Fresh back from a whistle top promotional tour where he faced a grilling by hundreds of journalists, Simon Pegg stepped straight into his latest role – playing a celebrity obsessed magazine writer who has a terrible knack of upsetting everyone including the people he’s sent to interview. In How To Lose Friends And Alienate People, Pegg plays British hack Sidney Young who lands a highly coveted job on an upscale Manhattan based glossy called Sharps. But his dream of finding himself on the inside the glamorous world of premiers, parties and rubbing shoulders with beautiful starlets goes disastrously, hilariously wrong thanks to a series of spectacular gaffs.
“It was interesting because I started the film directly after doing a big block of press for Hot Fuzz so I had literally just been in contact with about 600 journalists,” says Pegg.
“So it was fascinating and funny and not as weird as you might think it was. I didn’t suddenly think ‘oh I’m on the other side of it now and now I understand them.’ I think journalists are individuals and I wouldn’t presume to say they are all the same.
How To Lose Friends And Alienate People is loosely based on British journalist Toby Young’s memoir of his time working on Vanity Fair magazine. But, as Pegg points out, although the book is the inspiration, the film is vastly different.
“The film is very much an adaptation of the book and I’m keen to stress that,” says Pegg. “The book doesn’t really lend itself to being a film in a sense, because it’s very anecdotal and it’s filled with huge tracts about philosophy and it’s very much a book and an enjoyable one, but in order to make it into a film Peter (Straughan, screenwriter) had to shape it as such so it is pretty different.”
But, says Pegg, one of the book’s themes – the increasingly blurred divide between celebrity journalism and the people they write about – is still very relevant, perhaps even more so now than ever. Sidney Young is a journalist who is desperate to be on the inside of what he perceives as the privileged lifestyle of the rich and famous.
“Toby/ Sidney is a specific kind of journalist I think. It was originally set in the mid 1990s but I think now that kind of journalism, the sort of obsession with the material end of show business is now so rabid and ridiculous that the notion of the guy who is desperate to be in that world and at the same time, deconstruct it, is very topical.
“Nowadays, you see so many photographs of journalists over their columns and it’s like ‘well, what are you doing? Do you want to be famous or do you want to talk about being famous?’ Of course some of them do want to be famous. It’s that position of having their cake and eating it. It’s what Sidney definitely wants to be.
“It’s like at one point, Sidney’s editor at Sharps says to him ‘you bitched and moaned because you couldn’t get into the party, well stop bitching and moaning because you’re at the party..’”
First and foremost, says Pegg, How To Lose Friends And Alienate People is a classic fish out of water comedy. Sidney dives head first into the glamorous and seemingly sophisticated Manhattan pool and makes quite a splash but in all the wrong ways. The question is, will he sink or swim?
For Pegg, the initial draw was a sparkling script and the chance to work with director Robert Weide. A star studded cast - with Kirsten Dunst as Alison Olsen, the magazine’s bright but world-weary arts correspondent, Jeff Bridges as enigmatic editor Clayton Harding and Danny Huston as his immediate boss and romantic rival Lawrence Maddox – was a huge bonus. Megan Fox plays a beautiful young actress, Sophie Maes, who becomes the object of Sidney’s desires, and Gillian Anderson is her all powerful publicist, Eleanor Johnson.
“They came to me with a great script and it was the combination of that and the chance to work with Bob Weide who directed one of my favourite TV shows, Curb Your Enthusiasm,” he explains.
“And the script really was a hoot – it was sharp and funny and beguiling and as an actor that’s what you look for so that’s really what drew me to the project. And of course, when you get the chance to work with actors of the calibre of Jeff and Kirsten, Danny, Megan and Gillian, well, what more could you ask for?”
The comedy community in America and indeed, US audiences has welcomed Pegg himself with open arms in general. Shaun of the Dead, his brilliant zombie comedy set in London, which he co-wrote with director Edgar Wright and starred in with his close friend, Nick Frost, won huge critical acclaim there.
And their follow up, Hot Fuzz, was another hit Stateside. Recently, Pegg’s sitcom, Spaced, which was first shown on British television eight years ago, was released on DVD in America and won glowing reviews. Quentin Tarantino, who championed Shaun of the Dead, and is a fan of Spaced, appears on the DVD commentary – a huge thrill for Pegg.
“There’s a scene in one of the episodes of Spaced where we did a little Pulp Fiction pastiche. And to be sat in the voice-over booth with Quentin talking about that scene, with him there, was the most bizarre and delightful moment of circularity ever,” he says. “It was a ‘look how far we’ve come!’ sort of thing. It was a big moment.”
Pegg, 38, was born in Gloucestershire, England, and graduated from Bristol University with an arts degree in Theatre, Film and Television. After college, he began his career as a stand-up comedian before breaking into television and radio, working on comedies including Big Train and Hippies.
In 1999 he created and co-wrote the Channel Four sitcom Spaced with Jessica Stevenson – the series also featured Nick Frost, who would later work with Pegg in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. They are planning a third film together, Paul, a road movie about two British ‘geeks’ on their way to a comic convention in San Diego, next year. Pegg also stars in the latest Star Wars movie, directed by J.J Abrams.
How To Lose People is Robert Weide’s first feature, how did he do?
It was Bob’s first feature and it was interesting in a way because I think it was the first time that I’ve worked with a director that I’ve been more experienced than - certainly in terms of film production. Bob’s been in the business a long time and he’s very savvy but technically it was his first feature film so when started rolling on the first day it was a significant moment for him. He did great. The thing that would give it away was that he would quite often forget to say ‘cut.’ He is so used to working on BETA, which is very inexpensive, he would just keep the camera rolling or forget to say ‘cut’ completely because on Curb he would just let the camera run and run whereas with celluloid you are dealing with an extremely expensive medium and ‘cut’ is important in order to save money. So we would all be looking around at each other going ‘is he going to say “cut?”’ (laughs) That was the only giveaway otherwise he took to it like a duck to water.
On Curb as I understand it they have a loose structure of what a scene might be about and then they play..
That’s right, they have a beginning and an end and a motivation and a point and then tackle it with those things in mind but generally speaking they improvise the whole thing, which is why it has such a naturalistic feel.
But I’m assuming with the constraints of film you guys couldn’t improvise that much How To Lose Friends?
No, it’s different. Some filmmakers work like that – if you look at Christopher Guest’s team and Will Ferrell’s gang and some of the Judd Apatow movies, they shoot and shoot and shoot. But you have to be able to have the resources to do that and the time as well. And if you are doing a movie in that way, you approach it differently. Whereas we had a script that was funny and in tact and didn’t really require that approach.
What was it you liked about the story in essence? It’s about a guy who fails..
Yes, it is. But it’s just a great romp. It has some great set pieces and it’s that classic underdog story which is always appealing to audiences when the character you are rooting for consistently lets you down but you stay with them. It’s quite a classical character in a way; it’s the hero that could. And I think there is something delightfully loser-ish about Sidney that I liked.
Did you see it as about cultural difference too?
He goes over to America thinking that his ethnicity is going to appeal and that he is going to be quaint and he can’t really impact on them at all and that his sweet British-ness is not an asset.
Have you ever felt that yourself when you go there?
We still have that odd appeal to some people over there and I’m not sure exactly what it is, the more time I spend over there the more I realise how foreign we are to them actually and certainly in going over and promoting British films you do realise that the one thing we do have in common is simply that we speak a version of the same language and to certainly to people in the interior of America Britain is as foreign as Outer Mongolia.
At times it’s almost like we become more British when we go there?
You sort of end up playing a role, which is a bit like Sidney does. There was a bit in the film that we ended up cutting out when Sidney tries to get a credit card with ‘honourable’ written on it so that he can pass himself as having a British title because women fall for that stuff. And sometimes you do find yourself becoming more British over there and I don’t know whether that’s trying to get ethnic sympathy or what it is.
Do you enjoy going over to the States?
I love it. I really enjoy going to America. We’ve just come back from a big extensive tour for the release of Spaced on DVD and you know it’s great. It’s incredibly complex and fascinating culture and it’s never not exciting over there. It’s bizarre and wonderful and terrifying and fun.
It had some great reviews over there, which must have been very pleasing..
We had more press coverage and certainly more unconditional positivity about the show than certainly we ever did here in the UK. It was lovely and a great vindication for us to have the show there after all of these years with such a great fanfare. It went to no. 2 in the Amazon charts – I mean, this British sitcom from 8 years ago, which was watched by about 8 million people when it was on at home so it’s good.
You had a reception for How To Lose Friends and Alienate People in Cannes and I know Toby was there with you. How has that worked out? Are you playing him in essence or is Sidney totally different?
I tried to approach the role in the same way I would any role, in that I’d look at what was on the page and draw it from that rather than anything else. I mean, particularly as it isn’t Toby Young, it’s Sidney Young and Peter (screenwriter) made the decision to pull it away from being a straight biographical film and it would be silly in a way to get bogged down in an impersonation of Toby because very few people know what Toby sounds like let alone what he looks like. I mean, a lot of people know his work as a writer - he is prolific and well read by a lot of people. But I like to use the example of Nicole Kidman’s nose in The Hours being a little distracting whereas she should have just realised that not a lot of people know what Virginia Woolf’s nose looked like and got on with it. If I think if I’d started to do an impersonation of Toby, he’s got quite a mannered way of speaking and quite a specific physicality, most people would have thought ‘nobody looks like that. What the **** is he doing? Why is he acting like that?’ So I tried to build him from the ground up rather than trying to copy Toby.
Have you ever been interviewed by Vanity Fair?
I haven’t actually and I’d be intrigued to meet Graydon Carter (editor of Vanity Fair) just so that I could tell him that I’m not part of some conspiracy against him (laughs). One thing in the back of my mind was that I might have been alienating one of the most famous publications in America but it’s not about Vanity Fair and I think Jeff’s interpretation of Clayton who is a Gradydon-esque type of person is a fairly sympathetic one. He is a person who has simply got on even though in some respects it might have gone against some of his original principles. He’s still done very well and it’s not a damning portrayal. I’ve seen him interviewed and I’d love to get a bit of face time with him just out of sheer interest. And I’ve hung out with Toby and as much as I like him I can fully see how he would be, er, infuriating company.
Sidney is a more sympathetic character that the one that Toby himself portrays in his book…
Absolutely and Peter was very artful in creating that, you know he couldn’t be quite as much of a steamroller and objectionable as Toby can be and as Toby seems to be sometimes. You have to root for him and have sympathy for him and kind of see his propensity to get into trouble as a flaw rather than a device and I think that’s differentiates Sidney from Toby. Also the idea of someone like Toby, acting the way he did, winding up making out with Kirsten Dunst under Brooklyn Bridge would be slightly unrealistic.
Talking of Kirsten, how was she to work with?
She’s amazing and puts in a wonderful performance. I absolutely adore her. And Megan Fox surprised everyone. People expect it of Kirsten because she is such a seasoned professional, so when she turns in an amazing take everyone goes ‘well, of course, it’s Kirsten Dunst..’ Whereas when Megan did her first take, people only knew her as that amazingly beautiful piece of eye candy in the corner and then suddenly she comes out with a fantastic performance and suddenly everyone is surprised. I remember being really chuffed for Megan when we did the scene by the pool because I remember there being a palpable sense of amazement after Bob remembered to call ‘cut.’
We’ve talked about Britain and America being divided by a common language but it seems that one of the areas where we do often come together is comedy and you would know that better than most. How much of British humour crosses over?
I think in essence it’s a 100 per cent. I think people mistake the cultural difference for differences in our sense of humour, you know, obviously the references change and the little things that we talk about are different. A joke about a little known American celebrity is the same as a joke about a little known English celebrity it’s just that those people are different and the reason that the Americans laugh is because those people know who it is and vice versa. I think maybe we as British people have a tendency to be slightly more ironic socially but I think the Americans have an incredible command of irony performance wise. There’s a myth about the Americans not getting irony and that’s so not true and that’s so off the mark and such a nasty, superior attitude on the part of the British people that say it because it’s completely underestimating the American sense of humour. I think we have a real shared sense of humour and the gap between is getting smaller because the world itself is getting smaller with the Internet and YouTube and us understanding American culture more and vice versa, we’re all starting the get the same jokes more and more. This idea of us having a ‘different sense of humour’ to me that’s almost like a contradiction in terms. For me a sense of humour is the ability to sense humour and humour is humour…
But even so were you happily surprised at the warm reception that Shaun of the Dead received in the States?
Yeah. I think there were a lot of misfires in terms of British comedies trying to do well in America because they made too many concessions and ended up being diluted into something that wasn’t British. And I think the reason Shaun of the Dead did so well is because it is so resolutely British and we didn’t make any concessions and we absolutely, specifically kept it as British as possible. I think that’s what ended up being appealing, because it’s exotic in some respects you know and real and authentic. We made one change to the script with a view to it being released in America and that was to change the word ‘pissed’ to ‘drunk’ and that was because you know the joke about thinking the zombie was drunk was important and we didn’t want anybody to think we thought it was a bit annoyed which is what ‘pissed’ means in America. And that was the only single thing we changed with a view to an American audience and they came to us, we didn’t need to spoon feed them or talk down to them or include some references to American culture to make them feel wanted, they just got it.
One of the scary good performances in How To Lose Friends and Influence People is Gillian Anderson as the publicist.
Yes, and that whole idea of them being the real puppet masters was an interesting one – of journalists having to work with publicists in order to have stories put out there. It’s kind of sleeping with the enemy..
Have you got a publicist?
I don’t have a full time one because I don’t feel like I need one but I have publicists that I work with when the time arises. Like this point in time when I have to do publicity I’m working with people in the States. But generally speaking if I don’t have anything to sell, I don’t.
Life sounds pretty good for you?
Yes, I’m just bubbling along. I’m out there now and I have to keep working which feels like a partly daunting but partly exciting kind of prospect and you know, I just hopefully can keep doing the stuff I want to do. Nick (Frost) and I have this thing we want to shoot early next year and Edgar (Wright) and me have got our third film to do. If I can I want to try and continue to generate from here in the UK and work in the UK because if I can I will. Without sounding like a homebody, I would be much happier just working and living in my own and travelling when I needed to.
Why is it so important for you to continue working here and not, say, do more films in the States?
I could go to the States now and just work and do movies. But I don’t want to do that. I don’t just want to be at the mercy of casting directors, I want to write and the way I write is to write about stuff that I totally understand and know. I always think that the truth is the best starting point as a writer and that has to be your own experience and my experience is here in the UK. And our films are a very literal demonstration of being British and consuming American culture. They are very honest depictions of the kind of lives we lead. We have grown up here in England and have consumed a lot of American culture and are fans of it. And so far what we have done is a kind of demonstration of that. And I’m not saying that’s what we’ll always do. I mean, the fourth film Edgar and me do might be a drama, it might be something different. I’ve got plenty of ideas and as long people keep giving me the means to do it, I’ll keep making films.