Loving the alien
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost beam down for a chat about Paul.
Tue Mar 15 2011
After charming indie audiences with their banter-heavy zom-com Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Bad Boys cop satire Hot Fuzz (2007), British acting duo Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have taken their latest project, Paul (one they also cowrote), to Hollywood. It's a tale about two sci-fi nerds who pick up a hitchhiking alien. We met them in midtown.
Paul is a big, comic smooch to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. Do you guys recall seeing those movies for the first time?
Nick Frost: Definitely. My auntie lived in a place in Wales near an American airbase. She went out with a pilot—the first American I ever met. One afternoon he came over with a giant VHS tape. For a ten-year-old, watching Close Encounters was mind-blowing.
Simon Pegg: I was big into UFOs and paranormal activity. And E.T. was the first film, post--Star Wars, that really captured my imagination. I remember pulling the hood of my parka up, because tears were streaming down my face. Growing up in the U.K., that was embarrassing.
Would you proudly call yourselves geeks?
Frost: A geek is another word for being enthusiastic.
Pegg: Or not being ashamed that you know a lot about something that might not necessarily be important. Like the way I know all about Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Frost: Oh, you fucking geek.
Pegg: I'm probably more nerdy about science fiction, only because Nick is also nerdy about football and cooking. [Frost rolls his eyes.]
Your movie has a wisecracking alien at its center (voiced by Seth Rogen), but there's also a fun idea in it about your British characters being from another planet. Is America a strange place for you?
Pegg and Frost: [In unison] Yes.
Frost: It's a foreign country to us. I mean, we share a language of sorts, but absolutely.
Pegg: We forget that we're regarded as foreigners here. And the most alien characters in the film are Graeme and Clive. Paul himself is very nearly a naturalized American.
Frost: That's why we had to start the movie at Comic-Con. It's a place where a normal guy who lives in Nebraska and works in a bank can dress up like a manga character, and no one cares.
Does that feeling of belonging extend to Hollywood now? This is your first screenwriting job there.
Frost: We weren't so concerned about the transition. The thing we've always stuck to is this: We're making a film for our mates.
Pegg: It's a terrible mistake to try to guess what people will find funny through marketing.
Frost: "Oh, the 25-year-olds, they love Paul Rudd. So let's stick him in your movie." Meanwhile, I love Paul Rudd. I'm just having a go at the system.
Pegg: I love Paul Rudd too. Why is he not in our movie?
Still, working for a studio invites a different perception.
Frost: I've already read a little elsewhere that we must be sellouts. But for me it's easy: Do you want to make a big film, or do you not want to make a big film?
Pegg: I'm selling out, actually.
Frost: Are you?
Pegg: Yes, I am. Honestly, though, the whole "selling out" thing is said by people who feel like you don't belong to them anymore.
Frost: Paul is slightly broader. But who's to say that's not as valued as something that 400 people in Stockholm see?
It's lucky you've found a director who straddles the line well, Superbad's Greg Mottola.
Pegg: Which was perfect, because in a way, our pitch for Paul was already "The Daytrippers but with Gollum in it."
Frost: You know, that old chestnut.
Pegg: Seriously, we wanted to make an indie movie like Greg's Daytrippers, but with this extraordinarily advanced special effect in the center of it.
Plus a cameo by the god of the film himself.
Pegg: We'd been working with Steven Spielberg on [the forthcoming] The Adventures of Tintin. We were his "boys."
Frost: I call him Dad.
Pegg: So we were telling him about a joke we had, where Steven himself would occasionally call our alien for brainstorming sessions. And Steven said, "Oh, that's great! Maybe I could be in the movie." We were stunned.
Frost: Greg actually forgot to say "action" for Spielberg's first big scene. We were all in awe. Silence. And Steven said, "Um, should I do it myself?"
You guys always have a wonderful rapport in movies like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz—this one, too. But do you ever grow tired of each other?
Frost: No. That's not to say it's not difficult sometimes. Or that we don't fight. The beautiful thing about having a relationship that's 18 years old is that you can have a massive fight in the morning, and somewhere inside you know things are still as they were yesterday.
Pegg: As friends, people can drift apart after they meet significant others and get married. And that's happened to us. We're not roommates anymore. But we still have this amazing arena to play in, which is our work.
Frost: During the week, it's not practical for us to see each other. So we've found a place where we can hang out for months on end—and get paid for it!
Aw. You're like the Spielberg and Lucas of British comedians.
Pegg: [He raises his hand.] Spielberg! I get to be Spielberg!
Frost: I don't mind being Lucas. We both have the neck thing.