As a film fanboy, it’s as though Simon Pegg has gone through the looking glass: Once the star of movie-referencing comedies like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, he now gets to act in the same sort of event films he used to crib from. This winter, he’s got two such spectacles in Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, where he reprises his role as eager Benji from the last film, and Steven Spielberg’s motion-capture movie The Adventures of Tintin, where he and friend Nick Frost play incompetent detectives Thomson and Thompson. He rang up Vulture to discuss both movies and talk about his still-ongoing awe of famous movie stars.
After having worked with people like Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg, Sigourney Weaver … is there still anyone that you’ve been starstruck to meet?
Everybody! Meeting Sigourney Weaver for me and Nick was like meeting the Queen. We were almost bowing to her when she came on set [for the movie Paul], and pretty soon, we noticed that she was sitting off on her own in one of the actor’s chairs and we realized that she’s still just the person who’s come onto a new set and doesn’t know anyone and feels a little intimidated, and that puts you at ease. It’s a joy to find that the people you admire are the people you hoped they would be, and I can’t think of a single person I’ve met in this job who I’ve been disappointed by. Tom Cruise, not least, is a fantastic person, and I feel quite privileged to be party to the real him, and not the him that people have opinions of and make stuff up about. In fact, all the myths about Tom Cruise are generally dispelled when you meet him: He’s not particularly short. He never talks about his beliefs, and there are no [Scientology] tents on-set. Him and his missus get on really sweet, and their kid is lovely and a really unprecocious little girl. It’s just nice to prick all that bullshit that you come up against, you know?
What about when people are starstruck to meet you?
Yes, that’s weird! That’s kind of strange. If that does happen, I always try to conduct myself as I hope someone would with me, you know what I mean? I don’t want to be a disappointment or have them go away and [say], “I met Simon Pegg, and he was a bit up himself.” I’m already flattered that anyone would be like that with me, but I never forget what it’s like to be in that position.
You’re in an interesting position this year, because you watched an animation veteran make his live-action directing debut, and you also watched a veteran director make his motion-capture debut. What are the similarities and differences to how these two men, Brad Bird and Steven Spielberg, tackled a totally new kind of filmmaking?
It was fascinating to see these two guys go out of their comfort zones, but really relish it. Steven Spielberg was finding it amazing to do the things you can do with a motion-capture camera that you can’t do in real life, and I think Brad was loving the challenge of having to work within the physical world, to push through every obstacle he came up against. If he was told he couldn’t do something, he’d say, “Yes I can,” and invariably, he’d be right. It was something of a pleasure to see them enjoy some novelty in filmmaking. Both of them are very accomplished directors, but they were having a lot of fun with it.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but is Ghost Protocol the first time in your film career that you’ve gotten the chance to revisit a character you’ve already played?
Yes, I think it is, actually! I mean, I’m going to play Scotty again in the Star Trek sequel, but Benji is not a character I ever envisioned playing again. I didn’t realize that (a) we’d be doing another Mission: Impossible, and (b) Benji would have such an expanded role. So it’s been a treat to return to a character and have him evolve slightly. In this film, we definitely have Benji 2.0. It’s hard for me to look at Mission: Impossible III and think that it’s the same character, because he’s really changed.
At what point did you learn how expanded your role would be in this one?
Well, J.J. and myself often used to talk about the possibility of Benji being an agent — it was something we used to joke about when we got together. As is J.J.’s way, I just got an e-mail [about the bigger role] one morning, and J.J. always cuts to the quick. He’s not one of those people who has his people speak to your people; if he wants you to do something, he’ll phone or e-mail you, and Star Trek and both Mission: Impossible movies were all brought to me by J.J. personally. I still remember when I received an e-mail one morning saying, “Do you want to be Scotty?” Clearly, he’d been casting for a while and hadn’t found the right person and thought, Aw, fuck it, I’ll just give it to Pegg. [Laughs.]
It’s sort of funny to hear how direct J.J. can be, since he’s all about mystery and teasing with the press.
It’s not mystery with J.J., there’s nothing enigmatic about what he’s doing. He’s just trying to keep a secret, and it’s very difficult to do that these days because everyone’s blogging and everyone wants to be the first person to get a scoop so that their website gets loads of traffic. There’s no reason why people should know casting decisions before it’s officially announced, and certainly they shouldn’t know the film’s entire plot before they see the film. The mystery of filmmaking has been removed by this desperation to get information.
Then do you ever regret bringing up the fact that you and Nick Frost and Edgar Wright are planning to reteam for a third movie, The World’s End? It’s almost obligatory for all those film sites to ask you about it, and so the project’s been tracked for years on such a minute scale.
We had that problem with Hot Fuzz, in that we had that idea after Shaun of the Dead and we said in an interview, “We’re going to do this police thing,” even though it was a long way off. What we should have done was said, “Yes, we plan to make another film,” and said nothing more. Edgar is the one who dropped the name of World’s End in an interview, much to my chagrin. [Laughs.] We promised ourselves that we wouldn’t do that, but sometimes you say things in interviews because it’s spur-of-the-moment or you’re tired, and so World’s End kind of became a thing way before we began developing it. Currently, a first draft has been written, and we’re waiting for the green-light so we can hopefully go shoot it next summer, but it’s one of those things where when you talk about it, suddenly it becomes this tangible entity and everyone wants to know where it is. Like it exists! Like it’s actually somewhere, just not being seen.
How long does something like Tintin actually take to shoot? There’s no waiting to set up lights and change angles, right, so I would imagine it’s a much shorter, denser experience, but is that true?
It’s about a 30-day shoot. There are no lighting setups, and once you get one good take in the camera, you don’t need to reverse shots — the whole scene is captured as a 3-D event. It’s interesting, because as an actor, it means you have to be on your game 100 percent of the time. You can’t just wait for your close-up or think, Oh, the camera’s on me now or Oh, the camera’s on my co-star, so I’m going to half-ass it. You have to absolutely give it 100 percent all the time, because they could decide to use a close-up of your face at any time during the take. It’s good for that reason — it keeps you on your toes.
Is it humbling to wear that skintight motion-capture suit?
It was funny, because Nick and me looked like a couple of dinosaur eggs, while Daniel Craig and Jamie Bell looked really chic and slim and good-looking. It’s slightly undignified. You do have to leave your pride at the door of the studio!