Everybody loves Simon Pegg. He’s starred in and co-wrote smashing comedic successes Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, he’s British (the cool kind, not the snooty kind) and he’s damn funny. Try finding a self-professed Pegg hater– it’s bloody impossible.
Unless, that is, you go see Pegg’s latest film, How To Lose Friends and Alienate People, opening in theatres October 3, 2008. In it, he stars as Sidney Young, a snarky British celebrity journalist who’s hired by New York-based, Vanity Fair-esqe Sharps Magazine. Upon his arrival, he proceeds to pester, piss off and provoke everyone around him, including unlucky victims Kirsten Dunst, Jeff Bridges, Gillian Anderson and Megan Fox. Pegg recently participated in a roundtable with college journalists:
What was it like working with [Curb Your Enthusiasm director] Robert Weide?
Well, the problem was I personally don’t get along with Jewish people. (Laughter) Bob constantly went on about that. He’s brilliant. He’s really, really funny. I love Bob, he directs one of the best situation comedies (Curb) to come out of this country, and I’m a huge fan of that show, and the idea of actually working with him was enough for me to be interested.
He’s a first-time director when it comes to features, and it was funny because he would forget to say ‘Cut’ because he was so used to using video, which is cheap. Celluloid costs a fortune, and after we finished acting you just could hear it whirring through the camera. You could hear the dollar signs just chinking by. Everyone’s going ‘Bob. You should say cut now.’ And it was simply because he wasn’t used to working in that kind of (environment), but otherwise he was completely and utterly adept at what he did.
I re-watched all of Curb in my trailer and I would come back on set whistling the tune, I couldn’t get the tune out of my head. Whenever I had any downtime it was, ‘Dooo do-dooo do-do do-dooo,” which used to make Bob laugh.
Curb Your Enthusiasm revolves around improv. Was there any of that in this movie?
There’s one line that got in that’s improv, which is what I immediately say after touching the transsexual: ‘Penis!’ But otherwise it was pretty much a tight script and it didn’t really necessitate any improv. This is a slightly more conventional romantic comedy and it kind of needs that sort of snappy movie dialogue. I think it was a change of gear for Bob in many ways.
Do you find it harder to act in movies that you yourself didn’t co-write or have a hand in creating?
It’s a different dynamic because I don’t have any production responsibility. In Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, we were involved in every single element of the production, when it comes to, like, afterwards — in post-production you start wanting to hear what’s going on, see cuts of trailers and ideas for posters which you don’t always get any say in. But sometimes it’s nice just to let it go and just relax, just be an actor, and in that respect it’s actually a nice change of pace. But I’m happiest when I can control everything.
A big part of the movie is this idea of how our culture is so celebrity-obsessed. Can you talk about that?
It’s a timely film. The actual book, Toby [Young]’s experiences in New York that it’s based on, was in 1995, and I think the idea of doing it as a period piece came up, which would have been fun. But in terms of the film’s topicality, it’s a really timely movie in that right now our obsession with celebrities is at an all-time, ridiculous high. As an actor people ask you, ‘Is this the thing that’s gonna make you famous?’ That element of it is a consequence of what you do, it’s not why you do it or where you’re going. I see celebrity being to actors what radiation is to people that work in a nuclear power plant. You can’t help getting close to it and it’s not necessarily a good thing. The film is very much about how meaningless all that is. It might look great from the outside, but once you’re in it, it’s actually pretty disturbing and a bit pointless.
What was your level of interaction with Toby Young in preparing for the role?
I made sure I went out and had dinner a few times and got to know him. I didn’t do an impression of Toby in the movie. Have you ever seen Toby Young talk? He’s kind of — (imitating Young) ‘He talks like this. He’s got — he’s got British in him. He talks like moving his head.’ I think it would have been pointless to do that for two hours because you’ve gotta like this guy. However loathsome he is, at some point you have to think, ‘Ok, maybe I’m gonna root for him,’ and I don’t think that really helps talking like this.
And he’s not a horrible human being. I think he had an approach to journalism which got him a bit of a rep. He’s tenacious and doesn’t really care what people think of him. But you know, he did get thrown off set. He went up to Kirsten one of the first few days and ask if she was in love with him yet. Then he said to Bob that night, ‘I think it’s gonna be really hard for me to come on set and not have some kind of input.’ And Bob said, ‘Well, don’t come on set.’ And then he didn’t. That’s how we got rid of Toby.
The movie characterizes the British entertainment press as kind of a bunch of bumbling idiots with an ‘Everybody hates us, we don’t care’ mentality, and the American press as really pandering to celebrities and uptight. How true would you say those characterizations are?
The motto of the British press, that’s fairly true in some respects. Sydney goes to work for a man based on Graydon Carter, who started Spy magazine, a very irreverent, satirical publication, and who now is editing Vanity Fair, which is less a comment on that world than an accessory to it. Sydney thinks that’s the dark side, which it isn’t necessarily. I think there are types of journalists like that in America and England. Our journalists can be quite aggressive and rude and negative. Your paparazzi are worse than ours. Ours are invasive, but they don’t shout as loudly as yours do.
It’s weird now, because you have British magazines like OK! and Hello! really pandering to the notion of celebrity. They present people in their homes and it’s very much an aspirational magazine which presents fame almost like a condition of royalty. And then you have magazines like People and Us, and we have Heat, that are just about ‘Ha ha, look at her spots, doesn’t she have an ugly baby’ or whatever. So it’s everywhere. It’s an epidemic.
Why should people see this this movie?
It’s very entertaining. It’s a good night out. It’s full of amazing actors, for starters. I wouldn’t be so immodest just to include myself. The supporting cast is brilliant. There’s a real journey there, it’s uplifting and it’s the kind of movie which would leave you smiling, which I think is a good thing for (this) kind of film.