He's now best mates with the world's biggest star and one of Britain's busiest actors. But 12 years ago, Simon Pegg tells Charlotte Edwardes, he almost killed himself with drink.
In one of Simon Pegg's recurring dreams he finds himself back at school in Gloucester. He is as he is today – 52 years old, buff, bearded, tattooed, maybe even in these same track pants from Fred Segal he's got on here in the make-up chair for our photo shoot.
His school friends are as they were in the early Eighties. The era is flip-top desks, LCD watches, that trick of bursting ink cartridges in your mouth. Pegg is explaining how epic his life is now, how being a geek became his salvation. Remember how mad-obsessed he was with zombies and aliens and Starsky & Hutch? Well, he made films about zombies (Shaun of the Dead, 2004) and aliens (Paul, 2011) and cops (Hot Fuzz, 2007), and they made him famous.
And he has an ongoing starring role in Mission: Impossible with Tom Cruise – TOM CRUISE – who texts him things such as, "Hey man, looking forward to seeing you," with the fist bump emoji. And he's been in Star Wars (The Force Awakens, 2015), in a big rubber alien costume. And he met Carrie Fisher, whose image torn from the profile page of a magazine he treasured as a child (worn away in the area of her mouth where he always kissed her goodnight, although he doesn't do that any more) and he actually spoke to her. More than once.
"It's a really odd dream about the desire to prove myself, like wanting to go back and show them." He chuckles at this boyish world view. So, that's the nice dream, the one that's "pretty easy to analyse".
But there's another one. This one is dark and his voice drops. "I'm in a room in my house, which I didn't know existed, like there's a door or hole in the wall to a whole other part of the house that is fully furnished, but there's an evil presence in there. It is tangible. You can feel it in the air. It's like static. And it's really scary. That's my nightmare."
There is a pause, which he does not fill with self-effacing humour as he usually does after revealing something personal. He just leaves it there, hanging, while the make-up artist moves quietly around him, separating strands of his hair with a comb and spraying little puffs of thickening powder. So I say the only thing I can think to say, which is, "Right, OK. And are you still going to therapy?" I assume we are thinking the same: that this nightmare relates to his recovery from alcoholism.
Fans of Pegg will recognise this slicing between the absurdly funny and something more unsettling. It's what he does over and over in his films. Even his autobiography, Nerd Do Well (2009), is split. One narrative is a mad fantasy where he is a billionaire superhero with biceps who has won the heart of the French exchange student he obsessed over, aged 13. "It's completely unfiltered, what my raw machismo would want." The other is straight real life in which he witnesses said French exchange student snogging his best friend and is crushed.
He turns the ordinary into the extraordinary, geeks into superheroes. Childhood has been a goldmine. His work is a cathedral to his obsessions, influences, fantasies, worst and best moments, with recurring themes such as the deep bond of male best-friendship and the terrible relationship he had with his stepdad.
"Write from the truth is always my mantra," he says. "Even a grain of truth and something will feel more authentic." Indeed. If you want to understand Pegg as an agonised adolescent, it's all there in the Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and World's End), his collaborations with his co-star and best friend, Nick Frost, and the writer/director Edgar Wright.
On the surface, his career trajectory has been awesome. On Wikipedia his filmography credits have their own page, among them: Spaced (1999-2001), Brass Eye (2001), How to Lose Friends & Alienate People (2008), Star Trek (2009 – he played Scotty), Lost Transmissions (2019), Inheritance (2020), plus a load of voiceovers, including Ice Age and The Adventures of Tintin (he and Frost play the Thompson twins). A Channel 4 six-part drama, The Undeclared War, starts soon and he's midway through an indie film with Minnie Driver called Nandor Fodor and the Talking Mongoose, as well as the eighth Mission: Impossible.
Pegg really likes Tom Cruise, really likes him as a person. Their shtick is that Pegg is an ordinary guy and Cruise a big Hollywood idol, which, like all good jokes, is rooted in truth. Pegg can get away with being anonymous if he pulls his cap down, whereas Cruise is so off-the-charts famous it's hard to fathom. One time, they went into the Vienna subway on a tech recce and within a couple of minutes they were surrounded. Hundreds of people with their phones up – Tom! Tom! Tom! "But he loves it. I mean, I would f***ing hate that."
Another time, in Casablanca, Pegg was in Cruise's car. "We were surrounded by a f***ing throng of these young Moroccan guys going, 'Tom Cruise, Tom Cruise, Tom Cruise,' and banging on the car. And I'm looking at Tom and he was f***ing laughing his head off. I'd be so stressed out, but he's very OK with it. He understands that's the price for the level of movie star he is. He's perhaps the only movie star left. Everyone else who comes near has probably done TV. I can guarantee you will never see Tom Cruise on a TV show. Because he's about movies. Movies are his passion."
Are they friends? "Yeah," he says. "We text. Whenever he texts me, I'll go, 'Whooo-ooh!' to my wife." He mimes waving the phone at his wife, Maureen, but she just eyerolls and calls him "your boyfriend". Pegg has known Cruise for 16 years now and they've had deep conversations and heart-to-hearts. "The best thing he taught me is never to accept responsibility for a mistake," he says. "But in a funny way. Like if something goes wrong and it's his fault, he'll flatly deny it. And then if someone corrects him, instead of saying sorry, he'll just say, 'Yeah,' and wink at me. I admitted f***ing up once and he said – with a wry smile, I hasten to add – 'Simon, don't do that.' He maintains his authority by never being to blame for anything."
I am meeting Pegg to discuss The Undeclared War, in which he stars (alongside Mark Rylance, Adrian Lester and Alex Jennings) as Danny, head of operations at GCHQ. It's another role with nerds, this time cybernerds. "Same beliefs, different tribe," as he puts it. The premise is that it's April 2024 and Boris Johnson has been out of government for 15 months – which is still feasible, I say, and Pegg nods vigorously and crosses his fingers – having been ousted by an ambitious ministerial colleague, who is Eton-educated and black. As the country faces a general election, Russian hackers have launched a cyber attack on our infrastructure systems. The future of British democracy is thus in the hands of computer geeks in plaid shirts who have trouble making eye contact and whose pens are ordered using the colour spectrum (no pink, because pink is just "absent green", explains one).
Among them is intern Saara Parvan, played by Hannah Khalique-Brown, who looks like a young Amal Clooney and is brilliant as far as I can tell from episode one. There's a moody Hollywoodised GCHQ and glass and concrete bunker version of the Cobra meeting room, which, guaranteed, is several thousand times sexier than the actual Cobra meeting room. Pegg as Danny is sombre. His hair is pasted against the side of his head as if he's either just come out of the shower or not had time to go in for a while, and he spends a lot of time stress-squinting into late-night video calls with the home secretary.
No one has suggested this part is comic, but Pegg seems to want to pre-empt any confusion. "One thing," he says uncrossing his legs. "It's frustrating when you've become known for comedy and do a serious dramatic role like Undeclared War and people are like, 'Oh no, don't do that.' I'm not a comedian. I was a comedian 25 years ago. I'm an actor who happens to have done comedy. It's like coming out to your conservative parents as bisexual and they're like, 'Oh no, just do the thing that we like you doing. Don't do the other thing.' I hope with this people will accept me as not being funny."
The trouble is that Pegg is funny – not in that role, perhaps, but here now. For instance, there is a halt to the energetic photoshoot because someone notices his flies are wide open for a whole series of frames. This happens again, not with the flies this time, but because the camera, which usually autofocuses on the eyes for that striking visual impact, keeps focusing on his nipple. And the anecdotes he tells leave me helpless. Like the time he met Carrie Fisher at Comic Con in 2004 and he told all about kissing her photo and she looked at him dead on and said, "Do you feel better for telling me that?" Or the time when they were filming Star Wars and went for a walk around the set arm in arm and he stopped, faced her, looked deep into her eyes and said, "You know I love you, right?" And she grabbed his hand, looked at his wedding ring and said, "F*** you."
Even his proposal to his wife sounds like a sketch. He bought the ring, organised a trip to watch the sunrise on the island of Cephalonia and then pretended to be grumpy, as if he didn't want to be there. "We watched the sun come up and I was a real pain, like, 'Can we go now?' So she traipsed off back up the beach and I got the ring out and got down on one knee and called her. And she turned around and saw me and said, 'You c***!'" He cackles at the memory. "I told that story at the wedding." So yes, he enjoys being funny. "Whether that's to do with wanting to be constantly validated by other people's laughter, I don't know." He remembers constructing jokes in childhood to make his mum laugh.
Simon: Nathaniel's dad is a dentist.
Simon's mum: Where does he practise?
Simon: He doesn't. He's a real one.
As he grew older, he saw comic potential everywhere. Working in the holidays as a lifeguard, he noticed the poolside warning sign that reminded the public the baths were not a toilet. "Welcome to our 'OOL'. Notice there's no 'P' in it? Let's keep it that way." His immediate thought was that they had missed a trick by not going one step further: "Welcome to our 'L'."
For most of this morning, his baseline mood is amused. Amused, open and "way more laid-back than I used to be". He didn't always enjoy talking to journalists. For years he saw their questions as not just nosey, but micro-aggressive. If they asked about his home life, he'd think, "What's that got to do with you?" He'd be super-defensive if they said his looks weren't typically Hollywood, like he was some unattractive loser, or if they talked about him being boy-next-door ordinary, even though that is the beauty of his art. The truth was that he was engulfed in self-loathing and hiding a mental health crisis.
"I knew I was depressed. I just didn't know how to escape it." So he drank. And the alcohol numbed the intolerable feelings. "I became addicted to the sensation of being numb, rather than the chemical addiction."
I ask if he drank at breakfast. "Sometimes. In the worst times," but he doesn't want to pursue that thought. "I look back now and it makes me feel sick." It wasn't that no one noticed. Nick Frost was concerned. Maureen asked cautiously that he, you know, perhaps stop drinking. "But then it's not as easy as stopping," he says. "And it was difficult to admit that. So I just sort of threw myself off a cliff. And I hit the ground hard at high speed."
The denouement was four lost days after Comic Con in San Diego, 2010. I ask if he can remember anything at all. He remembers sitting on the pavement eating pizza, having lost his phone, and thinking, "Shit. I must look really pathetic." And he remembers flying back to Los Angeles on a private jet. Sigourney Weaver was on board. He's clear about that because Weaver was pretending to be cabin crew, walking the length of the plane serving peanuts. Next, he was in a hotel in Santa Monica. "I think I was just in my room. But after I got back to LA, I don't really recall much at all."
If he hadn't stopped at that point, he'd be dead today. "One hundred per cent, because, and I don't think it's too dramatic to say, that is the ultimate end of that line of flight." He surrendered to treatment at the Priory to get clean. "Although I started smoking a little bit in there. I remember asking one of the therapists, 'This is an addiction clinic. Why do you let people smoke?' And he said, 'Because no f***er would come in here if we didn't.'"
Today he is health obsessed. He exercises six days a week (Monday, strength; Tuesday, core; Wednesday, active recovery; Thursday, strength; Friday, strength; Sunday, boxing). He joked during lockdown that he had perfected the kimchi pancake and an indulgence is fresh peeled mango. He's sure he hasn't replaced one obsession with another because he knows his limits. "I'm not in the gym for three hours."
That said, his weakness now is tattoos. He takes me on a tour of them, pointing to each one and explaining its provenance. There's one from Raising Arizona, the Coen Brothers film, and a few relating to Japanese manga and anime. There's Jason and the Argonauts. "They're like Twiglets," he says, meaning you can't stop having them.
Oddly, he thinks the catalyst for his extreme alcohol bender was the writing of his autobiography. He opened a ziplock file in his mind about childhood and found much that was painful and unresolved there, not least about his parents' divorce and the role of step-parents. "My relationship with both [stepfather and stepmother] was really difficult. They were young and immature. They had their own issues. And I was the walking, talking remnant of another relationship. For a child it is extremely disturbing to be rejected by an adult. Adults are the authority on everything. When there's suddenly an adult in a position of parental power who doesn't like you, it's like, what the f***?"
He remembers his stepfather as petty and needling, how he'd say (he puts on a voice), "What's this rubbish?" when Pegg was watching TV and similar "bullshit echoing phrases". One time, Pegg was sweeping the front step without sufficient zeal and his stepfather "cornered me in the garage with a two-by-four [block of wood]". He gave Shaun's character a similar set-up, but "weirdly the stuff in Shaun of the Dead was a combination of a fantasised version and the real version. I never got that confession and apology from my stepdad that Philip gives Shaun because mine was just being a dick."
He adds quickly that his stepfather is still alive and they get on fine now, and that "the rest of my childhood I look back on as being sunny and full of Star Wars and things. Ha, ha, ha." All over his Instagram (he loves Instagram) are photos of him as a child on beaches in Devon, blond, grinning with a pudding bowl haircut, Hulk T-shirt and those red plimsolls with the elasticated tongue, next to photos of his daughter, Tilly, 12, the super-smart apple of his eye, and two schnauzers, Willow and Myrtle.
Family life is mercifully humdrum. They live in the Hertfordshire countryside. He does the school run, picks up dog poo, watches films with Tilly at the weekend and they trade music tastes. He and Chris Martin (of Coldplay) are godparents to each other's children (which means he is the godfather to Apple, Gwyneth Paltrow's daughter), but he suspects Martin is more successful at it. He came back from a dog walk the other day to find his daughter electrified because Martin had facetimed her from the studio where he was working with her favourite band, BTS.
We sit down so he can eat his lunch, a tidy salad of prawns, lettuce and potatoes, and he riffs on theories. Humans cannot not have mental health issues, he says, because we can't cope with the speed of today's world.
"Freud said he started doing psychotherapy because life was so fast, and that was in the 18-whatevers. Imagine what he'd think now. The human brain is still the caveman brain. It still thinks that lightbulbs are the sun, that we shouldn't travel faster than ten miles an hour. Our frontal lobes are in constant battle with our amygdala, and that schism just causes no end of problems. Anything like obesity or sexual addiction, these are all biological imperatives that have been hacked by the modern age. Suddenly, we don't have to hunt any more. There's Tesco. But we keep eating because part of our brain thinks we might not eat tomorrow. So there's a strange war going on between our modern brain, which has developed at a rate that's faster than evolution. We're an aberration," he concludes. "We don't make sense. We're the only animal on the planet that doesn't work with the ecological equilibrium. I think we might be a mistake."
Maureen thinks he reads the internet too much, but at least he doesn't worry about what people say about him any more. This is something he tells Chris Martin. "Stop reading comments about yourself on the internet! Chris is very self-deprecating. It's incredibly charming but, you know, be more Tom Cruise and ignore it."
I ask him what keeps him awake at night. He says the government, Ukraine, the environment. And lately he has been worrying about death. He still has too much to do, he says. He'd like to make another film with Edgar Wright. He has an ambition to direct and there's the eight-part TV series based on The Technicolour Time Machine, a 1967 sci-fi novel by Harry Harrison, which he's writing with Crispian Mills.
"I'm 52 and I want to keep working until I drop, but for all the things I want to do, I don't have enough time. How many more times am I going to go snowboarding?" He loves snowboarding. There's a photograph mid joyous leap with a selfie stick on Instagram, white mountains, gas-blue sky. "What's the point if I can't bend down to do up my boots? I'm always thinking a couple of years ahead because that's how far my work stacks up, but I don't have enough time." He takes another forkful of salad. "Is this a midlife crisis – thinking, 'Shit, I'm halfway there?' "
Written by: Charlotte Edwardes
© The Times of London