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Only Britain could make a leading man out of Simon Pegg. The rest of us are just grateful.

Short, crinkly-faced, ginger-haired and prone to adorable lumpiness, Pegg is more a Jack Black type (except he's a far better, far funnier actor) than a Will Smith type (ditto). Had he been raised in the Hollywood system, Pegg would be stuck playing the forlorn best friend in romantic comedies, or the nerdy guy in monster movies who gets eaten first.

But since the international success of Shaun of the Dead - billed as the world's first "rom-zom-com" (romantic zombie comedy) - which he carried and co-wrote, and last year's cop/buddy film parody Hot Fuzz, also written by him for him, Pegg has leapt from British television comedian to world movie star. He even got a part in Tom Cruise's ill-fated Mission: Impossible III (granted, as the resident nerd, but Hollywood wouldn't know a likeable lead these days if he showed up at the studio door, on time and sober).

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Pegg's latest vehicle, the romantic comedy Run, Fatboy, Run - again, co-written by Pegg - pits his titular "fat boy" Dennis (who, in reality, is just normal-looking, but that's the movies) against Hank Azaria's obnoxious, muscle-bound Whit. As the silliness proceeds, Dennis finds himself literally racing against Whit for the attentions of the impossibly gorgeous, almost edible Thandie Newton. I won't spoil the film, but let's just say that sometimes a lover's fitness, in all senses, is not immediately apparent.

I saw a trailer for Run, Fatboy, Run ages ago. Why the delayed release?

It came out in the U.K. before Christmas, but what happened was they wanted to give it a bit more of a life at the box office in North America because it was the Oscar season, and there was a lot of hustle and bustle in the theatres. So they figured let's wait till spring and give it more room to breathe. But it was weird, because we were all set up for a November release in North America, and then they said they wanted to hold it up. The decision was entirely out of faith in the film, fortunately, but it's strange that it's already been on Virgin Airlines.

Unlike Notting Hill or Closer, this film shows us a more run-down, realistic London.

When I originally started rewriting the script, it was set in New York. And I was aware that because there is a marathon scene in the script it would have to go through the part of London that everyone sees - the Millennium Wheel, the Gherkin - so I wanted to counterpoint that with showing the London where people live. In Run, Fatboy, Run we're in Hackney, a really vibrant, colourful part of north London that a lot of people never see.

I watched Run, Fatboy, Run with a film critic, who thought it was a near-even mix of Hollywood romantic comedy and the more salty British sort.

Absolutely, because of its pedigree, with David Schwimmer directing and the cultural mix of the cast - Irish, British, Indian, American, mixed race. I wanted to hit the tropes of romantic comedy, and those kinds of films do follow a certain pattern, but I wasn't looking to undermine that or make comment about it - but at the same time I wanted to give it enough of an edge to let people know that we were aware of that trope.

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You take some solid shots at fitness culture in the movie, a culture antithetical to the pleasures of British life.

Yeah, but the antagonism to that lifestyle in the movie is directed at the same sort of behaviour in Britain - there is very much a rise in boutique gyms and all that in our culture. And we do have our gym bores, too. I became one myself when I did Hot Fuzz. I lost so much weight and got so into working out, I became a complete gym bore. So it was great to make fun of that bloody militant attitude people have to keeping fit, the push to make everyone be perfect.

What's with all the Nike product placements in Run, Fatboy, Run? Did they invest in the film?

Basically, we had a slight problem, because the London Marathon is owned by another company, who have a licence to make documentaries about it. So when we couldn't use the London Marathon, we came up with this "Nike River Run," and the producers had been speaking to Nike about corporate sponsorship already. I'm not entirely comfortable with the idea - I find it slightly icky - but the fact is because of Nike's involvement we were able to mount a far more ambitious marathon scene.

You're playing Scotty in the next Star Trek film. Do you get asked to do 'Captain, the engines canna hold much longer!' impersonations?

Yes, of course! And I have to say no every time! Otherwise, the way information travels these days, I'll spoil the surprise. Seriously, I feel like I have a Paramount sniper trained on the back of my neck right now.

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*****

Particulars

BORN: Feb. 14, 1970, Gloucester, England.

BA RD-APPROVED: Pegg first studied theatre as a teenager in Shakespeare's hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon.

LAUGH TRACK: As a young man, Pegg moved from stand-up comic to TV actor, and the slacker sitcom Spaced (1999) made his name in Britain. (He's godfather to Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow's daughter, Apple.)

DEAD NUMBERS: Though the low-budget Shaun of the Dead (2004) got him to Hollywood, Pegg says he hasn't earned a cent of its considerable profits.

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