Simon Pegg’s place would make for a rubbish episode of ‘Through the Keyhole’. In his garden office, there’s movie props, posters and other keepsakes from his 25-year on-screen career everywhere. On one wall is a framed, white shirt (with red on it) from ‘Shaun of the Dead’. Near his expansive writing desk sits concept art from ‘Spaced’, the now-iconic breakthrough sitcom he co-created. On the bookshelf there’s a prosthetic alien head from ‘Star Trek Beyond’, the Hollywood blockbuster he co-wrote back in 2015.
Who would live in a house like this? UK cinema’s incontestable godhead of geek: Simon Pegg. Obviously.
His next souvenir-worthy movie outing is arguably the biggest of the lot: as tech-savvy spy Benji Dunn in the first instalment of a two-part action epic, ‘Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning’. ‘Benji is always the audience’s way into this world – the guy who says: “What the fuck is happening?” jokes Pegg. ‘In the last film he got hung and virtually died, so the stakes are really high.’
There’s no self-congratulation in this trove of geeky goodness – not even in ‘the Shrine’, a shelf’s worth of action figures from ‘Ice Age’, ‘Star Trek’ and the like – just a reminder that somewhere inside this bona fide British A-lister is a big kid who needs to keep pinching himself that his dreams came this true.
Pegg, mensch that he is, has invited ‘Time Out’ – en masse – to his house for a chat and a few pics. When it comes to photoshoots, he’s not normally one for gimmicky props – least of all, those that call back to his Cornetto trilogy. But we pitched up with an ice cream van and he gamely hopped behind the counter to start dishing out cones, as his cockapoo Cookie and schnauzer Willow tore around the garden.
Happily married with a 14-year-old and a serene home-counties life, he’s not the same fired-up fanboy he once was. Hard-won perspective keeps him from plunging headfirst into fiery superhero nerd debates: ‘There's so much peril in the world and you’re worried about the [‘Justice League’] Snyder Cut? Fuck off.’
There’s so much peril in the world and you’re worried about ‘The Snyder Cut’? Fuck off
After a stroll across his expansive lawn (there’s a tennis court and an actual meadow), he’s stretched out on the sofa in his office – an elite-level man-shed at the foot of his garden – clad in a ‘Kefalonia’ t-shirt, the Pegg family’s favourite holiday spot. He’s gearing up for a ‘Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One’ press tour that’ll take him to almost as many locations as the movie, then it’s back on set for Mission 8.
After that, it might be time for a first directorial effort of his own. (‘I'm adapting a book which I'm hoping to shoot maybe next year,’ is all he can say about it). He has other plans, too – the West End, for one. ‘Theatre is an itch, because I haven't done it in so long,’ Pegg says. ‘But if I don’t do it now, I could always end up playing King Lear when I'm really old.’
More British movies are on the cards, too. In fact, Pegg’s old mucker, Cornetto director Edgar Wright, was on this same sofa not long ago for a brainstorm. Peter, Wright’s dog, had other plans – ‘he’s quite disruptive,’ laughs Pegg, ‘so we couldn’t get a flipchart going’ – but early ideas started to take shape. ‘We want to do something with the joke quotient of “Hot Fuzz”, the passion of “Shaun of the Dead” and the dark, expectation-bashing of “The World’s End”,’ Pegg says. ‘With the fourth one, we have to risk being disappointing – and hopefully not be.’
It’s been a 30-year journey from Gloucestershire, where the 53-year-old grew up, to Hollywood stardom, a key role in another giant ‘Mission: Impossible’ movie, and this leafy Hertfordshire pile – and London is right at its heart.
Pegg first pitched up in 1993, fresh from uni in Bristol and with dreams of making it as a stand-up. He set about touting himself around London’s 80 or so comedy nights. ‘It was a really good time,’ he says. ‘The alternative comedy explosion that had happened in the ’80s has grown into something really, really fertile. I’d get the numbers for all the comedy clubs in “Time Out” and ring every one to try to book an open spot.’
Grabbing a mic and often sending up his own West Country roots, he started making a name for himself, rubbing shoulders with Sean Locke and Stewart Lee and putting in the hard yards. ‘It was quite lonely being a stand-up,’ he says, ‘and your weekend was just work’. Enter Nick Frost, a new pal he first bumped into in a North London brand of Chiquito’s. The pair bonded over their identical passions for pop culture and sci-fi. ‘He'd be my wingman,’ says Pegg, ‘and we'd go everywhere together in the honeymoon period of our relationship’.
The most far-fetched thing in ‘Spaced’ is that you could get a flat for £90 a week
It was Channel 4’s ‘Spaced’ that got the ball rolling on screen. Co-written with Jessica Hynes, the sitcom catapulted Pegg into the orbit of Edgar Wright, a fellow West Country exile, and paired him up on screen with Frost for the first time. Set at the fictional Tufnell Park address of 23 Meteor Street, it was a dazzlingly original, pop-culture-riffing comedy about a band of Gen X loafers, clubbing, gaming and generally pissing about through their early twenties in a way that, Pegg acknowledges, is not so easy for current generations.
‘I think the most far-fetched thing in “Spaced” is that you could get a flat for £90 a week in North London,’ he notes.
Getting red on him
It’s been 20 years – almost the day – since cameras rolled on Pegg’s breakthrough film, ‘Shaun of the Dead’. It was the first of the hit Cornetto trilogy that also took in ‘Hot Fuzz’ and ‘The World’s End’. ‘We just thought we were making a zombie movie for shits and giggles,’ Pegg remembers of its Crouch End shoot. Nearly two decades on from its release, its send-up of the 9-5 grind and our screen addiction feels like a predictive text from the past. After all, who would even notice a zombie apocalypse during a particularly epic doomscroll?
That trio of much-loved films still follow him everywhere. ‘I walked into a gas station in America once and the first person I saw said: “Hey! Shaun of the Dead!” The satisfaction of taking Crouch End to, say, Detroit is awesome.’
‘Shaun’ turned out to be the key that unlocked Hollywood. Superstar director JJ Abrams was a fan and called to ask if he’d be interested in a small role as Benji Dunn, ‘Mission: Impossible III’s IT boffin. Four films on, Benji is now a key player. ‘JJ’s call opened so many doors for me,’ he says. ‘Who knows what would have happened without that?’
Tom Cruise goes on about Shaun of the Dead to the point of ‘just stop!’
Nowadays, he’s on nickname terms with Hollywood’s big guns. Alongside ‘JJ’, there’s ‘McQ’ (current ‘Mission: Impossible’ director Christopher McQuarrie) and of course, ‘Tom’ (Cruise). The biggest movie star in the world – who recently landed a chopper in Pegg’s garden to show him some ‘Dead Reckoning’ footage – is a pal. ‘If he likes something you've done he's already incredibly vocal about it,’ says Pegg. ‘He really loves “Shaun of the Dead” and he goes on about it to the point of “just stop”. Getting his focus is overwhelming.’
McQuarrie describes Pegg as ‘Mission: Impossible’s ‘secret weapon’, high praise in a franchise that’s basically 90 percent secret weapons. ‘His wit is so sharp and so endearing that it’s very easy to overlook his dramatic chops,’ the filmmaker tells me over email. ‘He’s also the master of making exposition compelling – often as difficult a task as jumping off a mountain.’
Balancing the force
In spite of all the big-names Pegg has worked with and success he’s had, it’s not all been plain sailing. Around the time of ‘Mission: Impossible III’ Pegg was battling depression and alcoholism. The birth of his daughter in 2009 was a rare moment of light in a dark tunnel.
‘You learn how to do it without anyone noticing because it takes over,’ he recently told Desert Island Discs about that period. ‘It wants to sustain itself and it will do everything it can to not be stopped. But eventually it just gets to a point when it can’t be hidden, and that’s when, thankfully, I was able to pull out of the dive.’
He doesn’t drink now and says his mental health is a good place. ‘It’s just understanding that life’s a process,’ he says of his quest for wellbeing. ‘[Austrian poet] Rilke said “no feeling is final” and that’s the thing to key into. You need the rainbow in order to know what each colour is.’
The state of the world – social media vitriol, the binary nature of discourse, climate change – is what keeps Pegg up at night these days. ‘I’m worried that humanity is too stupid to avoid its own destruction – that does worry me. Individually, humans tend to be lovely; en masse, they’re fucking idiots.’ He laughs. ‘And I'd include myself in that.’
Home is a big part of Pegg’s contentment. Nights out have long since given way to nights in watching ‘Colin from Accounts’, ‘Succession’ and ‘The Last of Us’. ‘I love my fucking house – I love staying in,’ he says. ‘The primary reason for going out is to get shitfaced and meet people, and I'm sober and married, so the two primary reasons for going out have been removed.’
He doesn’t miss the grind of urban life, but still considers himself a Londoner at heart. ‘I'm happy to wear that badge,’ he says. ‘It's tough living in the city, hence the reason I moved out, but I was there for 20 years. There is a big part of my heart that is very much a Londoner.’ Can he still use the Tube these days? ’I’m sure I still could, I just don’t have to.’
There is a big part of my heart that is very much a Londoner
Before our time is up, Pegg shows me into his pride and joy: the plush 12-seat cinema he built across the driveway. It’s basically a mini Odeon Luxe. At Christmas, he invites all the neighbours round to the Pegg-amplex for an annual screening of ‘Elf’. Usually, though, it’s just him and his 14-year-old daughter holing up out for movie night. ‘We did a double bill the other night of “Taxi Driver” and “American History X”,’ he says. ‘She has seen everything. She was nine when she saw "It". I told the director and he was genuinely offended.’
Which, in a roundabout way, brings us back to the new ‘Mission: Impossible’ – another blockbuster laden with the onerous responsibility of ‘Saving Cinema’. Pegg still vividly remembers his first ever London cinema trip – ‘Return of the Jedi’ at the old Dominion Theatre on Tottenham Court Road (currently the home of ‘Grease the Musical’ on stage) – and the cause of cinema-going is very close to his heart. ‘It’s about sitting in a room with strangers and having a cathartic experience together,’ he says. ‘You share the laughs or the tears. I hope that's what'll keep it alive.’
Sure, he’s quoting Rilke rather than Yoda these days, but the same passions still burn brightly for Pegg. He’s happily settled into his role as an unofficial figurehead for nerddom though you won’t catch him on social media expounding on the latest pop-culture phenomenon these days. He’s happiest at home, being a dad, settling in for a movie or knocking about with the pooches on the lawn.
Before I go, I ask what he thinks of the recent of Gen Z reappraisal of ‘The Phantom Menace’ among millennials. After all, it’s a film the younger Pegg hated so much, he wrote an entire ‘Spaced’ monologue about it. ‘If kids grew up with those films, then absolutely they should be reappraised,’ he says, mildly. ‘But they’re just movies.’
Pegg referring to the ‘Star Wars’ prequels as ‘just movies’? There’s hope for us all.
‘Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One’ is in UK cinemas now. Read our review here.
Photographer: Jess Hand
Design Director: Bryan Mayes
Photo Editor: Laura Gallant
Stylist: Arabella Boyce
Grooming: Tara Hickman
Ice Cream Van: Noviellos Ices
Look 1: suit: Paul Smith; shirt: Patrick Grant Studio; sunglasses: Cutler and Gross
Look 2: jumper: Rowing Blazers; shirt: Sandro; trousers: Cos; espadrilles: Harrys London
Look 3: shirt: Nanushka
Look 4: polo shirt: Goldsmith Vintage; trousers: Paul Smith
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