Fanboy goes to Hollywood in Simon Pegg's memoir
LONDON -- A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away -- the west of England in the 1970s -- there lived a boy named Simon Pegg.
He loved zombies, "The Six Million Dollar Man" and "Star Wars," and dreamed of traveling far from his home to a remote and exotic world. Eventually, he got there: Hollywood.
The writer-actor behind geek-pleasing comedies "Shaun of the Dead," ''Hot Fuzz" and "Paul" -- as well as portraying a young Scotty in the rebooted "Star Trek" film franchise -- Pegg has come a long way from the provincial town of Gloucester, a journey he recounts in the memoir "Nerd Do Well," out this week.
The book offers a view of the movie industry from someone who is both an insider and an unabashed fan. It's also a journey through Pegg's formative influences, complete with digressions, flights of fantasy and strongly held opinions.
For Pegg, zombies are the greatest monsters ever, "Star Wars" a "childhood obsession" and a major creative influence -- and George Lucas' lackluster 1999 prequel "The Phantom Menace" a personal betrayal.
"I felt indignant," Pegg said, still nursing the sting more than a decade later. "I felt I'd put all that work in, spent all that money on merchandise, all the time and emotional investment -- and it was crap. It's a terrible film, and I think it retroactively damaged the first three."
"Phantom Menace" is the only thing Pegg is negative about in a book that hints at emotional turbulence (his parents' divorce, a painful early romance), but charts an upbeat course through childhood, drama school and university. It also shares his stint as a struggling standup and his fortuitous meeting -- at a suburban London Tex-Mex restaurant -- with friend, collaborator and co-star Nick Frost.
The real-life episodes are interspersed with pulp fiction-style chapters from a spoof thriller involving a James Bond-type hero named Simon Pegg and his robot butler, Canterbury.
Such flights of fancy have been a feature of Pegg's work since "Spaced," a sitcom about an aspiring comic-book artist and a wannabe writer (Pegg and Jessica Hynes), and their odd array of friends and neighbors. It was an apartment-sharing comedy similar to "Friends," but more realistic and more fantastical, full of surreal flashbacks and dream sequences, and laced with pop-culture references.
Broadcast between 1999 and 2001, it set the template for what Pegg has done ever since -- make audiences laugh while paying homage to the genres that inspired him: zombies ("Shaun of the Dead"); cop buddy flicks ("Hot Fuzz"); and aliens-among-us sci-fi ("Paul").
Pegg, 41, is one of a generation of geeky film obsessives -- including Quentin Tarantino, J.J. Abrams and Peter Jackson -- risen to creative power. He loves monsters, aliens and superheroes -- as do millions of moviegoers. But he's also enough of an intellectual to wonder whether the interest is entirely healthy.
"It goes back to Jean Baudrillard, his thoughts about infantilism," said Pegg. It's safe to say he's one of the few movie actors to bring up the French social theorist during an interview.
"If you look at the majority of popular cinema, it's all very childish stuff," he said. "It's adults going to see men in tights and flying saucers. It's all about keeping us in a state of childlike wonder, because it's easier. ... We look to childish things as a means of keeping ourselves feeling secure."
Still, Pegg finds it hard to be downbeat for long. He has never got over the thrill of being a fan, even as he has acquired fans of his own. In the book, he recounts signing autographs at the Comic-Con convention in San Diego, then lining up to get an autograph from Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia from "Star Wars," whose picture he had kissed every night before bed as a child.
He remembers the thrill he felt when zombie-movie auteur George Romero told him he liked "Shaun of the Dead," Pegg's 2004 homage to Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" and other classics of the genre.
Zombies are a bit of an obsession. Pegg says he'd hoped making "Shaun of the Dead" would halt his recurring nightmares about fleeing a zombie apocalypse. It didn't work. He still dreams of the walking dead.
"More than vampires, more than werewolves, more than any other monster, they're just us," Pegg said during an interview in a high-rise hotel cafe looming above the teeming streets of London.
"They've got no superpowers, they're weak. They're a paradox in a way, because they're not very threatening. You could be in this room now with a zombie and you could avoid it -- but eventually you would have to go to sleep, and then it would eat you."
"Shaun of the Dead" proved an unexpected cult hit and provided a calling-card to Hollywood for Pegg and director Edgar Wright, who went on to make "Hot Fuzz" and graphic-novel adaptation "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World."
Since then, it's fair to say Pegg's career has exceeded his expectations. He has been the lead in "Run Fatboy Run" and "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People," appeared alongside Tom Cruise in two "Mission: Impossible" films and voiced a swashbuckling mouse in "The Chronicles of Narnia: the Voyage of the Dawn Treader."
His sensibility has crossed the Atlantic well -- not always a given for British comic stars.
Cara Bedick, assistant editor at Pegg's U.S. publisher, Gotham Books, said there is "an everyman quality about him that crosses the pond and resonates with people. It makes him very easy to root for."
Next, he plays a bumbling detective in "The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn" -- directed by another childhood hero, Steven Spielberg.
"Somewhere in me," Pegg admits, "there is a little kid leaping up and down going, 'I can't believe this is happening!'"