Three years ago, Simon Pegg wrote his autobiography. He called it Nerd Do Well. An alternative title could have been Nerd Do Gobsmacking Amazingly Well, considering what the British comedian, actor and screenwriter has achieved over the past decade.
This year, alone, he's in two big movies - including reprising his role for a second time as engineer Scotty in Star Trek Into Darkness - and working on another three movies, due for release next year, and a part in a television show.
Since starring in the 2004 hit British zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead, he's notched up two showings in Mission Impossible with Tom Cruise, starred in several comedies (Run Fatboy Run, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, Burke and Hare and Paul) and voiced various animated roles (Ice Age: Continental Drift and The Adventures of Tintin). Throw in a few short films to boot and he sounds like Pegg the Powerhouse.
But the morning after appearing at last weekend's Wellington premiere of his latest comedy, The World's End, Pegg doesn't emanate over-achiever. Pegg admits he's shattered after flying directly from London with The World's End co-star Nick Frost and director Edgar Wright, arriving in the capital only a few hours before walking the red carpet.
"You know what? I fell asleep on my face last night," he says, between sips of coffee. "I thought if I watch the film, my adrenaline will go up and I'll be able to stay up a bit - and I left almost immediately afterwards and fell face-down on my bed and went straight to sleep. I woke up at 7am and my alarm was going off. My brain was saying ‘It can't be seven, it's dark'. But then I realised ‘Hang on, I'm in winter'."
At the premiere, Sir Peter Jackson heaped praise on Pegg, who he first met, along with Frost and Wright, not long after the release of Shaun of the Dead. The three were fans of Jackson's own zombie comedy, 1992's Braindead and while visiting New Zealand they asked if they could meet the film-maker. Jackson knew little about the three or their film, but welcomed them with open arms after having a private screening of Shaun of the Dead.
The friendship was cemented when the three begged Jackson to take them to the suburban Wellington house used in the Braindead movie. Jackson watched with delight as Pegg, Frost and Wright became excited fan-boys while they took photographs of themselves outside the house.
Since then the three have been semi-regular visitors due to Jackson. Pegg, Frost and Wright returned in 2007 for the New Zealand premiere of their second comedy, Hot Fuzz, which featured a Jackson cameo as a knife-welding Santa. After Pegg and Frost landed motion capture roles as bumbling detectives Thomson and Thompson in The Adventures of Tintin, Pegg and Frost returned to Wellington in 2011 to promote their US-shot comedy, Paul.
But Pegg's links with Wellington go back further. While a child in Gloucester he was telling jokes to widows for the Salvation Army. By the 90s he was cutting his teeth on the British stand-up circuit and had a critically acclaimed show at the 1995 Edinburgh Fringe. That show led to him being booked to perform in New Zealand a year later, which included a week-long stint at Wellington's Bats Theatre. Despite a run-in with customs officers in London for bringing in an undeclared set of animal skin-covered bongo drums in his luggage, Pegg was back again in 1997 for the International Laugh Festival.
"I always used to like doing stand-up comedy here. I always found the audiences to be really receptive and smart and articulate and culturally savvy," Pegg says.
He felt the same way about the Kiwi audience's response to The World's End. "It was unbelievable. I was almost tearing up just because it was so warm. To come this far away from home and to be welcomed with such joy. They got every joke and they applauded bits and they laughed so much that they missed bits, which is great, because when they watch it again there will be new stuff."
The film is the third comedy in what has become known as "the Cornetto trilogy" - the icecream briefly features in each. It stars Pegg and Frost and is written by Pegg and director Wright. Pegg plays Gary King, a 40-something who refuses to grow up. He still dresses like he did as a fledging Goth while at high school in the early 90s in an English village. Back then he persuaded four friends to go on a pub crawl that was to finish at a pub called The World's End, but they failed to complete it. King now persuades the four - played by Frost, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan and The Hobbit star Martin Freeman - to re-enact the crawl, but this time finish it. But their plans go awry due to a mixture of too much beer and the fact the village has been taken over by alien robots.
Pegg excels as the over-the-top King. Older audiences will even detect a touch of The Young Ones-era Rick Mayall. It's also in contrast to Pegg's by-the-book police officer role in Hot Fuzz.
"I didn't smile for the first 15 minutes in Hot Fuzz. Gary is all bravado and he's all surface. The depths of Gary are more darker and disturbing than he would ever let on. He has to maintain this constant level of showmanship, which is so fun to play him. He's a puzzle."
When Wright was a teenager he tried to do a pub crawl and failed, which was the seed for the idea for the film. At first, Wright's film was to be a teenage rite-of-passage comedy, inspired by American Graffiti. But after a similar theme was used in American comedy Superbad, he and Pegg developed the idea of adults returning to their hometown to face an alien invasion.
Wright has said The World's End is the duo's most personal film. Pegg's Nerd Do Well features a photograph of the actor in 1989 dressed in black and looking eerily like a young King. In another photo of him, aged 18, he's wearing ripped black jeans, a red striped top and has heavily crimped hair. Pegg wrote: "I was still a bit of a dick at this point."
Pegg says he did reach into his own teen years for King and other elements in the film. "It was kind of the idea of a person just trapped in the past. I know people who have struggled with addictions and stuff, or rely on nostalgia too much, because there's not much happening in the present. It's a tragedy, I think, and that's what I drew on for Gary."
Pegg, on the other hand, has a busy enough present. But there was a time when it was important for him to define his favourite shows and movies. "Pre Star Wars interests included the television series Planet of the Apes, Lost in Space, The Invaders, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlett and Joe 90. . . Jon Pertwee as Doctor Who and the animated series of Star Trek," he declared in Nerd Do Well. Pegg's now been in Doctor Who, Star Trek and voiced in Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
So is he still pinching himself over what he's achieved? "Always - and I hope I don't lose that. I think if you ignore that feeling in yourself you anaesthetise yourself to the wonders of your own job. I wouldn't like to ever lose the wonder of it all."
The World's End is screening now.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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