This year marks the tenth anniversary of Edgar Wright’s great cult zombie-comedy Shaun of the Dead, when most of the world was introduced to the Britain’s most unlikely hero, Simon Pegg. In the decade since, of course, he’s become just about ubiquitous, appearing in everything from the Star Trek reboot to a couple of Mission Impossibles. But while just about everybody is familiar with Pegg’s inimitable comedy stylings, we’ve not seen much in the way of versatility – at least until now. Pegg’s latest film, director Peter Chisolm’s Hector and the Search for Happiness, is a dramatic comedy with a rather conspicuous emphasis on dramatic, and it provides ample opportunity for Pegg to prove himself as an actor capable of more than making us laugh (though he does plenty of that too). We caught up with Pegg before the film’s North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about getting serious, being happy, and why what might be next for Pegg is arty rape and abuse.
So how have you been enjoying your time here at TIFF? Seen any good films?
I love film festivals, but I haven’t been seeing much.
Who needs to see films at a film festival anyway?
I know. Who does that? Nobody.
It’s funny: I’ve interviewed Edgar Wright and Nick Frost, and so now I feel like I’ve got the full circle.
Yes, the full set. [Laughs]
It’s interesting to see you do, as I’m sure everyone says, more dramatic work, so maybe I should start by asking what the challenges are for you when doing that kind of role?
Well, you know, I’m an actor, and certainly with the films I’ve done with Edgar and Nick we always try and include a vein of seriousness in those films. I think they are often more serious than people give them credit for. There is a genuine tragedy in Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End and there’s some real emotion in Hot Fuzz. For us it’s because it helps to colour the comedy and to establish what isn’t funny as well as what is. We create a kind of comic relief by having a fundamental seriousness underpinning everything. What I’m saying is that I don’t feel that serious acting is anything new for me, and I did it in my training as an actor — I went off and did stand-up for a while, but I haven’t been a comic for 10-15 years now. Often when I see myself described as a comic, I’m like, “That’s not right! I’m not a comic, I’m an actor, damnit!” To get to actually flex those muscles a bit in this movie was nice; it was challenging and it felt refreshing to do it.
Was it a conscious effort to introduce the world to your dramatic side as well?
It is still a comedy, albeit one that has a lot of tonal shifts in it, and goes up and down. But then that’s what life is; one of the things that the film is saying is that life is a series of tonal shifts and you have to experience each one of those in order to know what each one of those is. It felt like a good segue into the possibility of doing more serious acting, or what’s considered “dramatic acting” I suppose, because it encompasses both things. There’s some out-and-out Buster Keaton-style physical comedy in the film and there’s also some harrowing, near-death stuff that is uncomfortable to watch. So in response to your question, no, not in a decisive way, but I realized while I was making it that it might be convenient for that. You know, if I went out and suddenly did a really hard-hitting earnest festival pic with a lot of rape and abuse in it, I think people would go, “Ooh, I don’t know about that, Simon…” But this felt like a way to move towards, er, rape and abuse.
Speaking of abuse — in the film I thought it interesting that it doesn’t shy away from the really dark elements of life, especially in the Africa section. Was ever any danger of you getting too far into things that are really “real” especially in the context of what is essentially a comedy film?
We always regarded the film as being a child’s account of something. This idea of Hector being this dysfunctional adult who can’t really connect with his childhood self is an important way for us to experience happiness as grown-ups. If we go back to the purity of our response to the world as a kid, it can sometimes help us get over the baggage we’ve picked up as adults. Hector can’t access that. The story is told from a very childish point of views, so he goes on this journey like Tintin — and as you see at the beginning of the film Tintin is the key to the film, really. We see China as this mysterious oriental world of temptation and lights, and Tibet as monks and mountains, and Africa as lions and warlords, and America as beaches and hippy old guys using technology. It’s a sort of fable-istic way of looking at things. Even in the really dark stuff, where Hector’s being tortured, we always remembered that this a film, a fable, and it never got too “method.” It’s not a documentary; this is a figurative representation of reality. I’m not a method actor — when we did those scenes, we just did them and we remembered that they weren’t real. It’s hard sometimes, kissing a beautiful Chinese woman — it’s hard to convince your body that that’s not real. As an actor you constantly do things where your body is asking, “Hold on a minute, am I going to die? Am I in love with this person? What’s happening right now? Am I feeling extreme happiness?” That’s a bizarre part of the job, but I try not to be too method, or too experience it all too well.
I guess that would help connect the film to audiences, because they don’t have to imagine themselves literally in Africa to get that feeling.
It’s not a complete metaphor because it’s a real guy inhabiting quite a mythical world. As Peter always says, it’s a fable, and that’s the key to it. It’s not meant to be seen as a true reality, it’s a magical sort of reality. It’s a little removed from truth but what it’s basically saying is very real, that happiness is a process, it’s not a thing that you arrive at. It’s part of a continuum that also features fear and loss and all those other emotions that aren’t happiness. You have to be able to identify every colour in the emotional spectrum in order to experience any one with purity. For me that’s the biggest thing. Of all those little lines that come across the screen — some of which are just fucking greetings-card bullshit, some of which are genuinely philosophically sound — the one that I feel really hits home is “Avoiding unhappiness is not the route to happiness.” It’s very true, because you can’t be happy all the time. You have to have a break from being happy in order to remember what being happy is. Otherwise you just become numb. That’s what Hector is at the beginning. We took the most unsympathetic, least likable demographic, the white, middle-class male, and give him a fucking problem, and say, “if this guy can be unhappy, any of us can.”
So complacency is the real warning of the film.
Yeah. There’s a different danger that faces us in affluent, western societies, societies that aren’t about survival and just staying alive every day. We get doped up on the amount of choice and comfort we have, and lose sight of what our happiness is. We become slightly anaesthetized to our own emotions. We have so much choice and we are told how to do everything, what to buy, what to eat, and how buying these things will elevate us to new realms of happiness. Real happiness is sweet potato stew. It’s making a meal with your family, and simple things like that. We are duped and cobbled and numbed. I’m not saying a lack of choice is key, but I saw more smiles around the townships in Johannesburg. I saw more genuine happiness than I did in the places where people had some money, because people were nervous there, and worried about getting carjacked. The people that nearly died the day before were really happy that they were alive! It’s an interesting idea to me.
It’s interesting, too, that by virtue of filming the movie, and having that character going on that adventure, you are actually going along to these places and seeing those parts of the world.
We went through so much and saw so many things. We were roughing it a lot of the time. I remember one time we were in Africa and I was shooting on a game reserve. I was in my trailer, really hot, with no running water, feeling extremely uncomfortable, and I remember thinking, “this is it — I’m making films in the wild of Africa and I don’t have any home comforts!” And a week later I was back in Watford, outside London, doing some reshoots for The World’s End, and my trailer was really hot, with no running water, and I realized that it was the exact same thing, nothing to do with Africa. That’s the just the way it is in the film industry. At times, when we were in China and in Tibet we were all staying in a youth hostel, where the toilet was a hole in the ground and the food was inedible because our stomachs weren’t used to it. It was kind of cool, in a masochistic way.