Though he’s widely recognizable these days as the current Star Trek franchise‘s “Scotty” and the Mission: Impossible franchise’s IMF technician Benji, Simon Pegg first caught the attention of movie buffs in 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, a zom-com co-starring Nick Frost and directed by Edgar Wright. It was the first in a trilogy of hilarious, wildly clever comedies steeped in pop culture geekery dubbed the Three Flavours Cornetto, and it rightly earned the trio a wider cult following.
Since then, of course, Pegg has branched out and found work in a variety of genres, including the blockbuster series mentioned above, but he likes to keep busy with smaller projects in the meantime. This week, for example, he stars opposite Margot Robbie in Terminal, a stylized crime thriller that interweaves a number of connected stories.
We should note that Simon Pegg has done a Five Favorite Films with us before, and as we began chatting with him about it this time, he admitted that “there are films which have staked their claim in my affection forever. The ones that stay with me and remain my kind of go-to cinematic events, I would imagine, stay the same.” Read on for Simon Pegg’s updated list of Five Favorite Films!
I’d go with the first Star Wars just because that was the source of it all, even though Empire is essentially a slightly more grown-up, often seen as the better film. But I think Star Wars, really as the kind of ground zero, has to be the one. A New Hope, as we’re now supposed to call it after all this sequel bulls—.
Also, I would say probably Taxi Driver, just as a piece of acting and just fabulous scene-setting brilliance from Scorsese and characterization from De Niro. That’s one of those films I just watch in awe of all of it, because it’s just so uncompromising.
I saw Avengers yesterday, and it was such a fun romp and really entertaining and decently done. That’s the kind of film adults watch today, when in the 1970s, when Taxi Driver came out, that was the kind of film that adults would watch. That and French Connection and Godfather and Bonnie and Clyde. Anything pre-Star Wars, really. The preserve of grown-up cinema in those days were genuinely grown-up movies, and that goes for everything I’m doing as well, from Star Trek to Ready Player One or even Mission: Impossible. They’re pure entertainment rather than think pieces, which is what film cinema used to be in the mainstream.
Why do you think that’s happened?
Because of Star Wars. Star Wars happened and spectacle was thrust to the front of the priority list for filmmakers, and as such, we started to change our tastes more toward fantasy and stuff that required big special effects set pieces, and as such, that muscled its way to the front of our affections, I guess. For better or for worse, you know, that’s cinema now.
As a piece of modern cinema, I would love to mention Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, which I thought was a brilliant, brilliant film. I think in a year that saw Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson have another science fiction film out as well, it was such a great reminder of how smaller, more thoughtful, more intense, grown-up… It’s an example of the combination of those things, in a way, a kind of more science fiction in the vein of 2001, a more cerebral, literally cerebral kind of science fiction film that was and just how beautifully performed it is. Alicia Vikander is amazing in that film. It’s a film that I’ve watched many times because I just, I don’t seem to tire of it. I think it’s excellent.
It’s a terrific film. Have you had a chance to see Annihilation?
I have, yeah, and I thought it was brilliant, kind of everything that everyone seems to be asking for right now. It’s like, people keep saying we should have more diversity, and there should be more original ideas, and there should be more women in positions and roles where they get to have more power and strength. It was all those things, and yet it didn’t seem to get marketed that well. Not enough people saw it. It was great. It was a really, really smart movie. I love Alex Garland. I think he’s got such great ideas, and he pulls great performances from his actors. I really liked it. Ex Machina — I would probably go with that one just because I’ve known it for longer, so I’m more acquainted with it. I have a greater affection for it because I’ve seen it more.
Let me try and think of a comedy. At university, I wrote about Annie Hall. I know Woody Allen is currently a contentious issue, but that film as a comedy, if we can separate the art from the person for whatever reason, is such a clever, poetic film, but it’s written in the same way that a poem is… When you read a piece of prose, it’s very formal and everything follows one after the other. It’s very conventional. Poetry is different because it draws attention to itself as writing, and it rhymes and does different things, and it uses rhythm. Annie Hall in the same way does that cinematically. It’s kind of like a cinematic poem, and it’s just really, really smartly made. It’s one of the few comedies that ever got nominated or actually won any Oscars.
Comedy, I think, is one of the most underrated art forms that there is, particularly in terms of material rewards. There is no Oscar for best comedy. There is no Oscar for best comic performance. I think that’s a shame, and I think if there was, then Jim Carrey would be laden down with scones. It’s not something everybody can do. You might dismiss Ace Ventura: Pet Detective as a ridiculous, goofy, throwaway movie, but it is a virtuoso performance from Jim Carrey, as often is with his work. You see a lot of so-called straight actors, serious actors, trying to do comedy, and they cannot do it. I think comedy is something which is underestimated because it is literally not serious. It’s like people think that seriousness equals serious, if you know what I mean.
But Annie Hall, I think, it’s such a well-crafted film. It says a lot. Diane Keaton is just unbelievable in that movie. I got to meet her at CinemaCon. She was there promoting Book Club, and I said to the people I was with at CinemaCon, I said, “I have to meet Diane Keaton. Please, can you introduce me to her? I just need to tell her how much I love her. I won’t bother her too much.” I found a moment and I went over and I just told her I had written a thesis about her at university. She said, “Oh, I’d love to read that.” And I said, “No, you wouldn’t. It’s boring and dense.” But she was delightful. For her performance alone, that film, as controversial as it might be, would definitely be on my list.
All right. I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’ll pick something completely weird and ridiculous for the very reason that I just said, and that would be Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, specifically for the scene in which Jim Carrey births himself from the anus of a fake rhino, because it is one of the single most genius pieces of comedic writing that will never be given its due because it’s part of a ridiculous, vaguely racist, silly comedy.
The setup for that whole sequence is incredible from the point you see him. He’s inside this rhino, which he’s using as a sort of eavesdropping device, and it’s so meticulously done. There’s a fan inside because it’s hot. The fan breaks, so he has to undress. All to get to this point where he literally squeezes his way out of the behind of this rhino in front of a family of tourists who just effectively see a rhino giving birth to a screaming, naked human being.
The industry involved in setting that joke up, the way that it just creeps up on you, like you’ll think, “Oh, it’s funny because he’s inside a rhino. It’s funny because it’s hot. It’s funny because he’s taking off his underwear.” And then suddenly, you realize, “Oh, wait a minute, this was a long game they were playing here. This is a buildup.” And it snuck up on you. And suddenly he starts to, as only he can, emerge from the back of this rhino, and then this family pulls up, and it’s just brilliant. I think that sequence should be celebrated in no uncertain terms because it is just a genius piece of comedy executed with the extraordinary aplomb that that man is capable of displaying.
I can’t disagree with you, because I remember the exact day I saw that with a buddy of mine, and we both fell off the couch laughing at that specific scene.
It’s unbelievable. It’s extraordinary. I watched it again. I watched it with my daughter. We went through some… I try to show her lots of movies that she might not see, because she’s only eight. So without having a movie lover for a dad, she’d never see even the Amblin movies or Bill and Ted, stuff like that she might miss out on. The Ace Ventura films were on that list, and watching it again, oh my god, I was apoplectic. I was literally lying on the floor screaming with laughter. The commitment. I mean, he has the most… Nobody commits to stuff like he does. I believe that he might be a genius.
Ryan Fujitani for Rotten Tomatoes: So I’m here talking to you because of Terminal. I haven’t seen the film, but it looks like a twisty tale with a lot of interlocking storylines. What can you tell me about the film and your role in it?
Simon Pegg: I took it on because I was sent the script by essentially what were a group of assistant directors who had been working on various films in the UK who had decided to say, “Actually, we are producers, and we’re going to make a feature film.” We have Margot attached, which is great, which gives it some momentum. But there’s also this script, which is a really dense, almost theatrical kind of dialogue piece, which I really liked the idea of doing.
I’ve done a lot of stuff where I’ve been essentially running around saving the universe or delivering exposition or whatever my British accent is required to do. I felt like I really wanted to do something that was a bit more chewy and a bit more involved, in terms of the acting. When I read it, it was just a lot of me sitting in a café with Margot’s character just talking about death. It felt like a play. It felt like a kind of a Pinter or something, and I was like, this is great.
I also just loved the fact that it was a fresh idea. It was an original script, and it was made by a bunch of people who just wanted to make a movie. That really appealed to me in terms of how I started out. I never want to lose touch with that kind of filmmaking. It’s important. It’s so fun being in big films. It’s a real thrill ride. But I don’t want to untether myself from the beginnings of what I love doing, which was smaller movies.
It’s very dialogue-led. It’s very character-led, particularly with my character, Bill, who’s a terminally ill English professor, who is deciding whether or not to just kill himself. It just felt like, “Wow, this is going to be a chance to actually do some acting.” Also to act alongside Margot, who is fantastic — you know, already set the world on fire with The Wolf of Wall Street — seemed like an exciting person to spar with. I just thought this is going to be great. I get to go to Budapest and get that feel of making a small movie, which is a lot more hard and fast than it is making a big film. There’s less room to wiggle. There’s less waste. There’s less relying on post-production. You just have to get it done. It feels like everyone is in it together. It’s like a little battle you’re fighting. I like doing that.
RT: Knowing you’re something of a geek culture junkie, I’m wondering, between the Mission: Impossible franchise and the Star Trek franchise, which of them was more exciting for you to land?
Pegg: That’s an interesting question. I think maybe for the sheer significance to me as a person, Star Trek was a big deal because the Mission: Impossible series was a little bit before my time. But the chance to work with Tom Cruise and Ving Rhames and J.J. was obviously a big deal. Now, I couldn’t really distinguish between them in terms of my affection. Although, having said that, having written Star Trek: Beyond and been that close to it, having actually gotten to generate some of the universe, I have a special affection for Star Trek. Probably Star Trek just because of its… It was a show that I watched from the age of eight, and then suddenly to be in it was kind of crazy. I think by the time I got Mission: Impossible, Mission: Impossible was a movie series. It wasn’t the TV show writ large anymore. It was such a joy to get back with the gang to do Fallout and have our new folks come in as well. It was great.
RT: What were your first thoughts when you learned about Quentin Tarantino’s involvement in the Star Trek universe?
Pegg: We were all like, “Wow, that’s great.” I mean, I can’t think of… All of Quentin’s movies, I could have put in those five films, you know? He’s such a dynamic filmmaker. He has such commitment and passion to cinema. I know he’s a huge Star Trek fan because we’d spoken about it in the past. He really likes our crew. He likes the new iteration of the original series crew. It was cool. They don’t tell us anything because they know we get put in this situation all the time, and we blab because we’re all just big mouths. So they don’t actually give us anything that we could possibly say. All I can tell you is that the prospect of him being involved is extremely exciting. I’d be very happy about it.
RT: I saw you were attached to a project with Nick Frost called Slaughterhouse Rulez. Have you spoken to Edgar Wright about potentially all of you reuniting again for another project at some point in the future?
Pegg: We always talk about it. Edgar is like family to me. We’ve been friends for a very long time. It’s not like he’s just my colleague. We see each other whenever we can, and we always talk about it when we get together. The only thing that holds it up is finding a moment when we’re all simultaneously free, because we’ve all got commitments leading up to a certain point. But yeah, it will happen. There’s no doubt in my mind. Edgar is working on something at the moment. I have a few things coming up. As soon as we get a nice big bit of free space, that’s what we will do.