Interview: Simon Pegg Mans Up to Lake Bell

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Simon Pegg on the romantic comedy Man Up and writing Star Trek Beyond.

Simon Pegg on the romantic comedy Man Up and writing Star Trek Beyond

Simon Pegg has already been in his fair share of romantic comedies, but his latest one, Man Up, pairs him with Lake Bell (“Childrens Hospital”) for a case of mistaken identity that leads to a hilarious night between two people who have more in common than they might want to admit.

Bell plays Nancy, a woman who hasn’t had much luck in love, but when she’s accidentally mistaken by Pegg’s Jack as the blind date he’s supposed to be meeting, she goes along with it only to be discovered as they try to fool others that they’re together.

Man Up is better than some of the other mainstream British rom-coms we’ve seen in the past ten to fifteen years mainly due to the chemistry between Pegg and Bell and what they do with the screenplay by first-time screenwriter Tess Morris. It’s even funnier due to the direction of “The Inbetweeners’” Ben Palmer, who really makes the most of Nancy and Jack’s night together. You can watch the trailer below:

ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Simon Pegg earlier this week to talk about the movie. We also talked about Pegg writing Star Trek Beyond and he gave us a little hint about his character in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, suggesting that we wouldn’t recognize him in the role.

ComingSoon.net: I think I was fighting liking this at first because I’ve seen so many romantic comedies, but I really liked the chemistry between you and Lake. I get the impression you’re a fan of romantic comedies because even going back to “Shaun of the Dead,” you’ve written stuff in that genre.

Simon Pegg: Yeah, people always make the mistake of calling “Shaun of the Dead” a zombie parody, but it’s not. It’s a parody of romantic comedies. It’s very much a zombie movie, everything’s intact. We don’t make fun of it. We use it as a way of skewering what has become quite a staid genre in terms of the London-set romantic comedy. But I still come at it with a degree of affection. I think it’s hard to parody anything. If you parody something you don’t like, it just becomes unpleasant and sort of snarky and bitter, whereas if you parody something you enjoy, you do it with degree of love. I’m a huge fan of Woody Allen and I love “When Harry Met Sally” and I like doing screwball romantic comedy. I think the sort of notion of unrequited love is often a super-compelling kind of storyline. When this came up, it just felt like something that would be fun to do. 

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CS: It was written by Tess Morris, and I’m not really familiar with her work, but Ben Palmer directed “The Inbetweeners.” Did you know him beforehand? How did it come together and come your way?

Simon Pegg: You’re not familiar with Tess’ work because this is it. (laughs) She’s done a little bit, she’s been a writer on television for a while, but this is her first feature script, which she just wrote on spec for the company Big Talk Productions, which I’m sort of attached to together with Nira Park and Edgar Wright, who had done the “Cornetto” movies. I hadn’t met Ben before. He came up in conversation. He obviously directed the most successful British comedy film ever in terms of our box office, so that was a draw. He just seemed to really get the material and he’s become a good friend—we go snowboarding together now.

CS: Being a writer yourself, when you get a script like this one, are you a little jaded or cynical because you’ve written in the genre before? What’s your take when you get a script like this?

Simon Pegg: The big draw initially was that it would shoot in London, and I have a family and the least appealing part of my job is that I have to leave from time to time. Nira gave me the script and said, “This is shooting in London,” and I was immediately interested, so I read it and was happy to find it very snappy and I was very keen to do something that was written by a woman. It felt like a cool thing to do, not to be the lead in the movie, to play against a female lead seemed like a good thing to do. I liked the voice. I liked Tess’ voice. There are a few things I pitched in with in terms of Jack, just as a male perspective occasionally, not that it was a particularly needed. I think Tess is a really instinctively smart writer, but as a writer, Tess welcomed me pitching a few things here and there. It’s nice when you read a script and think, “Ah, I don’t have to do anything” because your instinct as a writer is always to interfere. (laughs)

CS: Was Lake already attached or was she someone you found together with the filmmakers?

Simon Pegg: Yeah, I’d never heard of her and Nira suggested her. We had this idea that we should cast forward rather than back. We initially started with name actresses on the page to try and generate funding. Of course, you look at names, but we had this idea of rather than casting a familiar face, to cast an unfamiliar one, particularly since we were having trouble finding a British actress that fit the bill. Nira Park said, “There’s this actress called Lake Bell and one of her specialties is accents so she might be able to pull off a British accent.” We were prepared at first to tweak the script to accommodate an American character but it didn’t really ring true, so when we discovered that Lake had that ability, it was a bit of a no-brainer. 

CS: I wouldn’t really think of her as doing accents but I remember seeing her movie “In a World… “ and she was doing accents as a dialect coach and I wasn’t sure if that was something she actually did or was just doing specifically for that movie.

Simon Pegg: She went to drama school in the UK, so she’s been around the accent for a fair few years, and I think it’s something she relished really. I didn’t ever really hear her not speaking in that voice, because she was very committed to getting it right and because the script meant that we could keep it quite loose at times. She wanted to be able to think in a British accent, as much as anything, but she worked really hard with Jill McCullough, who is our dialect coach, and she pretty much stayed in character for the entire period of time I was in contact with her. So I never really met Lake Bell to be honest, I only met Nancy.

CS: I think she’s one of the first actresses since maybe Kate or Jessica who can hold their own to you with the comedy, taking the reins where you’re usually the more comic aspect of scenes.

Simon Pegg: I’ve worked with some great comedy actresses in the past like Kristen Wiig, who I just think is the best, but Lake Bell did have comedy chops, and she was up for batting around the script in a very fast and furious way…. I mean, not like the “Fast and Furious” movies obviously. But kind of mad-cap, machine-gun dialogue kind of way. She seems to do that quite well.

CS: I’m not sure if anyone used the term “fast and furious” before those movies, but no one can use it again thanks to those movies.

Simon Pegg: It’s been sullied, hasn’t it? By large muscle cars and Vin Diesel.

CS: I can’t even remember if “fast and furious” was even a term, because it’s been so long since it became a movie title.

Simon Pegg: I know. It definitely was. It definitely was a beloved term that’s now been appropriated by big business, like so many things in life.

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CS: Was there a lot of improvisation between the two of you? I don’t know what Ben did with “The Inbetweeners” but I have to assume there was some of that since Lake is so good with improv. Was that something that was encouraged?

Simon Pegg: Basically, we would get what was in the script and then Ben would say, “Let’s do one more take and just be loosie goosy” and sometimes it would work and sometimes it wouldn’t. It wouldn’t ever really be straying too far from Tess’ script. It was more just making it as natural as possible as far as conversation. I don’t hold to this idea that some actors have where they just come in and throw the script away, thinking that they can do better. I think that’s bullsh*t. Writers are writers for a reason, and actors are actors for a reason, and sometimes isolating a scene and turning it into a sketch can be damaging to the film as a whole. It’s important to hit all the requisite beats and make sure that the film’s composition is intact. Improvisations often become about the moment and who gets the last laugh and I don’t think it’s always particularly constructive, but Ben and Tess were always keen for getting a bit loose with it on the last take, once we got everything we needed and it was all in the can.

CS: Well, you never know who is going to get the last laugh, because the director is always going to be in the editing room changing everything.

Simon Pegg: Yeah, exactly, but it becomes about the moment. It becomes almost about making the crew laugh. You can watch films sometimes that have been heavily improvised, and you just think, “You guys are just f*cking around and I’m just a spectator. You’re not doing this for me, you’re doing this for you.” I find those films often a little bit exclusive when it comes to the viewer. It’s more about who was being the funniest on the day.

CS: Interesting. I’m not going to say what movie it is, but I just wrote up an interview for a movie where they were talking about improvisation and trying to make the crew laugh, so I’ll see how that turns out.

Simon Pegg: (laughs)

CS: One of the scenes that a lot of people have mentioned I’m sure is your big dance scene with Lake dancing to Duran Duran’s “The Reflex.” Were a lot of those your moves or was there a lot involved with getting that?

Simon Pegg: No, we worked with a choreographer called Litza Bixler who we’ve known for a very long time, who actually choreographed all the zombies in “Shaun of the Dead” and she choreographed all the simultaneous movement in “The World’s End.” She’s an old friend of ours and she came along and we worked with her to come up with a routine that we tried to dismantle, in a way. We had this idea that everyone had a dance routine that they learned unconsciously as a youngster, which can often just rematerialize spontaneously in night clubs. It was this idea of playing out that Jack and Nancy really were in sync in a way that they didn’t quite realize yet, in an emotional way and a physical way. So it was fun to just sort of come up with the moves and then try to make it look as crap as possible. (chuckles)

CS: Between this and Nick’s dancing in “Cuban Fury,” I wonder why you two haven’t done a straight musical together yet.

Simon Pegg: I know. Well, never say never. 

CS: Did you know what music was going to play during that running scene at the end? Did you know it was going to be Whitesnake in advance?

Simon Pegg: Oh, yeah. No, Tess is quite a new writer, so she hasn’t figured out yet that you shouldn’t write the songs you want in your script, because it will be mean you end up paying a lot of money for them. It’s always good to keep your cards close to chest when you want songs from movies, because if they get the idea you actually need the song, they’ll just bump up the “PRS” until it becomes completely unaffordable or they get the money they want. But we wrote to Whitesnake, David, and said, “Can we use your song?” and he was so sweet. He was a nice guy and he said “Yes” and he was very happy for us to use it. That was always in the script. All the songs in the movie, most of the songs I would say, were in the script when Tess wrote it.

CS: That’s always a difficult thing to deal with, but I always wonder if actors know what songs are going to play during montages or scenes like that.

Simon Pegg: When Edgar and I write together, we always have songs in mind, but we try and not reveal them to the production until the last minute so that nothing’s ever really tied, but it’s a good way to not get the song.

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CS: One of the cool things going on now is you’ve kind of gotten to the point where you’re in movies like “Star Wars” and you’ve written a “Star Trek” movie, and you’ve achieved a level where you get to be in the kind of movies you probably enjoyed as a kid?

Simon Pegg: Yeah, it’s amazing and I feel very grateful. It makes me unsure of what I want to do next really. Once I finished “Star Trek Beyond” a couple weeks ago, I got home to my home in the UK and I just thought, “I don’t really want to leave again.” (laughs) I honestly had this feeling of maybe I should just quit now. I don’t know. I feel like I’d maybe like to diversify. I’m going to be tied to a few big films for a while, because I know we’re probably going to make another “Mission: Impossible” and who knows if we make another “Star Trek”? I don’t know but it’s a possibility. I have big movies to do. I feel like maybe I’d just like to go small. I specialize in comedy, it’s something I enjoy, but I don’t consider myself to be a comedian or even a comic actor. I’m just an actor and I’d quite like to do a wide variety of things and just keep it interesting really.

CS: Do you feel like you’d have to write those things yourself that that’s the way to accomplish that?

Simon Pegg: Possibly, possibly. The weird thing is that I feel it’s something you have to do very carefully, ’cause once you’ve done comedy, people just expect you to be funny the whole time. You see it again and again with an actor, whether it’s Woody Allen or Steve Martin or Jim Carey. Whenever they try to do anything which is a little bit different, people go, “No, don’t do that” or they get accused of being pretentious or whatever. I think if I wrote a movie that was deadly serious, people would go and see it (expecting it to be funny).

CS: Writing “Star Trek” must have been a pretty big deal, because this is the first time you’re writing for such a big cast, who you obviously knew from doing two movies together. What was that like being at that level of responsibility?

Simon Pegg: It was fantastic fun. It was emotional highs and lows all the way because we were under a lot of pressure, because the timeframe was a lot smaller than it would normally be. You write a film of that size, you usually get a year or so, but I think we started maybe six months before we went into production, if that. Just under six months and we were already in pre-production, which meant that things had to be designed and set pieces had to be created and the pressure on us to deliver was extraordinary, but me and Doug Jung, together with Justin (Lin) and our producers Leslie, just stood up to it and did it, and actually by the time we started shooting, it had become pretty fun. It was tense the whole time, but it was a pretty amazing train set to get to play with.

CS: Do you think you and J.J. will continue working together whether he produces stuff you write or just acting in his movies?

Simon Pegg: I hope so. Yeah, J.J. and I are great friends and I love working with J.J. and I’d very much like to continue working with J.J. I’d like to do something from scratch with him. It would be fun to look at a blank page together and russle something up. I’m not sure what he’s doing next. He’s been so immersed in “Star Wars” that I’m not sure he even thought about it, but I’m pretty sure he’s going to take some time off. (chuckles)

CS: Great talking to you again, Simon. “Star Wars” comes out in five weeks and it’s going to be completely nuts.

Simon Pegg: Yeah, it’s going to be insane.

CS: I think you’re already at a level where people know where you are, but I have a feeling after “Star Wars” you may have to go into hiding.

Simon Pegg: (laughs) Well, you won’t be able to recognize me, so that’s one good thing about it.

Man Up opens on Friday, November 13 in L.A. and at New York’s Village East Cinemas where Pegg’s co-star Lake Bell will be on-hand for Q n As on Friday and Saturday. It will also be available On Demand starting November 20.