Interview with Simon Pegg, the writer of Star Trek Beyond

The current Scotty tells us why writing Star Trek Beyond was a wish he had to fulfill.
Simon Pegg
Photography: Andy Parsons

It's been like losing a friend, seeing Simon Pegg go Hollywood over the years. Or like seeing an ex with a richer, more attractive new partner. Pegg has given up drinking, he’s slim and fit, he’s BFFs with Tom Cruise, he hangs out with Chris Martin. He’s got nice teeth, he drinks sparkling water, he probably has a weekly chia-seed-and-kale enema. It used to be so different. He was the quintessential English everyman in the 2000s. He was the one holing up in a pub in Shaun of the Dead, the guy smoking weed on his couch instead of getting a job in Spaced. He was one of us. A mate. And now he’s changed.

Before meeting him, I expect the Hollywood to shine through, the arrogance to prevail. But it turns out he’s lovely. Infuriatingly lovely.

Pegg rose from playing independent British comedy bit parts to writing one of the defining sitcoms of the past 20 years. A few years later, he was writing and starring in Shaun of the Dead before making the leap to Hollywood stardom. And if that wasn’t enough, he then went on to get cast as Scotty in Star Trek and got to feature in the latest Star Wars – both the stuff of bucket lists for any self-respecting nerd. Now, he’s only gone and co-written a Star Trek movie. That’s some serious dream-come-true shit, right there. Yet Pegg is in reflective mood when we meet, unsure of his next steps, nervous about the future, worried about reactions to his nerdy baby. He may have gone all Hollywood, but he’s still got a proper English grumble to him.

You’re not just starring in Star Trek Beyond, you’ve bloody written it! What was going through your mind when you took on the project?
“It was a Catch-22 in a way. I found writing Star Trek borderline terrifying, but at the same time, I couldn’t say no. It was: I’m going to have to embrace the terror to do this. Because it’s something I really value and care about. And it’s one of those things where you’re essentially putting yourself in the firing line for those who expect a certain something – that’s everyone these days.”

What scared you about doing it?
“Just being given the keys to this kingdom. It’s a gigantic, historically loved, 50-year-old story. In all of its iterations, it’s probably the most significant science-fiction anthology of the modern age. To be given access to that in a creative capacity felt daunting. It was like: Holy shit.”

You don’t want to be the guy who fucked up Star Trek, I guess.
“God, no. Absolutely. But then it’s frustrating as well when we get put in that position, because this film isn’t down to me. It’s down to a lot of people and we don’t want to be the group that’s seen as fucking it up. People have specific expectations and a specific sense of entitlement as well. Which is a shame, because for a story about a universe that is so inclusive and peaceful, the factions are fairly aggressive.

Nerds. So you’ve done Star Trek and been in Star Wars. Are you worried about where you go from here?
“I had an odd sense of ennui after I finished Star Trek. I got home ad thought: What do I want to do now? I genuinely didn’t really know. I kind of felt that I’d ticked a lot of boxes. So I think I’m going to evolve, and maybe I’ll retire from nerdom. You know, I’m an old guy now and I don’t feel the draw towards childish things as much as I used to. I would like to do more, maybe branch away to drama.”

It must be hard to just be seen as some nerd guy when you want to do your Schindler’s List.
“I don’t know, when I was studying drama I just wanted to be at the RSC. I didn’t have any plans to be an ambassador for nerdom. Then Spaced happened. But I’ve had an amazing fucking time; there’s been a lot of wish-fulfillment.”

“Writing the movie was borderline terrifying”

Let’s talk about Spaced for a bit. Did you know you were perfectly capturing the post-university London experience?
“We hoped we were. The plan was to always be as personal as we could and we hoped that would find a community. The sitcoms around then that were aimed at twentysomethings didn’t say anything to us about our lives. Like Coupling or Game On: they seemed to be about people we’d never met and they hung out in places we didn’t understand. It just felt like everyone who worked on Spaced knew they were doing something that was kind of different, but it was a punt.”

Is there a worry, with all of your success, that you can’t write characters as appealing and universal as the ones you created in Spaced?
“There’s a worry about that, yeah, absolutely. I think with writing you have to tune into the truth. I couldn’t write a Spaced now, or about teenagers now, I don’t understand them. I’m not there. I think if you ever write from the standpoint of speculation, it isn’t going to feel real. So yeah, you kind of leave it behind in a way. It’s weird.”

So what does that leave you writing?
“I guess stuff about being a father, having a mortgage, all that sort of stuff. I don’t know. Life changes, and my life is very different from how it was when I wrote Spaced. I was kind of like Tim then. But there’s no regret there. It’s not like: Oh, I wish I was still high and poor.”

Do you ever get tired of being labeled as a nice guy and a nerd?
“’Nice guy’: there’s a faintly anemic feeling about that. It’s very beige. I just try and be a good person as much as I can. You hope to treat people as you’d want to be treated. I can’t quite get with people who don’t mind about pissing people off. People with little empathy I find confusing and worrying to be around.”

Do you ever have moments when you realize you’re being a bit of a Hollywood knob?
“Yeah, occasionally. But you have to keep a check on it. I was on a red carpet a while back and half an hour before that I had been applying cream to my dog’s anus; she had a bit of problem downstairs. Always remember your dog’s anus.”

You don’t drink any more, which might surprise people who know some of your characters. Do you miss pub culture?
“I do, but I missed it before I quit drinking, because I can’t really go into pubs now without some sort of little ripple. The more drunk people get, the more it lubricates people socially, so they’re more inclined to hug me or something.”

You don’t want that attention?
“No. Well, yes. You value it. When people come up and say hi, you always feel hugely grateful, because it’s tough to do that. And you can’t really blame people for coming up and saying hello. If you’re not in the mood for it, don’t put yourself in that situation. Just don’t walk down the street and complain because people are saying hello.”

Now that the film’s about to come out, are you looking forward to a bit of anonymity, to it just being over?
“I curse myself before there is that line in Spaced that says every odd-number Star Trek movie is shit, and tis is an odd number: Star Trek 13. And I just know that even the most truculent hater out there will watch the film and maybe really like it, but say ‘He was right – it is.’”