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Simon Pegg Gets (Very Nearly) Serious

Famed for sending up Hollywood blockbusters with “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” the wry British actor now boasts back-to-back roles in two of the biggest franchises around: “Mission Impossible” and “Star Trek”

Author DAN SOLOMON

Simon Pegg as techie-turned-field-operative Benji Dunn in “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”

BY NOW, SIMON PEGG’S OBSESSION with Hollywood blockbusters is officially mutual. Writing as well as acting in many of his projects, the impish Brit garnered early notice as Star Wars fanboy Tim in the 1999-2001 BBC sitcom “Spaced,” then broke through on the big screen a few years later with the genre-movie parodies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Through it all, he showed a knack for both lampooning and paying loving tribute to megabudget Hollywood films—the same sorts of films he now finds himself asked to star in.

In Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, helmed by Oscar-winning director Brad Bird, Pegg reprises his first major mainstream role: that of tech wiz Benji Dunn, from 2006’s Mission Impossible 3. This time around marks something of a departure for the 42-year-old actor, whose natural droll humor usually relegates him to onscreen comic relief. While Benji still gets most of the funniest lines in the latest MI installment, he’s been promoted to bona fide field agent, providing Pegg a chance to flex his action-hero muscles alongside the likes of Tom Cruise and Jeremy Renner.

Coming soon is another encore performance, as Scotty in J.J. Abrams’ second Star Trek film, due out next year. Play caught up with Pegg on the set of his next blockbuster-in-the-making and chatted about misfit spies, the perils of stairs, Words With Friends and a crucial missed opportunity in the casting of Top Gun.

Were you surprised to see how they’d beefed up your Mission Impossible 3 character for Ghost Protocol? After all, Benji started out as more of a lab geek. I got involved in Mission Impossible 3 through J.J. [Abrams, director of that film and a producer on Ghost Protocol], and we had a good time. I said to him, “Well, if by some chance there’s another Mission Impossible, then Benji should be an agent. Wouldn’t it be funny?” And then I got an email one morning just saying, “How would you feel about Benji being an agent?” And I’m, like, “Well sure, OK!”

Aside from getting the chance to kick butt onscreen, what appealed to you about the change-up? This film has a brilliantly amateurish edge, in that the characters are just not quite as well equipped as usual. The team led by [Tom Cruise's character] Ethan Hunt is made up of newbies and mysterious people who are out in the field with some quite faulty equipment. It’s got this kind of on-the-hop, make-it-up-as-you-go feel. I love the idea of Benji being on maybe his second or third mission, and it’s suddenly a mission to literally save the world.

And it makes the characters more relatable. In a way, every one of them is hobbled by something. Jane’s lost someone she loves. Brandt’s riddled with guilt. Ethan’s trying to get over breaking up his family life. And Benji’s like, “What the eff’s going on?”

How cool is it to finally be the one holding the gun and making the tough-guy face in a Mission Impossible film? It’s pretty cool. It’s up there, absolutely. And I did a lot of fight training for this one. Things always come up on the day, and it might be something like, “Oh, shoot, let’s put a fight here.” So we all had to be ready for whatever.

What was the fight training like? Weapons and hand-to-hand stuff. And it was good, because Benji would have gone through that, too. Even though he’s a lovable sort of tech guy, he’s not just an IT nerd. He does have skills. And we wanted to make the revelation of that a bit of a surprise, so when you do see him fight, it’s like, yeah!

You did your own stunts for the film, right? Were you trying to keep up with a certain dangling-off-a-skyscraper superstar? Yeah, it sounds really cool, but I didn’t really have any stunts to do. [Laughs.] There was nothing that required a double. I mean, I had to run down some steps and wield and fire a gun. It sounds awfully grand to say I did my own stunts, but it’s not like Tom. He hung off the highest building in the world. I ran down some metal stairs in Vancouver.

Judging by your earlier films, you obviously love this kind of big Hollywood movie. Is there a part of you that can’t believe that you’re in Mission Impossible with Tom Cruise? Oh, yeah. I think Benji’s relationship with Ethan Hunt is very similar to my relationship with Tom. There’s a sort of jokey “I can’t believe I’m here” kind of thing I would do with him on set. I remember getting ready to do a take with him and saying, “I’m going to be so good in this, you’ll wish I’d played Goose.”

I don’t know how you can’t feel that way, honestly. We’re expected to take it all in stride as actors, and just let it wash over us like it means nothing, but it doesn’t. It’s a big deal. It’s fun to be part of the universe that you grew up loving and watching. To find yourself participating in that is never-endingly pleasing. I think anyone who says that it’s not is either brain-dead or lying.

You’re on the set of the Star Trek sequel now—how’s that going? I love it. It’s one of those jobs where I actively thank myself every day for the fact that I’m there. J.J.’s one of the most fun people to work with, because he’s such an enthusiast and his energy is infectious. The script’s fantastic, and everyone’s really excited.

Good to be back aboard the Enterprise, then? Yeah, I missed my fellow crew members! We haven’t seen each other for a year or so. We’re all playing Words With Friends right now, the whole crew. It’s created an immense amount of passive aggressiveness on set. [Laughs.] We never go back to our trailers. We all sit in a line on these chairs, not talking to each other, playing Scrabble with each other. It’s quite fun.

Who rules in Words With Friends? Zach Quinto is very good. I’ll tell you who’s the best, though: Anton Yelchin. He’s like a child prodigy. He’s a very, very good Scrabble player.

The Star Trek world is an extremely important one to its fans, and they’re known for taking it very seriously. Does that put some pressure on, to be building that mythology? The pressure’s relaxed slightly, because the first one did very well and the vast majority of Trek fans accepted it. There will always be people who don’t want to, but that’s fine. Now that we know that people trust us with the story, it feels a bit more fun. We’re still being as careful with it, though. It’s a beloved thing, and it belongs to a lot of other people as well as to us. We’re not making a parody—that’s the main thing. This is Star Trek. This is absolutely, 100 percent Star Trek, and it’s not a comment on the other films or the TV series or whatever. It is part of the same universe. And that’s very important to us all.

What’s next for you after Star Trek? Are you thinking that far ahead yet? I had some days off during the shoot, which I used to write with [Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead director] Edgar Wright. So we’ve been second-drafting our next screenplay and getting that ready. We want to get that into preproduction as soon as possible. It’s been, what, five years since Hot Fuzz, nearly? So it’s time for us to do the next one and finish that series of films off, I think.

Sounds like you’re managing to strike a smart balance between the big studio movies and the kinds of films you came up making. Oh, it’s vital. It’s a very nice position to be in, to be able to jump [to other films] between doing my passion projects. Although, having said that, I can’t say that Mission Impossible and Star Trek weren’t passion projects, because I had such a great time on them. I choose my jobs carefully. But when you do your own stuff, obviously there’s a huge amount of personal investment. To maintain that part of my career is important to me, and I hope I do it forever.

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