Taking a break from his comic partnership with friend Nick Frost and director Edgar Wright that gave the world Spaced, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Simon Pegg has returned to being an actor in another director’s film, reading another writer’s script – rather than all three at once.
“It’s kind of like going on holiday,” says the 40-year-old from a Soho hotel. “I love doing my own stuff because I’m a control freak and it’s nice to be in control of everything. But it’s a weight taken off you.”
He admits to finding it hard to let go of the reins when it’s other actors working with his scripts. “Oh, I’m really precious,” he laughs. “I’ll always collaborate, but a lot of actors feel like they can change the script, and that’s not always good. I’d hate to be a writer for hire – I appreciate why things have to be edited, but sometimes it’s hard to see your work butchered,” he says mournfully. “It’s like they don’t get it.”
Burke and Hare is being hailed as a comeback for director John Landis, whose previous films include gems like National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London and Trading Places. His first major feature film in more than a decade, it brings together a generation-spanning cast of British acting and comedy royalty including Bill Bailey, Tim Curry, Tom Wilkinson, Jessica Hynes, Stephen Merchant, Ronnie Corbett, Jenny Agutter and Christopher Lee.
Spiritually and technically – it was produced by Ealing Studios – Burke and Hare is an Ealing comedy, rich in black humour and farce. The film recounts the true story of two hard-up Northern Irishmen, William Burke (Pegg) and William Hare (Serkis) living in Edinburgh who in 1827 and 1828 murdered at least 17 people and sold their bodies for medical research to Dr Robert Knox, a private lecturer in anatomy.
“They weren’t serial killers, they were very sane – it was just supply and demand,” Pegg laughs. “There was other grave robbing going on at the time, but these guys certainly cornered the market for freshness.”
As is often the case, the film coming together at all was something of a happy coincidence. Landis and his wife, Deborah, a costume designer, were in England to prepare for an exhibition she is curating at the Victoria and Alberta Museum.
“She suggested John meet some people while they were here, because he can’t get a film made in Hollywood anymore. Hollywood is run by marketing people these days, not even by the studios themselves,” Pegg explains. “Video games outsell the film industry three to one, so it makes perfect sense to marketing people to make films out of video games. It’s basic maths, but terrible films.”
Out of one meeting at Ealing, Landis selected this to be his ‘comeback’ feature film.
And Pegg has thoroughly enjoyed playing a villain, albeit a comic one. ”Everything is against you in terms of getting sympathy from the audience, but you do end up rooting for them – you forget they’re murderers and worry they’ll get caught.”
And to compound the moral vagueness of the film, it’s more than likely that ‘anatomy murders’ such as these – which were common enough to prompt the Anatomy Act 1832 – had a real impact on medical science. “There is certainly an argument to say that if they hadn’t then medical science wouldn’t have progressed as fast as it did, and ultimately a lot more people would have died,” he says.
Pegg’s career began as a stand-up and regular in radio and television comedy programmes before co-creating Spaced with Jessica Hynes (née Stevenson) in 1999 – two series following the misadventures of a struggling artist and writer posing as a couple in order to rent a couple-only flat. Crammed with film and pop-culture references and wonderfully surreal moments, 10 years later it remains a stone-cold classic.
This will be the first time Pegg and Hynes have worked together since Spaced. “I love working with Jess because she makes me laugh so much. I could just sit and watch her and laugh, we crack each other up all the time.” Pegg says. But despite such talent, Pegg says the film industry still fails good comic actresses, here and in Hollywood.
“For example, Isla Fisher [who plays Hare’s mistress] is brilliant. She stole all those scenes in The Wedding Crashers and everyone said, whoah, let’s employ her. And so she ends up in Confessions of a Shopaholic,” Pegg muses.
“It’s really hard for women in comedy because it’s so male dominated,” he says.
“The female comic voice is quite fledgling in a way, because they’ve only recently been almost allowed to be funny. And in the initial stages it’s democratising and unifying, so there’s a lot of women’s issues which means it’s dismissed instantly by guys who say, oh it’s all about periods. It’s not, it’s about finding a voice. People like Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig from Saturday Night Live, Jessica – these are some of the funniest people on earth.”
Affable, good humoured, Pegg is the character you expect from his work, though without the sane-man-in-a-mad-world aspect that many of his film’s characters bear. But talking about film, it’s immediately apparent that the subject has been the sustenance for his whole life. His knowledge of films, actors, directors, scenes and even movie trivia and behind-the-scenes knowledge is huge. He even wrote his university dissertation on “Consent and Hegemonic Discourse in Fantasy Cinema”, which critiqued Star Wars in relation to its place in late 1970s America.
“A lot of those movies in the 70s and 80s all have to do with how bad America felt about itself,” he explains. After seeing American GIs killing civilians in Vietnam, Star Wars’ popularity has a lot to do with the fact that all the lines between good and bad were clearly drawn – people wanted to know who the good guys were and who the bad guys were.”
Unfortunately, a knock-on effect of its popularity was that, as Pegg puts it, “spectacle became the key selling point.”
“Before Star Wars, there was Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather – these are heavy films, but they were top 10 films. You wouldn’t get them made now, let alone top the box office charts. Suddenly it became bangs and flashes, and the small movie disappeared,” he says. So blame doesn’t lie at the feet of Spielberg or Lucas, as some claim? “I don’t think anyone set out to destroy the small film, but sadly it happened. Ultimately, it’s the audience that destroyed it, not filmmakers. The people took the road of least resistance.”
Pegg’s prodigious appetite for sci-fi, comic and fantasy culture informs a lot of what he does, but to look at his previous roles – Scotty in last year’s Star Trek remake, a cameo in George Romero’s zombie film, Johnny Alpha in the audio drama of legendary 2000AD comic strip Strontium Dog – you’d think he was on a tick-box mission to play every character and work with every director or on every series he’s ever loved.
He laughs: “It does seem like that sometimes. I recently watched a stand-up routine I’d done in 1989 and not seen since then in which I talk about being in love with Sigourney Weaver – who I worked with last year – and Spielberg – who I worked with last year – and all these other people I went on to work with. I’m the most tenacious slacker ever.
“Getting to be in Doctor Who, or working with Spielberg, or John Landis in this film – there has been a lot of wish fulfilment in my career so far. It’s not been my motivating force, but I count myself lucky to have been the nerd who made good.”
[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, October 2010]