Simon Pegg savors the rare opportunities he gets to play against type, something he’s done twice now in 2020. Known for his comedic and genre work, the English actor is keenly aware of how he’s perceived in the entertainment industry, but even though he shares the frustration that most compartmentalized actors feel, Pegg still goes above and beyond to show that he’s capable of darker and more dramatic roles, which his latest character’s “prison yard physique” proves in Vaughn Stein’s Inheritance. In his second collaboration with Stein, Pegg plays an enigmatic prisoner named Morgan who’s been held captive in a bunker for 30 years.
“People have an idea of who you are and what you can do, and that idea is really only based on what they’ve seen,” Pegg tells The Hollywood Reporter. “You can feel like people don’t take you seriously, and that can be a little frustrating sometimes. You think, ‘Oh, wait a minute, I’d like to play this role or that role, or someone with an accent.’ And people go, ‘No, no, you’re this. That’s what you do, and we don’t want you doing anything else.’ You see it with a lot of comedic actors, and sometimes, they’re just not allowed to leave that space.”
In March, Pegg was just eight hours away from departing for Mission: Impossible VII’s set in Italy when he received the news that production had been shut down due to the global pandemic. Now, with added time to prepare, Pegg is eagerly anticipating his return to his IMF agent character of Benji Dunn since he, along with the rest of the main cast, is finally receiving an individual character arc, something he’s wanted since Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.
“I’m looking forward to playing him again having been through what he went through on Fallout, which was unpleasant," Pegg explains. “I can see him not being quite as thrilled with the job, and it’s gonna be fun to play out the narratives that McQ (Christopher McQuarrie) has set up. He’s tracking a journey for each of those characters, not just Ethan, but all of us.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Pegg discusses his unique collaboration with Stein, Benji Dunn’s evolution throughout the Mission: Impossible series and moving on from Star Wars.
How are things with you and yours?
Yeah, good, Just indoors and taking every day as it comes.
So, you’re certainly no stranger to reteaming with a director, and I imagine that each collaboration fulfills something different. What does Vaughn Stein bring out in you that’s unique from your partnerships with Edgar Wright, Chris McQuarrie and J.J. Abrams?
I just really love Vaughn’s enthusiasm. We clicked on a personal level; he actually went to the same university as me. He’s just got a very can-do kind of attitude, and he really knows what he wants. I just get on with him really well, and I love how he directs. He’s very actor friendly. When I did Terminal, I just loved the fact that Vaughn and some of the other producers — who had been ADs on various movies — decided to just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and say, “We’re producers now, and let’s get a film made.” And then Margot (Robbie) was attached. I really like that proactive approach. So, after we did Terminal and we got on really well, he sent me the script for Inheritance. It just felt like a really compact thriller and a fun role to play. Having had a good experience with him, it was like, “Okay, let’s do it again.”
You play against type in this film, which is always a cool thing to see. Do you relish these opportunities whenever they come along?
Oh, yeah. The type that I think people expect from me wasn’t necessarily something that I intended. When I graduated from university where I studied theater, film and television, I went into stand-up because comedy was something I enjoyed but also because it offered me a certain autonomy that I wouldn't have if I was sitting and waiting for the phone to ring as an actor. Then, I drifted into comedy acting through doing stand-up, and that was something that I really enjoyed. But, it wasn’t the only thing I ever wanted to do. There was a time when I was younger where I just wanted to be at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre. To actually be given the opportunity to play a role that is against type like you say, you jump at it. It happened earlier in the year with Lost Transmissions. Katharine O’Brien sent me the script about a schizophrenic, and it was a dramatic piece. I was very chuffed that she thought of me for that. Terminal — even though it was very heightened and magically real — was a lot straighter than what I’d done before, and I was really happy that Vaughn gave me the chance to play someone who was really the opposite of funny. (Laughs.)
Flipping the script in this fashion has resulted in so many interesting performances over the years. So, it’s frustrating, as a viewer, to know how difficult it is for a known commodity like yourself to get on the lists or in the rooms for darker material.
Absolutely. People have an idea of who you are and what you can do, and that idea is really only based on what they’ve seen. So, you can’t blame people for sending you scripts that are tonally similar to stuff you’ve done before because the stuff you’ve done before is what put you in their minds. So, yeah, it is tough, but it’s really comedy. You see it happening again and again with actors who are known for comedy; you get the sense they’re a bit frustrated because comedy, by its very nature, is inferior. So, you can feel like people don’t take you seriously, and that can be a little frustrating sometimes. You think, “Oh, wait a minute, I’d like to play this role or that role, or someone with an accent.” And people go, “No, no, you’re this. That’s what you do, and we don’t want you doing anything else.” You see it with a lot of comedic actors, and sometimes, they’re just not allowed to leave that space.
[Writer’s note: Since the industry rarely lets Pegg play darker, more dramatic material, I reached out to Inheritance director Vaughn Stein for an explanation as to why he’s willing to buck convention and cast Pegg against type.]
Vaughn Stein: It has been my pleasure to cast Simon against type in the two films I have made with him. Creatively, I relish counter-casting as a filmmaker; subverting an audience’s preconceived notions of an actor by casting them in a role we’ve never seen them in before. I love the feeling it gives me as a viewer when my expectations are turned on its head; that rush of adventure when it catches us off-guard. Simon is known as a world-renowned comic actor, but he is also one of the most talented, instinctive, and disciplined actors I have had the privilege to work with. He relishes and leans into the challenge and commits totally. On Inheritance, the physical transformation he underwent for the role was incredible; creating this skeletal, wiry, “prison yard” physique that was perfect for the role. And his performance is deeply nuanced and wonderfully unsettling as this mercurial chess-playing emaciated old man; sometimes vulnerable, sometimes vicious, sometimes insightful, sometimes insane. He embraces the darkness and transforms in the role.
Your American accent really impresses me, and before I first heard it years ago, I never would’ve guessed it was you if someone put a blindfold on me. Do you practice it often, or do you mainly rely on a dialect coach throughout each American role?
Pegg: (Laughs.) It’s always good to have a dialect coach on set to keep an eye on it. It’s funny because people react in different ways to accents. Sometimes, people will say, “Oh, that accent is bad,” and it’s not because it’s bad, it’s because they can’t hear you talking in a different accent. Typically, with an American accent, I still have people who say, “Oh, that’s terrible,” and it’s not because the accent is terrible; I’ve worked very hard on it. I’ve always made sure there’s someone there to listen to the vowels and the various shapes. An American accent is very gymnastic, and people assume it’s easy to do when it’s not. You guys work hard when you talk, and getting it right is something I work at. But, people still kind of object, and it’s not necessarily because the accent is not good; it’s because they simply don’t want to hear you speaking in a different way.
Your character, Morgan, has a very particular captivity meal that he requests. How different is his meal from what you would order for yourself after 30 years in confinement?
I don’t know if it’s that different. The steak, I totally get. When I was shooting that scene where he eats the steak, I couldn’t help but channel Joe Pantoliano from The Matrix when he does that whole speech. I met Joe at the Whistler Film Festival last year, and I told him that. I said, “You are the definitive eating-a-steak-on-camera actor,” and I absolutely channeled that. I don’t know if I’m a key lime pie fan, but I would certainly eat the steak. Maybe for dessert, I’d have a raspberry tableau with fresh cream — anything with fresh cream.
Since you mentioned Joe Pantoliano, do you typically reference particular works to prep for a role like this? While different, I’m sure most actors would rewatch Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs to prepare for the role of Morgan.
Oh, yeah. Even though you know from the off that Hannibal Lecter is fundamentally evil, he still has that odd appeal as well. With Morgan, because you’re not sure what side of the fence he’s on at first, it was a slightly different approach, but, yes, Anthony Hopkins is an actor I absolutely adore. His technique, style and presence are just so captivating and enthralling. That’s what you shoot for as an actor, and it’s hard not to think of the people that do it really well when you go into something like that.
Actors often channel their personal lives into their work, but I’m curious if the inverse ever happens. Will you ever channel your fictional life when you encounter a real-life situation that mirrors something you’ve only dealt with fictionally?
That’s interesting. Maybe the consequences of the fictional work.… I learn a new skill set every time I do a Mission: Impossible movie, whether that’s driving, riding a boat or learning how to dismantle a certain thing. In preparation for Inheritance, I did a lot of running and got myself down to a very specific weight just to look like I’ve been in a bunker. So, I guess you kind of pick up skills in creating those roles that you can then use in real life. And knowledge as well. When I did Lost Transmissions, I did a lot of research into schizophrenia. That was very educational in terms of that particular realm of mental illness, and that’s information that I have now. So, I guess in that respect you do, but the fictional elements of those characters? I don’t know. With someone like Morgan, I hope not. (Laughs.)
So, I had planned to ask you about Benji Dunn’s long-awaited arc in the next two Mission: Impossible films since I knew the old story of how you asked Christopher McQuarrie if he could “spare an arc.” However, you and McQuarrie just answered that question on the Light the Fuse podcast, which broke the news that the entire main cast is, in fact, getting individual arcs. Are you over the moon about diving deeper into Benji Dunn?
I am! McQ has always been at pains to provide that for these characters. He wrote on Ghost Protocol as well, so he’s been involved in three of the Mission: Impossible movies that I’ve done. For all the massive stunts, set pieces and action, what is most important to him is underpinning all of that with characters you genuinely care about so those moments of peril genuinely resonate. You can watch a film where there’s the most incredible action, but if you don’t care about the people that it’s happening to, then it's completely hollow. McQ felt that in order to really do it justice, he needed the time and the space to let those storylines evolve. The key to that was doing it over two movies, which lets him have his cake and eat it, too. He can create these interesting character arcs and still cram the films with the necessary action. The other night, McQ was saying that each set piece was about 20 minutes of the movie. So, in between those moments, he gets to spin his character arcs and explore the nuances of each character. It was funny doing that podcast. I got a text from McQ saying, “Are you awake and available?” because it was night. I said, “Yeah, why? What are you doing?” And he said, “I’m doing the hundredth podcast from the Light he Fuse people.” So, he sent me the link, and I just gate-crashed it. And so did Hayley Atwell and Lorne Balfe, the composer. The guys that were doing the podcast were just like, “What the hell is going on?!” It was really fun.
Since Benji “finds it best not to look,” is it safe to say that he won’t be looking at whatever Ethan is doing in these next two films?
(Laughs.) Benji is a character that’s been really fun to play. He’s evolved in each movie, from being a lab technician — who reluctantly gets involved in the action — to being a fresh-faced field agent who thinks, “Oh, this is great and fun, and I’m gonna wear a mask,” to actually experiencing what it’s really about, which is not so pleasant. I’m looking forward to playing him again having been through what he went through on Fallout, which was unpleasant. I can see him not being quite as thrilled with the job, and it’s gonna be fun to play out the narratives that McQ has set up. It’s been a really long journey for him; it’s not about each individual film. He’s tracking a journey for each of those characters, not just Ethan, but all of us.
When you watch Tom Cruise throw himself down mountains and jump off of airplanes, are you often compelled to push for more stunt work than you normally would?
Certainly with Mission. … When we did Ghost Protocol and Tom did that amazing stunt off the Burj Khalifa, there was this palpable thrill when we watched it with an audience. We realized it was because the audience knew that it was Tom actually doing it. In this age now where we can literally see actors do anything because of CG and green screens that enable us to create these super fanciful realities, when you get back to someone actually doing something, there’s a tension that’s kind of evaporated a little bit in the wake of all this artificiality. And I think a little lightbulb went off in Tom’s head, and he just thought, “This is what we should do. We should make sure we deliver this authentic thrill.” And it makes us all want to do it. We’re all like, “Absolutely.” If there’s something I can do, safely, and the insurance people are okay with it, I’ll do it. So far, that’s pretty much been everything. Fortunately, Benji tends to be tapping a computer and telling Ethan where to go, but if the chance arises, I’m there.
A few years ago, you remarked that being in Star Wars: The Force Awakens led you to outgrow Star Wars in a way. Do you still feel that way?
My relationship with Star Wars has changed over the years in terms of what it was to me when I was kid. I also went through a period of being very vocal about not liking the Prequels. I’ve become more and more zen about the whole thing. It’s just a film. Being in it was a sort of manifest destiny; it was incredible to be part of it, and that felt to me like the end of my Star Wars journey. I really liked The Mandalorian and thought it’s a really fun show. I like how stripped-back it is; the premise is very simple, and it feels very Star Wars to me. But, something definitely changed after The Force Awakens for me. I’ve only seen The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker once. I’ve only seen both of those movies once, and that was enough. I experienced them and moved on. Star Wars is not the be-all and end-all to me anymore; nothing is — other than my family and real life. (Laughs.)
Out of curiosity, when you visited J.J. on the set of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, what were they shooting that day?
They were shooting some of the Resistance base scenes because I got to see the Blockade Runner set, which was amazing. I also saw Kylo Ren’s sort of Fortress of Solitude, when he had that conversation with Rey where she’s somewhere else. Yeah, just those two sets.
In the States, we’re currently obsessed with The Last Dance, which is a 10-part documentary series on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. With that in mind, which project of yours would make for the most interesting documentary about the entire experience?
Ditto, firstly. That’s an incredible documentary; it’s absolutely riveting. I think probably the Cornetto films. It’s a sort of 10-year period from us being naive kids, coming out of making a sitcom [Spaced] to Shaun of the Dead having the impact that it had and opening up doors for us. And then, our journey through Hot Fuzz to The World’s End. All three are very different movies, and they all have a different kind of significance for myself and Edgar (Wright). Yeah, just the process of getting them made would be fascinating — warts and all.
Inheritance is available now on Digital HD and VOD.