We caught up with Simon Pegg this week to chat about his latest movie, JJ Abrams taking over at the helm of the Star Wars franchise, and sweet potato stew.
Simon Pegg has had an amazing career to date. From stand-up comedian to writing TV shows, hit movies and acting in the Star Trek franchise, it's been a rollercoaster few years since it all began. His latest project, Hector and the Search for Happiness is out this week, so we had a chat to the star and all round likable guy Simon Pegg about the process of making a movie that saw him travel all around the world, tried to get an insight into where JJ Abrams might take Star Wars, and what's the deal with sweet potato stew.
Q: In the process of making the movie, what did you learn about happiness?
Simon Pegg: I think it’s more of a process. You’re not on a quest to arrive at this thing that we all know as ‘happiness’, it’s more like part of an ongoing cycle. Once you’re aware of it, you get a bit better at being happy and being unhappy. You need to experience all of it in order to know true happiness. You have to go through all of it; heartbreak, loss, misery, and everything.
Once you accept that then it’s easier to cope with being unhappy, because you know that it’s temporary and probably just a prelude to you being happy again at some point. It’s more about discovering what it’s not than what it is.
Q: The movie is set all over the world, from London to Shanghai, literally, what was that like?
SP: We actually started in Vancouver, which actually fills in for plenty of places when you interior shots, and then we went out to the real places: We started in London, then to Johannesburg and the rural areas around there and then on to Shanghai and Tibet and then London.
We had the longest blocks in Johannesburg, Shanghai and Vancouver, and it was really, really good fun to get to go to all of those places. There’s bit of trickery involved in piecing all that together in the movie, as one minute we’re outside in Shanghai and then we’re inside in Vancouver, so it’s nice to see how it all came together.
Q: There’s one particular scene where there are lions in the background just walking around, any trickery there?
SP: No, that was the real deal! I was in an enclosure with a gate that could be closed quickly if needs be, but the lions were very much there! If they came within about fifteen feet they closed the gate, but they can accelerate really quickly, faster than a Formula 1 car, so you have to be very, very careful with them. They were beautiful animals, and I don’t think for a second that they were too interested in eating us. They were really sweet, and after we finished filming they came up to the fence to say hello and we scratched them, they’re awesome creatures. Still terrifying though.
Q: One of the big parts of the movie, without giving too much away, is the Sweet Potato Stew, did you get to eat any of it?
SP: I know, it is! But no we never actually ate any of it, we never made it. We decided that it had to be mythic, that it had to remain unknown to retain its happiness quality. I think if we’d tried to make it and it had come in under par it would have been so disappointing, so we just kept it as this mythic thing. Never partake of the Sweet Potato Stew.
Q: There are a few references in the movie specifically to Tintin, did that come about through your involvement in the movies or fondness for that character?
SP: Well no that was always in the script. It’s about finding your inner Tintin, your inner explorer. He’s a Belgian character and the original book that the movie is based on came from France, so there’s a linguistic connection there that probably saw it filter into the original. It didn’t have anything really to do with my participation in the Tintin movies, but it’s about retaining that connection to your inner child, because that’s when you set all of your emotional parameters to everything really, your first emotional reactions are formed then, and it can define who we are as an adult. It’s important to stay in touch with that part of yourself.
Q: Have you ever been struck with that kind of wanderlust like Hector is in the movie?
SP: I love travelling, but I’ve got a great deal of happiness at home, I have a family that I quite like hanging about with so that’s important to me. I did go to Australia as a young man though, and I went on a comedy tour of Melbourne, and that was a huge epiphany for me. It was literally geometrically opposed to my life at the time and couldn’t have been more different, but nowadays I’m pretty happy to stay in my own back garden!
Q: We know by now that you’re a huge movie buff, and there are some incredible actors in this move, even in the local cast, what were they like to work with?
SP: It’s extraordinary to think that the calibre of actor in Hector and the Search for Happiness are there to support me, and it’s humbling. It’s also inspiring because you can do nothing but bring your A-game with people like Jean Reno and Christopher Plummer and Stellan Skarsgard around you. There are also these other amazing actors that appear in this like Barry Atsma, who plays my best friend in Africa in the movie. He’s pretty much the Brad Pitt of Holland, and hopefully he’ll become the Barry Atsma of the world, because he’s fantastic!
Q: If someone had sat you down a few years ago and said you’re going to be in Star Trek and have these hugely successful movies and be a leading man, would you have believed them?
SP: I don’t think I would have been so presumptuous as to believe anyone that told me that I would eventually be acting alongside those people and in all these movies. It’s something that I never try and lose sight of and how good it is, and how incredibly lucky I am.
Q: You’ve been in such a range of movies, from Mission Impossible to something like Hector, what’s left that you feel you need to conquer?
SP: Nothing that springs to mind, really. The most important thing for me is to continue to work and continue to be happy, because this does genuinely make me happy. I want to continue to work with people that inspire me and do things that challenge me and keep it feeling as fresh as it’s always been.
Q: We can’t really let you go without a quick question about the new Star Wars, we’re not sure if anyone has been in Star Trek and Star Wars but figured you’d be the man to ask…
I think JJ’s father and father-in-law will be the first, they’ve been in every film he’s ever done! Seriously, though, I was so excited when I heard that he was doing that, and obviously we were a bit sad that he was leaving us in the Star Trek franchise, but I can’t think of a better person to take it on and bring it back to the joy that it was when it first came out.
I think the prequels kind of soured the milk a bit for everyone and it’s important that it gets returned to its former glory. It was my favourite film growing up so to have someone as capable and as committee as JJ at the helm is exciting, and I know that he’s going to do something brilliant with it. I’m trying to be like everyone else should be, I think we all need to just shut up and wait! I’m not petitioning for a role, it’s not important whether I’m in it or not, I just want it to be good!
Q: We’ll lead with the headline ‘Pegg petitions JJ Abrams for part in Star Wars’…
SP: Oh, great.
Q: Before we head off, if you had to sum up the secret to happiness in one sentence, what would that be?
SP: I think there is no secret, it’s all out there for you to find and it will probably happen along the way, but if it was one phrase then: ‘Don’t be afraid to be unhappy’. And see the movie, that will make you happy!
Hector and the Search for Happiness is in cinemas nationwide from August 15th.