We chat with the actor about tackling treasured genres, and just what Tim from Spaced would think of his joyously geeky filmography.
Operating in a headspace scrambled by multiple genres (film noir, science-fiction, fairy tale) and plastered with a graphic novel aesthetic, the ultimate appeal of Terminal rests in its actors. Or, at least, that was the case for Simon Pegg. Recently, he’s been bouncing from one blockbuster to another, popping up to push the narrative forward in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Ready Player One, and Star Trek Beyond. The actor was eager to simply plant himself on a stage across from another performer and chew through some nasty dialog.
As Bill, the ailing schoolteacher waiting on a train that will never come in a rotten anonymous city, Pegg is allowed to play with audience expectations. He’s the perfect film noir sap stepped straight out of the Naked City. His pathetic sadsack routine fails to impress Margot Robbie’s multi-faced waitress, and where the story goes from there is appropriately dark and terrible.
I had a quick chat with Pegg over the phone. We talked about how much reverence for cinematic history he brought with him to Terminal, the excitement of working on a micro-budget with a crew of hungry creatives, and whether or not there are any more franchises to conquer. Pegg is not an actor who does one for them and one for me. They’re all for him. As any movie geek would, he is in awe of the path his career has taken him. Pegg is happy to have the massive shoot of Mission: Impossible – Fallout behind him, but he’s also eager to dive into Star Trek 4 and whatever Quentin Tarantino’s fifth Star Trek film turns out to be.
Here is our conversation in full:
You’ve never really played a character quite like Bill before. I mean, you’ve worked in that noir realm a couple of times with Kill Me Three Times or your episodes of Mob City, but nothing quite like this.
It was quite an inviting sort of prospect at playing a character like that just because I generally play fairly amiable chaps. When I was reading it, it was interesting because you’re sort of lulled into a sense of liking him for most of the film. You sort of think he’s just sort of amiable, sad sap loser and then you realize he is fundamentally evil. And I kind of like that switch around. The idea of forcing the audience to alter their opinion, having already made one.
You know, once upon a time, somebody like Edward G. Robinson could have played Bill. Sort of like that sucker he was in Scarlet Street.
(Chuckles) Right, right.
Do you ever think about your characters in the context of cinematic history?
Not really. I mean sometimes there are some characters you do. Characters that echo, or that have obvious echoes of progenesis. This was more about finding the character within all the dialog. When I first read it, what struck me about it, I loved that it was a group of essentially ADDs that decided to call themselves producers and just get a film made. There was something about the whole enterprise that I just thought was really sort of exciting. And, reading the script, it was so dialog heavy. It was very sort of like a play, in a way. You could imagine it staged in a sort of studio, theater. I have done so much, kind of, running around and delivering exposition and reacting that I felt like this is quite a chewy piece of acting to do. It was less about comparing the character by cinematic history, more about finding the moment, getting in the room with Margot and coming out with it there and then, you know.
The film certainly has, as you say, a theatrical vibe and for your segments, you really are trapped in a room with Margot Robbie.
Absolutely, yeah. I just thought it was a great opportunity to play opposite Margo Robbie, who’s such a dynamic actor. And to get to spar with her. It wasn’t long after we got into her hotel room that we realized we were going to have some real fun with it. It just really appealed to me. I felt like I hadn’t done any acting really since The World’s End maybe. I don’t know. It just felt like something that I wanted to get my teeth into.
Well, on that front, you have made a career of hopping from one stable of fandom to another, periodically popping up in smaller films like Hector and the Search of Happiness.
My beginnings were obviously in independent cinema even though Shaun [of the Dead] I guess was ultimately distributed by Universal. But it was essentially an independent film and a small film and I kind of always remain in contact with that aspect. My life in blockbusters started really with my relationship with J.J. Abrams and just because we became pals and he’s a lazy caster. Do you know what I mean? I really love doing those movies. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I don’t want to do any more of these. I loved doing those films. They’re so much fun and it’s really getting to work with Chris McQuarrie and Ian and JJ and Steven Spielberg. Stuff like that is just a dream come true for me as a fan of pure entertainment but I am also a fan of cinema. You know, I’m a fan of film and I don’t want to lose touch with smaller, more intensive enterprises. I’m making a film here at the moment which is like a 19-day shoot which is coming off the back of Mission [Impossible: Fallout] which turned into a 141-day shoot. It’s certainly a variation there.
Well, from my point of view, as a fan of yours, it does feel like you purposefully dip in and out of these treasured genres. Now with Terminal, you’re plunging into this noir fairy tale with a graphic novel aesthetic.
Yeah, Vaughn had that sort of idea when we first spoke about the screenplay. He sort of outlined it in terms of being like graphic novel visuals so it had that kind of contemporary vibe. It was a mash-up of a number of his interests. I like that cultural collaging can sometimes be very interesting. Obviously, the nearest touchstone is Blade Runner, which is like a sort of future noir and Terminal definitely has some of those overtones in it. Which is funny because the next film that came to Budapest after us was actually Blade Runner 2049. Yeah, that was his kind of pitch. It’s this and it’s that. It just sounded really interesting.
Do you ever think about what Tim from Spaced would think about all these geeky roles you’ve acquired in your filmography?
(Laughter) Yes, I do. Not just Tim but also I think of my seven-year-old self or my 16-year-old self or whatever. Me as a fan of say Star Wars at seven or me as a fan of The Coen Brothers at 19. Just in terms of how things have turned out for me. I always like to try and get some retroactive thrill by imagining me stumbling in on myself, that sounds weird (laughter). But yeah, particularly with the whole Star Wars thing. There are whole episodes of Spaced that could be entirely based on his reactions to the new Star Wars movie, I think.
Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I’d watch those. (Laughter) Is there a Holy Grail character or property that you’d still like to tackle someday?
No. Obviously, things pop up now and again. I’d really like to do some more original stuff. There is a huge, irresistible tidal wave of nostalgia, and also maybe a dearth of ideas which is causing us to recycle what’s gone before. And it is fun to reimagine certain things and re-contextualize certain things but then that can get tired. I remember when I first read “The Dark Knight Returns” and that whole sort of re-contextualization of the Batman story was so cool and interesting. It feels like everything that has come since then has just been chasing that initial thrill and it has never ever got it quite right, I don’t think. As enjoyable as some of the Batman movies are and accomplished as they are, they never quite reached the pinnacle of what Frank Miller did, which was to totally readjust something, and there’s only so many times you can do it.
Right, right. Well, I agree with that 100%.
And I feel like, certain things, you should just let them go.
Sure. Well okay, that being said, I can’t let go. I adore your Star Trek Beyond and in particular that script you did with Doug Jung. I’m really excited to see what you and the crew and S.J. Clarkson do with this fourth Star Trek film.
Me too. I am very excited. I can’t wait to get a little bit more info on that.
Any chance you are going to work on the screenplay again?
No. I am actually doing something else at Bad Robot with Doug actually, which is exciting and which I am hoping I can talk about soon. The guys, John Payne and Patrick McKay are writing the fourth one. With S.J. attached, it feels like we’re starting to round the corner on actual production. I am hoping to get more info soon. They keep us in the dark as much as they can because they know we always get asked questions.
Yeah, yeah, sure. Hell, I want to talk about Tarantino and Star Trek but you’re not going to be able to say anything about that.
Well no. I know as much as you do on that. I’m fascinated by the idea. I know for a fact that he is very passionate about Star Trek. He has very strong opinions on it and he loves it. He doesn’t want to tear it down. I think everyone is like “oh it’s going to be like this. It’s going to be Pulp Fiction in space.” I wouldn’t worry about that. I think it will be really interesting take on it, sure, but he’s not going to just recycle Star Trek. As a fan of Star Trek, I would be excited.
Is there any reason why you think we are suddenly having this surge of dueling Star Trek films?
I think it was a coincidence. We were gearing up for Four and getting ready for that and then Quentin strolled into Bad Robot one day and said listen to this. It was just really interesting and I think it just got out and so everyone started talking about it. And also, Star Trek is kind of, with Discovery and stuff, it’s in the public conscious. It never left it, really. It’s entering its second 50 years. I think it’s great that it’s being talked about so much.
Terminal is now playing in theaters and VOD.