Simon Pegg and ‘How To Lose Friends And Alienate People’
by Jef Burnham
How to Lose Friends and Alienate People opens in theatres October 3, 2008
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When we arrived for the interview with Simon Pegg, he was very excited to show us the bottle of water from which he had been drinking. He had found a bottle of Voss water waiting for him in his hotel room. There was a piece of paper taped to the bottle that read something like WELCOME TO THE FOUR SEASONS HOTEL, MR. PEGG along the bottom. Above that was a large picture of Pegg himself—an unnerving thing to find in your hotel room.
He is, as yet, unaccustomed to this fame. Before the release of Shaun of the Dead in 2004, Pegg—who co-wrote and starred in the film—was virtually unknown in the United States, although he had been working in British television since 1996. Since Shaun and 2007’s Hot Fuzz, his last project with Shaun collaborator Edgar Wright, it seems almost everyone knows Simon Pegg, if not by name. To call his journey from obscurity to a starring role in J.J. Abrams’ upcoming Star Trek as Scotty, in a mere four years, impressive, is definitely an understatement. Still, he is every bit as laid-back and cool as you would imagine from watching his films.
Pegg’s latest role is in How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, a comedy based on the real-life story of Toby Young, a British journalist who went to work for Vanity Fair but failed to take New York by storm and was fired a scant few years later. Pegg’s character, Sidney Young, goes to work for a magazine called Sharps, run by Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges), a once-radical satirist turned media/fashion mogul. While at Sharps, the cocky and perpetual screw-up, Sidney, bumps heads with fellow journalist, Alison Olsen (Kirsten Dunst), and falls for out-of-his-league bombshell actress, Sophie Maes (Megan Fox, Transformers). Sidney ultimately has to choose between remaining a no-name rebel and giving up his integrity to the Hollywood system. How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is directed by Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Robert Weide and is based on the book of the same name by Toby Young.
Simon Pegg on preparing for the role of Sidney Young, and Sidney’s relationship to his boss, Clayton Harding:
I made sure I hung out with Toby [Young]. We went to dinner and stuff. He’s mellowed enormously… He’s not a complete idiot, he just has a work ethic that means he doesn’t care what a lot of people think… He makes a lot of enemies by just being kind of tenacious, to put it nicely. But I didn’t want to do an impression of Toby for the movie. Nobody really knows what he looks like or sounds like. I mean, they know in the U.K., but not many people know in the U.K., only a few. He sort of talks like this [uses a low, scratchy tone] and he moves his head like this [pulls his head into his shoulders and waggles it from side to side]. I didn’t want anyone to be distracted… But I did want to get under his skin a little bit and find out what motivates him, and what it is that enables him to conduct himself like that. It was fun. But obviously now, he’s had some kids, he’s married, and that sort of desire to tear things down is ebbing away.
It’s interesting because it’s clearly what he couldn’t understand about Graydon Carter [the founder of Vanity Fair and Toby Young’s former employer, after whom Clayton Harding is modeled]… This guy who started Spy Magazine was administering what is ostensibly just a society magazine, which celebrates the very thing he was satirizing as a kid… What I like is that Clayton… says to [Sidney], “You’re not Robin Hood,” and he says it with disappointment, I think. He kind of expects Sidney to be the guy that [Clayton] was and maybe still wants to be. But Sidney isn’t that guy. Sidney’s just an idiot. That’s what’s so disappointing, is that Sidney’s journey isn’t about becoming the right kind of journalist. It’s about realizing that what he thinks is important isn’t, and that it’s something completely different.
On co-stars Megan Fox and Kirsten Dunst:
Megan’s great. Her looks are almost a kind of burden in a way, you know? She is mind-bogglingly beautiful. She enters the room and you almost have to look a way a little bit…
She looks sort of like a princess in a fairy tale, but she’s really capable… The telling night was when we shot the stuff when we were lying by the pool together—that one moment when you see that Sophie might not be a 2-dimensional character… When Bob [Weide] called cut, there was a palpable sense among the crew of “She can fucking act! Wow! Who knew?” She’s great… With Kirsten [Dunst], you expect it. She’s been in the business a really long time—way longer than me. I personally felt that acting with her was just brilliant. We had such a good time, you know, we really clicked very nicely. Megan came into it as someone who had only really done Transformers and is very new. People have assumptions about her because of the way she looks. She’ll blow those away. She’s like Angelina Jolie, she can act as well.
On his first trip to America:
Well, funnily enough, my first experience with America was New York. It was about 1994, I guess, and it’s strange, because it was at once familiar and foreign, you know? I grew up consuming American culture and I had certainly seen that city many times. I think the real differences are sort of deeper down. I’ve experienced them on press tours for Shaun [of the Dead] and Hot Fuzz particularly, because they were so extensive. You suddenly realize you are a foreigner… There is a difference between us, but we have the benefit of speaking the same language, so we can share things—it’s easier to access each other’s culture. And sometimes you even think that we might be from the same place, but you’re not. It’s fascinating. And that’s not a bad thing either. When we were selling those movies, we were trying to sell them as foreign films, particularly when you get into the interior… New York and London are more similar than New York and L.A. Once you get into the heartland, you realize just how foreign you are. It’s amusing.
On being an actor, and the first time he felt like a movie star:
I really try to stay grounded and regard everything with suspicion… Particularly as an actor, you get treated very well, but that’s because you generally aren’t very trustworthy. They need you to be certain places at certain times so they drive you everywhere. They make you very comfortable so you’re in a good mood. That’s what they do, and it’s not because you deserve it… You’re just being manipulated.
I went to the Iron Man premiere in L.A. and I don’t usually frequent those kind of events, but, of course, sometimes it’s fun to go to these things. Jeff [Bridges] obviously was in it, and we hooked up. I saw him at the Four Seasons in L.A. before the premiere, and he’s such a nice man. He’s a really generous and friendly. He’s what you’d hope he’d be. I said, “Hey, how’s it going?” He said, “Hey, come find me at the party and we’ll have a chat. So he went off and I went off, and I saw him at the party and I thought I’d go and say hello, and he was talking to Jon Voight and he had Beau Bridges beside of him. So I kind of sidled up… I was leaving, and I thought, “I can’t just leave or he’ll think I’m rude.” This is my moment, so I kind tapped him, “Jeff, Jeff…” And he said, “Hey,” and just put his arm around me like this, because he’s quite tactile; and he just stood there. It was like Jeff Bridges like this, listening to John Voight tell an anecdote about a film that he’d done—it wasn’t Midnight Cowboy—with Beau Bridges as well. It was fucking Beau Bridges, Jeff Bridges, me and Jon Voight having a laugh and chattin’. At that moment I did feel like a movie star. That sort of self-awareness came crashing in on me—of just how strange things had become. It’s weird.
On the landscape of modern cinema:
You know what’s great? You realize that the film industry now—and I’m sure it always has been—is populated by film fans—people that appreciate the medium. And I think J.J. Abrams is a fan. When you look at the directors now—the current generation—and it does go back to the movie brats too (they’re all film geeks), but you look at people like Tarantino, Sam Raimi, Edgar Wright, and they’re all film geeks. They’re all people who grew up with cinema in the video boom, and now they make movies themselves. I mean, J.J. just saw Shaun of the Dead and liked it, and thought, “Oh, let’s put up with that guy,” and literally called me at my office. It was one of the weirdest phone calls ever, which he only pipped with the email that said, “Would you like to play Scotty?” which I didn’t know quite what to make of… That’s the way it is now. There’s a great lot of enthusiasm and collaboration, and I’m so pleased that I have done something that has engendered that kind of reaction.
On playing Scotty in Star Trek:
I specifically stayed away from trying to do James Doohan. I tried to do Scotty… We’re not trying to be those actors. Those actors [who originated the roles] did their characterizations… That’s how we had to approach those roles. Star Trek is about the stories, not about the actors. James Doohan created a legendary character—a real sci-fi icon. He’s sort of sensitive and funny and tough and resilient and clever. Sure, he thinks he’s the real captain of the ship, because he does all the dirty work. Kirk’s up there, swanning around in his yellow top, and Scotty’s in the engine room with oily hands.
I got in touch of Chris Doohan, James’ son… and said, “Look, all I want to do is give a performance that would make your dad proud for me to have taken that on…” And so that’s what I did. And Chris was my assistant in one of my rooms on the ship. He was telling me that he had been on the set of “The Trouble with Tribbles,” and dislodged the… hatch [which] opens and all the Tribbles fall on Kirk. Him and his brother had just knocked it open before the shot and filled the set with Tribbles. Hearing all that stuff was great…
Writing vs. acting, and his next project:
I think I prefer acting… I really do love writing, and it’s only just a fraction [difference], because acting is generally just fun. By the time you’re acting, the hard work’s done. The beginning of writing a project is always tough. It’s like pushing a really heavy object over a cliff. At first, it’s just very strenuous, and afterwards it’s all just “phew.” I just finished writing this movie with Nick [Frost] and we had a really good time writing it. It happened really organically. I’m very proud of Paul, which is what we’re doing next. I’m very excited about it, and writing that was really good fun. The real fun thing will be when we start shooting.
On the belated release of Spaced, a BBC series which Pegg co-wrote and co-starred in (with Jessica Stevenson), in the States:
It took a long time. We got asked about it so many times. The first time we ever came to Comic-Con, the first question was, “When can we buy Spaced here?” And a lot of people got their DVD [players] modified to play the British discs. When we first made the show, we didn’t have that much money to play with, and when we were clearing music, when the issue of North America came up, instead of clearing it for world, we’d say, “Just clear it for Europe.” So when we came to license it for the States, there were all these tracks we hadn’t cleared. So we had to go through a very long process of clearing all the music and also making sure there was a demand for it. Fortunately, because of the success of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, it built up a little ground-well of interest. And that went along with us clearing the tracks. Then, I think it was the right time to release it—this year, eight years after it was on.
On whether or not he and George Romero are “part of a secret government advisory committee in case of the rising of the undead:”
Yes, we are. I can’t say any more about it. It’s all about getting people used to the idea—have it in the back of their minds, so we all know what to do… It’s instruction videos we’ve been making all these years.
Jef Burnham is a writer and film critic in Chicago.
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