Simon Pegg, Burke and Hare

Simon Pegg
Simon Pegg, as William Burke in Burke and Hare

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]


James McAvoy on becoming a goat and a sandworm

James McAvoy
James McAvoy. Photo: Eyevine

You might not have heard of James McAvoy until a few years ago, but recent roles in action flick Wanted, the Oscar-winning Atonement and Bafta-winning Last King of Scotland have propelled the young Scot up the list of British actors who have found real Hollywood appeal.

It’s been a rapid rise for the former baker from Glasgow who, at 30, has starred opposite luminous screen beauties like Angelina Jolie, Keira Knightley and Anne Hathaway – not for him the steady accumulation of cameos in The Bill or Casualty. A winning combination of enthusiasm, roguish charm and real-world sensibility has meant even minor roles have been respected productions: Steven Spielberg’s Second World War drama Band of Brothers, political thriller State of Play or the tale of Siegfried Sassoon and shell-shock, Regeneration.

But meeting him to discuss his latest film, The Last Station, which tells the tale of Leo Tolstoy’s final days, it is two of his less well known roles that he is most chuffed about – Prince Leto Atreides II in the US television adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune, and everyone’s favourite goat-legged, goat-eared faun Mr Tumnus in the Chronicles of Narnia.

Dressed down in a suede Harrington jacket and jeans, smiling, unshaven, and working through a plate of prawn Marie Rose sandwiches, McAvoy admits: “I’m a big science fiction fan, a total sci-fi and fantasy nut. By playing Leto Atreides and then Mr Tumnus I’ve played two of my favourite characters in literature. The only other one I always wanted to play was Samwise Gamgee from the Lord of the Rings but that went when I was still in drama school.

“I couldn’t believe my career had so quickly taken me to play my favourite characters.”

McAvoy met his wife, actress Anne Marie Duff, on the set of Shameless in 2004 where he played posh car thief Steve and she his love interest Fiona. They married in 2006, and last month announced they were expecting their first child. But despite playing a couple, it was, he says, “no different to meeting anyone else at work.”

Shameless, which he and Duff left in the second series, has rumbled on without them or writer Paul Abbott. It started life as a much darker, more serious programme which found its comedic heart at the very last minute. “Paul, being the maniac he is starts cracking on with re-writing it a week before filming. We were getting new scripts daily on the set,” McAvoy recalls. His character went from working class Scot to posh southerner overnight. “They said: ‘How are you with accents? Can you get one for day-after-tomorrow?’ I think that when the emotional depth of the programme comes out and smacks you it’s because that’s what it was originally, but that’s hard to maintain in later series.”

The Last Station stars Christopher Plummer as an aged Lev Tolstoy, the foremost author, playwright and thinker of his age, and Helen Mirren as his long-suffering wife, Sofya. McAvoy plays Valentin, a naïve, idealistic follower of Tolstoy who has his edges rubbed off by the more worldly Masha, played by Kerry Condon. The film focuses on these two tempestuous relationships, one old, one new, Tolstoy’s political ideals and the wrangling over his estate.

Has he, now married for three years, taken any truths on marriage from the film? “The director [Michael Hoffman] would tell people how he couldn’t have made this film until he’d been married 20 years and gone through the wringer. This pissed his wife right off. In fact, he started using one of her phrases – ‘Art imitates wife’ – until she publically told him to stop it,” he laughs. “He says it’s a film about the impossible conundrum that is marriage and the necessity for love to live with love, the impossibility of living without it, but the difficulties that creates. But it’s also about being a public servant and being true to your family.”

Tolstoy, despite being born into the aristocracy, made a great deal of renouncing his worldly privileges and wrote works picturing a pacifist, egalitarian society, influencing many including Ghandi.

“I’d never heard of any of it,” McAvoy says. “And the weirdest thing is, he was big in Scotland – we had the largest concentration of Tolstoyan communes outside Russia. Did he practice what he preached? Did he hell – he had 13 kids, he wasn’t celibate, he cheated on his wife. But does that make his ideas any less valid? Because he helped create a Russia where a revolution could happen, he put the fires in place.”

Despite occasional red carpet appearances for one gong or another – last week he was nominated for a Lawrence Olivier theatre award for his efforts in Three Days in Rain – he has kept his personal life out of view.

McAvoy was raised in Drumchapel by his grandparents, who were “private to a fault”.

“I didn’t really understand that growing up, but I do now. I just feel I’ve got nothing to lose being quiet – whether or not it puts anyone out – but I’ve got lots to lose if I’m not.”

So what’s behind this great outpouring of our private lives that we find everywhere these days, from Facebook and MySpace to tell-all shows like Oprah and Jeremy Kyle?

“I think we’re obsessed with identifying ourselves, and if we can’t we get worried about who we are. People don’t say, Who are you? They say, What do you do? You don’t reply, I’m a guy called so and so who lives here with a family and enjoys hill walking and knitting. You say, I’m a postman.

“It’s a difficult thing to identify yourself as an actor, especially because quite a lot of what actors do is being unemployed and not acting,” he adds. “I have to redefine myself in my head as to who I am outside of acting and being an actor, which was quite hard for me for a while.”

As well as baking, the young McAvoy toyed with joining the navy: “I had good enough grades to join officer training school and probably would have stuck to it. I like the idea of doing something physical. If anything, I’d like to have been in a mountain rescue team.”

So with a family brewing, McAvoy the smiling Scot is loving his accidental acting career. Despite his growing Hollywood cachet, he’s in no mind to move to LA. “Well, perhaps if my career goes south and I don’t work for a few years. But I think I’ve spent about seven weeks in my entire life in LA and it’s not hurt me, so perhaps it’s not required.”

And whether home is London or Los Angeles, with premieres, shooting and visits across the globe, it looks like the would-be sailor got to see the world after all, without having to enlist.


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, February 2010]


Food, Inc

Food Inc.
Food Inc. Credit:

What happens when companies become more powerful than their regulators and inspectors? What happens when people no longer know what is in the food they buy? What happens when children believe advertising over science?

The documentary Food, Inc is a critical look at the food industry and how industrialisation has transformed the food we eat into something that is doing us harm.

Filmmaker Robert Kenner, with the expertise of journalists Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, demonstrates how far removed modern farming is from the pastoral images used to sell the product. They ask not, how do we feed the world, but, what are we being fed?

Food, Inc draws on Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation, which documented the excesses of the fast food industry and its effects on industry workers, animals and consumers, and Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a study of the same meal as produced by alternative agricultural systems; intensive, large- and small-scale organic and food foraged for ourselves.

Like those books, the film reveals the unpleasant reality behind industrial farming of animals and crops. Half a dozen corporate behemoths produce the vast majority of chicken, pork and beef, corn, and soy available in the US – for example, Monsanto sells around 90 per cent of soybean seed and 80 per cent of corn seed, Tyson, Cargill, Swift and National Beef Packing Company control more than 80 per cent of beef production, and Smithfield, Tyson, Swift and Cargill control 66 per cent of the pork industry. The charge sheet – lagoons of pigs’ effluent filling the air with choking fumes and poisoning rivers, animals cruelly crammed into barns and sheds, migrant workers suffering in silence and injury, and bullying corporate tactics – is probably also familiar. As these companies now turn their eyes towards Eastern Europe and the UK, the filmmakers urge an alternative approach to sourcing our food.

“In many parts of the US you can’t drink the water because the topsoil is poisoned by pesticides and chemicals,” says Kenner, a short, burly, talkative man who speaks with his hands, when The Big Issue caught up with he and Schlosser after they had spoken to school children in Hackney. “For me the real reason to eat organic is that rural communities are being poisoned,” adds the taller, more quietly spoken Schlosser. “Farmers, workers, the water table are all being poisoned. It’s more a concern for an environmental catastrophe than it is me thinking I’m going to die if I eat that apple.”

E.coli poisoning and other food-borne illnesses are on the rise, found not only in meat but in spinach, lettuce, even peanut butter. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention 73,000 people get E.coli poisoning every year. In one memorable scene, we see meat pushed along conveyors into tanks where it is blasted with ammonia – bleach – to kill the bacteria. The bleached, pink meat is folded into cartons to be used as “hamburger filler”. This is a complex solution to a problem that could have been solved easily: cows fed grass shed 90 per cent of the e.coli in their gut in a few days, but are more expensive than cows in concentrated feedlots where they are fed corn.

Free range pig farmer Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, whose methods are shown in contrast, points out that the harm extends beyond that done to the creatures: “A culture that just uses a pig as a pile of protoplasm to be manipulated by whatever creative design the human can foist on that critter, will probably view individuals within its community, and other cultures in the community of nations, with the same type of disdain and disrespect.”

And it is perhaps exactly that disdain that can be seen in the behaviour of the large agribusinesses, whose substantial economic clout is felt by the farmers contracted to them. Farmers are warned off from speaking to the filmmakers, pursued by legal threats and court cases, and refuse entry to chicken farms for fear of retribution from the huge companies on whom their livelihoods depend.

That clout is also felt in government, where industry representatives form a powerful lobby. For example, although foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) must be labelled in Britain, there are no such requirements in the States. Kenner says: “I think for me the most frightening scene in the film is when Eric goes to Sacramento to talk about how we should label products better, and a meat industry representative says ‘it’s not in the consumers’ interest to know that information’.”

About 70 per cent of supermarket items in the States contain GMOs, but most Americans don’t know they’re eating them, or even what they are.

“I wanted to make a film about the science, but they’re not willing to talk about it,” he adds. There’s a lack of resilience to the system because it’s designed for only one thing: profit.”

Schlosser agrees: “The companies say that they’re good for you, but they’ll do everything possible to stop that information coming out. The justification for GMOs was this rice with vitamin A that was going to cure blindness, or be drought resistant, or give better yields. But all they’ve been proven to do is to allow greater application of pesticide and fertilizer, which is very good for the companies that make pesticides and fertilizer which, surprise, surprise, are the same companies that make the seed.”

What does come as a surprise is the all-pervading nature of subsidised corn: a bewildering array of derivatives are found in foods, from corn starch and corn sugar additives, corn syrup, to malt extracts, vegetable oils, and thickeners, in everything from Coke to batteries. It is also fed to cattle, pigs and chickens, and turned into a huge number of ‘value-added’ or processed products which Pollan calls “the tangible material formerly known as food”. The fact that so little of this food has any nutritious value other than carbohydrates have led to criticisms that the government is essentially subsidising huge agribusinesses to feed people food that is bad for them – and is making them ill.

In one scene, a class of children are asked who knows someone who is diabetic, and practically all of them raise a hand. Two people? The hands stay up. Three? Most are still there.

The diabetes and obesity epidemic that has already swept across the US, where one in three Americans develops early onset diabetes, is in danger of reaching British shores too. Certainly the methods used in British farming are little different to those in the US.

But despite the mounting evidence of the harm “conventional” agriculture – itself only 50 years old – is doing us and the environment, and despite the un-sustainability of agriculture based on intensely petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, there remains a substantial backlash against “unconventional” farming.

Schlosser warns against the idea that organic or alternative farming is elitist: “If you look at obesity and diabetes rates, it very neatly correlates with levels of poverty and education.”

“It remains to be seen whether the tabloids particularly can get past the fact that many of the early adopters are trendy or healthy or media types. Because the truly elitist system is the system in which the wealthy get good food while ordinary working people eat shit food that makes them ill.”


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, February 2010]