An odd sensation occurs while watching Simon Pegg save the world in the latest Mission: Impossible film.
The English actor and writer got his start by co-creating the cult television series Spaced, in which he starred as a twentysomething pop-culture obsessive named Tim Bisley. Each episode of the show found Tim and his roommate Daisy (fellow co-creator Jessica Hynes) making so many film and TV references – from Star Wars to Scarface – that the sitcom felt like a delightful traffic jam of nostalgia.
Since Spaced went off the air in 2001, though, Pegg has leapfrogged from playing a man who delights in pop culture to someone who defines it – not only with his work in the M:I franchise (Pegg’s been in four of the six films, including the new entry, Fallout), but also with his Star Trek movies, his genre riffs Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and a recent role in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, which is four decades' worth of the zeitgeist packed into 140 minutes.
So, as the actor goes about disabling nuclear bombs and saving Tom Cruise’s butt in Fallout, long-time fans of the 48-year-old may have to give their heads a shake: Is Simon Pegg, movie star, simply the ultimate fantasy of Simon Pegg, creator of Tim Bisley?
Ahead of this week’s release of Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Pegg spoke with The Globe and Mail in Toronto about spending a life immersed in blockbuster geek culture – for better and worse.
With your recent franchise work, do you feel like you’re a critical part of the culture now? Not just a guy who was once interested in it?
It kind of feels like manifest destiny in a way. I’m a child of the seventies, so I was patient zero for this sort of spectacle revolution, Star Wars and everything that followed. I grew up consuming that. But there is another side to me, which is as a fan of cinema and filmmakers who don’t make blockbusters. This, these films, don’t characterize me entirely. But I’ve also willingly become the poster boy for geek culture.
Is that uncomfortable for you?
I don’t get bothered by it. It enables me to be reduced to that occasionally and even dismissed as that by cynical people. But I’m fine with it, because it is so much of what I loved and what appealed to me as a kid. But there is a grownup part of me as well.
Do you often find yourself to be called upon as an arbiter of geek culture?
When you're in this position, when you say anything, it is all going to be projected through the prism of celebrity. It's because people are so desperate for headlines these days. And any fact is more suited to public digestion if it's strained through a celebrity. If I say anything about culture, it gets disseminated as a nugget of news. I try not to give my opinion on anything any more.
That must make exercises like this difficult.
Well, you know I was very outspoken when the Star Wars prequels happened back in the day, and that was partly through Spaced. I became known as this naysayer, which was odd for someone who was so devoted to Star Wars, to suddenly become this anti-Star Wars person. Which was unnecessary, really. It’s a film, it doesn’t matter. I read a piece recently about Ahmed Best, who suffered terribly because of the hatred levelled at [his character] Jar Jar Binks. That’s so sad, that’s awful. Of course there was a human being there, and he suffered because of that. It makes me feel awful. And all of this toxic fandom that’s happening now, with people so vehemently defending their positions on ephemera to the point of aggression and nastiness and bullying. It’s sad.
And delusion, in a sense, with the recent campaign to crowdfund a new version of The Last Jedi …
Absolutely, yes. But at the same time, the dissent that followed The Last Jedi was dealt with in kind of the way that the right deals with liberalism. You characterize it as mad or dismissive or childish. If people have opinions about things that aren’t good, maybe they have valid criticisms. The crowdfunded Star Wars is ridiculous, but I think at the same time the reaction to people who haven’t liked that episode of Star Wars is equally ridiculous.
Is that why you’re no longer on Twitter?
No, oh God, no. Twitter just makes you very available, and it feels like you gave the world your private phone number. I didn’t suffer from trolls, but it was a clamour, and I didn’t feel comfortable responding to it, or ignoring it. And again, this whole notion of everything needing to be projected through a celebrity viewpoint – it made me realize how self-focused social media is. It’s about projecting an idealized view of yourself. I’m sure you see this, you have friends, people who you love, and you see their social-media presence and you hate it. Because it’s not them, it’s a needy version of them.
Last month, you spoke with a few U.K. outlets about your battles with depression and alcohol abuse earlier in your career. For someone who was about to embark on a global press tour for Fallout, were you concerned about having to regurgitate and reconfront all of that material like, well, now?
What happened was I was making a film in L.A., Lost Transmissions, and it was about a schizophrenic character who had gone off his meds. So I was thinking about mental-health issues every day. I was doing an interview with Chris Hewitt of Empire, an old friend of mine, and it just sort of came up. I felt like maybe I can talk about this now. I was being evasive about why I quit drinking and stuff, and then The Guardian interviewed me a few weeks later. And everything I wanted to say about it, I said, so I’d refer you to comments previously stated.
Have you been satisfied with the response to those interviews?
I was amazed, actually, with people getting in touch with me and saying well done. I didn’t feel I was doing anything brave or courageous. It’s something to talk about and something that should be talked about. A problem with these issues is that they don’t get talked about, and there was a feeling that if it inspired anybody to reach out and get a bit of help in that regard, it’s worth doing. I’m a pretty private person. I’ve been reticent to discuss the issue, not because I was ashamed, but because I thought it was nobody’s business.
When playing a character like the one in Lost Transmissions, someone dealing with mental-health issues, how much of yourself do you actively bring to the role?
I don’t know if there’s a quantitative answer to that, because when you play a part, it’s your misery or happiness feeding into the role. But I’m not a method actor, and I don’t take roles home with me. I see acting as the thing you do that everybody does when you’re kids. It’s no deeper than that. It doesn’t require hand-wringing or agony.
This interview was condensed and edited.
Mission: Impossible - Fallout opens July 27.