Simon Pegg is having a very prolific year. After starring in the sci-fi comedy Paul alongside good friend and regular cohort Nick Frost, the British comedian and geek god now appears in two major blockbuster movies Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and The Adventures of Tintin, working with industry giants Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg while doing so.
“I want to work with people who respect film, and this sounds awfully pretentious, but as an art form, you know?” says Pegg. “It’s not just fireworks and Mission: Impossible is a great example of that. It is a big wham, bam, fun, actioneer but at the same time there is a real human story at the heart of it about a family who can’t get on with each other.”
Directed by animation wizard Brad Bird in his live action debut, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol stars Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt who alongside a new group of agents (Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton and of course Simon Pegg) must stop a nuclear extremist (Mikael Nyqvist) from dropping a nuke on American soil.
In ...Ghost Protocol Pegg reprises his character Benji, the tech wiz who first made an appearance in Mission: Impossible III the JJ Abrams directed entry into the popular action franchise. But what was at first a minor character has now been given more screen time, with Benji stepping away from his desk and into the action.
It was Abrams (producer on …Ghost Protocol) who came up with the idea to give Benji a much deserved promotion, much to Pegg’s surprise.
“JJ and me joked about it on set of the third movie about let’s do another Mission: Impossible and let Benji be a field agent. It was always a bit of a pipe dream and a sort of silly distraction, and then one morning I got an email saying ‘What if Benji passed the field exam?’” says Pegg. “So the Mission was on and all of a sudden here’s a script and we’re in Prague and it was lovely…I kind of saw Benji working with Ethan was kind of like me working with Tom Cruise. It was like ‘Wow!’ (laughs) So that was how I approached it.”
Cruise is known to be an intense presence on and off the set, and for Pegg working alongside the biggest movie star in the world was a memorable and rewarding experience.
“It’s great because he sets the bar. You have to match it otherwise you are not going to appear on the screen” says Pegg. “He is so frighteningly charismatic and so dedicated to what he does, you just get left behind if you don’t hit maximum Cruise level. So he just brings the best out of everybody and that’s not just us as actors, it’s the crew as well. He’s great to work with because he just inspires everybody and he’s also extremely approachable and loads of fun. There is no awareness around him. There is no ‘Here comes Tom!’ He’s a really good guy.”
"I kind of saw Benji working with Ethan was kind of like me working with Tom Cruise. It was like ‘Wow!’" - Simon Pegg
Equally memorable was Pegg’s time on the set of The Adventures of Tintin, the motion-capture animation adventure based on the popular comic series by Herge and brought to the big screen by the impressive duo of Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson.
The film follows the adventures of investigative journalist Tinin (Jamie Bell) and drunken Scotsman Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), as they search for hidden treasure while trying to stay one step ahead of the bad guys. Pegg and Nick Frost star as bumbling police detectives Thomson and Thompson.
For Pegg working with Spielberg proved to be the ultimate dream come true, since it was the work of the Jaws director which inspired Pegg to want to be a part of the film industry.
“I grew up with Steven Spielberg. I grew up watching his films and I remember seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark and going home and explaining to my mom the fact that Nazi’s melted and all this kind of stuff” says Pegg. “30 years later he’s calling me at my house where my mum is and she can hear his voice coming off the speaker. So the circularity of that is not lost on me at all. To finally work with the man who inspired me and my love of film to a huge degree was great, and to have him be in (Paul)…it just doesn’t get better than that.”
Interestingly Pegg beared witness to two great filmmakers venturing into exciting new territories, with …Ghost Protocol and The Adventures of Tintin fresh experiences for seasoned directors Bird and Spielberg, respectively.
“I found myself in a fascinating situation with both of those films because with Mission: Impossible I was working with a renowned animation director with his first foray into live action, and with …Tintin it was a very renowned live action director with his first foray into animation” says Pegg. “So I was witnessing two very accomplished directors out of their comfort zone and almost learning a new way of working, and that was really fascinating because both of them took to it immediately and had a sort of immersive, energized enthusiasm for what they were doing because they were working with a kind of new technology.”
In the case of …Tintin, that new technology was the use of motion-capture (or performance capture) animation, where an actor’s performance is recorded and later rendered digitally in either 2D or 3D animated form.
“(Motion-capture) is a process you have to learn. You have to project yourself somewhere between theatrical and film acting. You have to be slightly bigger than if you’re doing live action but not as big as theatrical” says Pegg. “You draw on a very childish sense of play. When you’re a kid and you’re playing space-man or pirates or whatever, you don’t have props or costumes or make up. You just imagine it all. So with performance capture, because you’re wearing the suits you really just have to rely on your own imagination to summon the performances.”
This new technology has been met with controversy and debate, as motion-capture veteran Andy Serkis currently campaigns for an Oscar nomination for his highly praised mo-cap performance in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. His crusade has been equally championed and opposed, and Pegg has found his opinion on the matter land in the middle.
“We get a lot of credit for what you see on the screen but really it’s the animators. What we provide them with is a template. We give them the voice and the performance and they build on top of that what you see on the screen” says Pegg. “My job on …Tintin was completed by the beginning of 2009 and the ensuing 3 years the animators made what you see on the screen, which is this incredibly lavish, beautiful thing.”
“There is no doubt in my mind that Andy Serkis is an Oscar worthy actor. He is an amazing actor and he’s an amazing performance capture actor as well. But I think there is also work that goes along with his performance that somehow would seem backgrounded if he was solely commended for it. I would love Andy Serkis to get an Oscar, but I think people need to understand the process more and I say that as someone who has done it but don’t entirely understand it.”
“We get a lot of credit for what you see on the screen but really it’s the animators. What we provide them with is a template. We give them the voice and the performance and they build on top of that what you see on the screen.”- Simon Pegg
…Tintin saw Pegg once again work alongside good friend Nick Frost, and while it may seem like they’re joined at the hip the duo have indeed created equally successful careers outside of their successful partnership.
“We don’t come as a pair. We do a lot of work together because we’re best mates and we like working together, and because we’re family men now and have lives in different parts of London so making films is the only way we can seriously hang out for any length of time” says Pegg. “But we want to have separate careers. We don’t always want to be seen as a double act and I think it would suddenly change things if Nick was in, say Star Trek or Mission: Impossible because people will be like ‘It’s Nick Frost!’ (laughs)”
“But any chance to work with Nick I grab and we’re gonna be working together again next year with Edgar (Wright) on the third instalment of those films, so I’ll just have to wait until then.”
“Those films” Pegg refers to are of course the critically acclaimed comedy spoofs Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, which star the duo of Pegg/Frost and are directed by Edgar Wright. The dynamic trio next plan to work on The World’s End, the final entry in what is called the “Blood and Ice Cream trilogy”.
“We’ve written the first draft of it, and now we’re trying to write the second draft but Edgar is in L.A. and I’m in Crouch End in the UK” says Pegg. “But I’m very excited. I cannot wait to start shooting this movie which we really were hoping we will do sometime next year after I complete Star Trek 2. It’s very much the combination of the first two films. It will make those series of films a trilogy.”
“We wrote it quite fast compared to Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, because it just came so easy I think because we got this language between each other now. But it was really fun to write with Edgar again we’re dead excited about this film. It’s going to be awesome.”