Simon Pegg was born and grew up in Brockworth, Gloucestershire. When he was 16, he left home to study theatre and English Literature, then attended the University of Bristol, from which he graduated in 1991 with a BA in Theatre, Film and Television.
In 1999 he co-wrote Spaced with Jessica Hynes, creating the character of Mike Watt specially for his friend Nick Frost. After he co-wrote Shaun of the Dead with Edgar Wright, Hollywood beckoned. His role in Mission: Impossible III led to a friendship with Tom Cruise and a bunch of other roles from Star Trek to Star Wars.
In his Letter To My Younger Self, he reflects on his early breaks in comedy, and how the ‘pinch-me’ moments never really go away.
When I was 16 I left school in Gloucestershire and went to a college of further education in Stratford-upon-Avon. It was the only college in the country that let you take theatre studies as a main subject and I had decided that’s what I wanted to do when I was about 14. My mum, bless her, worked really hard to get me in to this place – there was a grant for young children following the arts so I managed to get £1,000 from that. I lived with another family through the week and took my laundry on the coach home every weekend.
When I think of that 16-year-old kid now I quite like him. He was a bit nervous to be away from home and just wanted to make friends. He loved college and he was excited to be supported in something a lot of parents wouldn’t have been keen on. But my mum was an avid participant in the local drama group in Gloucester, and I grew up going to see her in plays and getting little kiddie parts in the annual musical. So I was exposed to the theatre from a very young age and I associated it with extremely positive feelings.
I was also naturally a bit of a show off, always playing to the gallery. So it all kind of coalesced. My mum never at any point said to me, you shouldn’t do this, it’s too risky; she just supported me the whole time.
The big change for me was when Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews saw me doing stand-up in the Chiswick Comedy Club, and they asked me to come and be in a pilot for a sketch show called Big Train. When I made that I thought, this is what I really want to do. I met Edgar Wright and Jessica Hynes around that time and started writing Spaced, which led to Shaun of the Dead. So everything came from Big Train.
Big Train was about always playing the situation absolutely straight, no matter how utterly absurd the situation was. That was very much Graham and Arthur, and their way of plain speaking in a totally weird environment, whether it’s Hall & Oates helping out on a housing estate or whatever. You do it without a single wry smile or a sidelong glance at the audience. I think that approach was starting to emerge around that time as well through Steve Coogan, Chris Morris, Armando Iannucci, The Day Today and that kind of humour, which is pitched dead straight.
If you met the teenage me you’d see someone who is pretty confident and friendly, but I also had that teenage angst. And I was an absolute drama queen as well. I loved the agony of romance in my early relationships. I think I liked listening to break-up songs as much as any other part of the relationship.
After I finished my first two years away from home, I fell into my depressive period. I think that was the shock of having just met this group of amazing people and then losing them, because I then left Stratford and went to the University of Bristol. That was a really hard summer. I grappled with a lot of emotional anxiety. I look back and I realise it was basically abandonment that I was suffering from. But I didn’t know that at the time, I didn’t know why I couldn’t get out of bed.
One thing I’d definitely say to my younger self is, this will pass. I’d remind myself of that every time I stopped believing in my ability. When I was going through bouts of depression I had that feeling of, it doesn’t matter if I’m talented, it doesn’t matter if people want to work with me. I don’t know if I can be arsed. It would be good to always know that feeling would pass.
When I was a kid, three years after Return of the Jedi, I didn’t even know there were going to be any more Star Wars movies. So the idea that I’d wind up playing a big, blobby alien in a Star Wars film [in 2015’s The Force Awakens] would have completely blown my mind. I’ve developed a bit of wisdom about how to deal with a level of success, but sometimes I do catch myself going “oh my god, I’m here, on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. How did I get here?” I try to maintain the perspective of the 16-year-old me or even the seven-year-old me, to vicariously experience his joy at what’s happening and truly appreciate how amazing it is.
I’ve fulfilled a whole bunch of my childhood dreams, like being in Star Wars and working with Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson, who formed such an important part of my comedy education. I want to keep appreciating things in a fanboy sense, I never want to feel jaded. People might think I can just walk onto the set of a big movie and hold my own and not look like a convention goer who’s lost his way. But I allow myself to feel that sense of wonder, because it’s important.
I went down to Santa Monica to visit Steven Spielberg because he wanted me and Nick Frost to play the Thompson Twins in [2011’s The Adventures of Tintin]. I got this call saying: “Steven’s down in the studio, do you want to go and say hello?” I walked into this room and there he was in his baseball cap, like he always has on all those behind-the-scenes documentaries. I had this chat with him and he was absolutely lovely, everything I’d hoped he would be. Then, when I left the studio, I sat on the hood of my car and just breathed.
After I’d calmed myself I phoned my stepdad because I remembered when I was 10, I went to see him when he was working in Debenhams, and he said: “We can do one of two things tonight. We can either go to the fair, or we can go and see this new film the guy who made Jaws has made with Harrison Ford called Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I wanted to please him because we didn’t have a particularly consistent relationship at that time. So when I met Steven and it was apparent that he wanted to work with me, my stepdad was the person I called to say, “Guess where the fuck I am?” That was a real moment.
I’ll never forget the first time Jessica [Hynes] and I walked onto the set of Spaced. There was the flat we’d written about, with all the interiors we’d vaguely referred to in our script. Designers and builders had actually made them. That was extraordinary. I remember us just looking at each other and saying, this is actually going to happen. We didn’t know if Spaced was going to be a hit, but it still felt like we’d reached a certain point, something to be awed by. It was literally like our dreams had come true, through this three-dimensional manifestation of our fantasies. And there we were standing in it.
If I could live any time in my life again, it would definitely be the four days I spent in St John’s hospital in Santa Monica when my daughter was born. I flew back from filming Paul and my wife and I went to get a Starbucks, then we drove to the hospital, and we had a child, and it was amazing. She was born to Girl by The Beatles. Then the first song that came on after I cut the cord was Tomorrow Never Knows, my favourite Beatles song, so I was bobbing around the operating theatre to that.
We stayed in hospital for a few days, ordering pizza. July 4 came and we had a curry and watched the fireworks from our window. And I just remember it being such a profound moment; suddenly we were three and it was beautiful. Whenever Tilly’s birthday comes around I tell her that story and now she’s like: “Oh shut up dad, I know, you had a Starbucks, you went to the hospital, blah blah blah.” But for me that was, you know… because she’s the single greatest thing that’s ever happened to me in my life. So that can really be the only answer to that question.
Simon Pegg stars in The Undeclared War, streaming on All 4, and Luck on AppleTV+ from August 5