’re building to something new. It’s just genius.
You’ve been in major blockbusters, but you’ve also done the indie, whether you still have that moment of passion of hooking into that stuff or are you slightly seeing it in a more mechanical way of these days?
You can see the mechanics of comedy and you know, like Neo looking at the matrix, you know, you can see all the little green lines falling but it’s still beautiful. I met Joey Pants yesterday, and we were talking about The Matrix. It reminds me of that line where he’s looking at the code and saying I just see hot girl there. It is possible to see how comedy works, the bare bones of it, and still love it because of the crystalline beauty of set up and pay off.
What would you say is the greatest thing that we misunderstand about your traversing the world between these mega productions like Mission Impossible, Star Wars, or Star Trek and independent films?
It’s not like I do one for me and one for them. I don’t do those movies because, you know, to pay the mortgage or anything.
That said, I assume the blockbusters do pay the mortgage?
I mean, they do pay the mortgage, absolutely. But I do them because I love them too. I love pure entertainment. I would doggedly argue that pure entertainment is as important as high art. There’s a place for it and it shouldn’t be denigrated. There’s a lot of snippiness about sort of mainstream pure entertainment that kind of relegates it. Marvel have kind of really owned that particular niche, with their universe there, and created something extraordinary over a period of ten years. For all the kind of snootiness I think people have about those films, you can’t you can’t deny the brilliant kind of long-term planning of all that.
Could you dive into Scorsese’s comments?
Well, I get it. I totally get what he said and I think it’s ridiculous when people get all upset about it. Yes, it might not be a film in the same way that Taxi Driver‘s a film. It might not be a film in the same way that Apocalypse Now is, but it’s something. It’s probably a new thing that’s evolved from lots of different things that have merged over the years. Superhero cinema is not killing cinema. It’s trying to keep cinema alive. Unfortunately it’s got to the point and it’s probably the fault of early spectacle cinema, probably the fault of my beloved Star Wars that suddenly, you know, [you’ve got to go big] to get people to go to the movies to go to the theaters in big numbers to see films. As television evolved into something more cinematic and film got into our houses a lot quicker – the turnaround now for movies is like three months – you can wait. If you don’t want to pay a hundred bucks to take your family to the cinema for one night, you wait and it’s in your home in three months’ time. So it’s become a real struggle to pull people out to the movies to see things theatrically and that’s where things have got bigger and more spectacular. You can’t see, experience that kind of thing at home, no matter how big your TV is. The thing that about cinema that people forget, it’s not just about a big screen, it’s about the community of watching a movie with other people, strangers that you don’t know. As we’re becoming more insular and more kind of watching things on our phones on our own we’re disbanding our tribes . Our cinema-going drive is a a really important tribe. I think theatrical cinema is struggling, but the fact is it’s doing its damnedest to keep itself alive. It’s just unfortunate now for the middle ground. You have films like Lost Transmissions which are beautiful little indie movies, which don’t cost very much money or probably get a limited release but hopefully people will still go and see them because there is an audience for it. Then you’ve got the big $200-million dollar films which are still pulling people in. It’s that middle ground now, the mid-budget movie, that’s kind of dead. People are going to see drama on TV now.
Would Shaun of the Dead have still been made for theatrical today?
Shaun probably would have done because it’s still in that sort of low.
But Hot Fuzz might not have been.
Maybe not. I mean Paul certainly wouldn’t be, this $30 million dollar comedy, unless you’re fronted by Seth or somebody who’s a sure-fire draw. There was a time when everyone was talking about the $25 million dollar film, that the future is going to be these kind of mid-budget films. That never really materialized because television suddenly grew up, became this fantastic kind of window into cinematic worlds that last for weeks.
When this discussion happened, I couldn’t help but think about a colleague of yours who was on a Marvel film, was then not on a Marvel film and then went and made a film about a baby driver. That was a much more personal film in some ways without the restrictions of working within a given sandbox, yet that ant-y film that did come out actually still has a lot of his DNA left behind.
I’ve never seen it, actually. Edgar makes Edgar Wright movies, he doesn’t make movies for other people. I think what was happening there with Marvel is that they just had a disagreement about certain aspects of the story and rather than going to a big old agonizing back and forth it was just better he handed it over.
There’s a difference between a filmmaker having a particular view of what a certain character, a certain section should be, and what fandom believes a certain character, a certain section should be. There’s an enormous group of fans that say, well, Batman wouldn’t do that, or Luke Skywalker wouldn’t do this. The filmmaker needs the freedom to bring a particular vision, yet some are saying no that’s not how I think it should be and therefore I’m going to reject it.As both a fan and somebody creative how you respond to that?
I think that sort of sense of entitlement is sometimes obviously toxic. It feels like it’s being done for the sake of being contrary or aggressive. I get it. I think if someone takes a character who operates via a certain set of values and rules and then someone comes along and just changes those rules, then I get where people get upset because it’s counter to who that character is. I don’t mind characters evolving and changing if you are there for that change. If you kind of follow Batman on a story whereby he ended up killing someone and then you understood why he killed someone, then you wouldn’t get upset about Batman killing someone. But if you suddenly see Batman just killing a bunch of people then, well, that’s not what Batman’s about. The point of Batman is that he’s anti-murder. He’s this bizarre fetishistic messed up guy, but he has principles that kind of shape him and disturb him, making him very interesting. The minute you kind of discard that it’s like well, hang on. But there are ways to complain about that You can just go, oh, I didn’t like that and then get on with your life and realize that it’s just a film, it doesn’t really matter. Or you can get incredibly upset about it.
The reason I bring this up is that one of the reasons that Batman gets elicited is that if you tell a story that involves Batman, you can tell more complex story. I will quote you about Lost Transmission, you wryly noted that one can do a successful film about mental illness as long as Batman’s somewhere in the story. Yet if that’s the key, that we can use these iconic characters in ideally new and provocative ways, there’s the hope of something more complex potentially getting in conflict with that built in expectations.
I think Joker isreally interesting and I really can’t wait to see it. I haven’t had a chance to see it, I haven’t avoided it by any means, but it is interesting that it’s been compared a lot to Taxi Driver.
It’s actually a lot more drawn from King of Comedy.
Oh, with DeNiro in it as well, which I think is a direct kind of reference, right? Which is another film about mental illness really.
The danger of the delusional fan.
I think it’s very interesting that Todd Phillips is wanting to make a film about someone experiencing that. The way the cinema exists now in order to get it seen by lots of people it needs that little link to the lifeblood of that world which is currently very healthy and bringing lots of people in, whereas back in the day you didn’t have to do that. But that’s just evolution. I’m not decrying that, it’s just the way it is.
Perhaps you’re going to see more people messing with who Batman’s actually supposed to be because they’re just going to use the hook of Batman in order to go in whatever direction they as artists wish to.
I guess you see it all the time now, where people kind of want to tell us a story and ask why don’t we make it a Star Trek or a Star Wars spin-off or something because you know that you can tell the story you want to tell but when it’s related to a profitable enterprise more people will see it. Or you make your film and you put it on Netflix, like Martin Scorsese did, because he knew more people would probably see it than they would have.
Nobody else would give him $160 million to make it.
You grew up seeing this world from the outside and you’ve achieved many of the goals that you have you continue to do extraordinary work. Is there moment of you that looks back and still has that sort of sense of being on the outside of looking in?
No, but I do try and maintain a sort of sense of equanimity. I never let it get kind of boring for me or I never take it for granted. I always try and see it through the lens of my seven-year-old self, particularly when it’s something like doing Star Wars or Trek or Mission or whatever. I always try and imagine how I would react if someone just came and told me that I’d be doing that because it enables me to see it objectively and not just be in it and be bored by it. I remember when I was doing Star Wars and doing this the deleted scene that was never in The Force Awakens. I was in this big suit on set and being really hot and uncomfortable but because Chewbacca was standing next to me I would use him to ground me as a kind of a way of remembering how fucking amazing this moment is. However uncomfortable and hot I was, I was stood next to one of the most beloved characters of my entire childhood and it really helped me get through it sometimes when I was kind of struggling because of the heat. I’d look up and there he would be you know, and it was like, I love it.
You’re the lead in all the Edgar films, yet in the blockbusters you’ve been the supporting role. Is there a part of you that is almost grateful that you don’t have the burden of being a Kirk?
Yeah and I know my place, you know, I look at Pine and his square jaw.
What a fucking beautiful man.
Beautiful blue eyes. Yeah, I get lost in his eyes sometimes. He’s extraordinary.
I saw him in a tux at Cannes and I lost my breath, it’s ridiculous.
It’s fun and I like it. In Mission as well I get to be a satellite around planet Cruise and that’s always really fun.
Is there any sense of that because you are playing a critical role but not necessarily the role that takes all of the heat?
Yes absolutely, particularly with Star Trek Beyond. I wrote it with Doug [Jung], and that was really nice because I got to be Kirk and I got to be Spock. I got to be all of them, to put words in their mouths which was really fun. I worked with the cast to make sure they were all really enjoying what was happening, so yeah, I feel very lucky to be in that position. I’m happy where I am.
That one in particular felt like a Star Trek movie.
It did, right?
What a pleasure, thanks so much for this.
Thanks man, it was nice to meet you.
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