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Simon Pegg defends rom-coms, talks getting attacked by geeks

"Man Up" star Simon Pegg talks about how traditional rom-coms can be great and the thrill of working on something with a strong female voice.

Simon Pegg is synonymous with geek culture: movies with Edgar Wright and Nick Frost in which they indulge in their love of zombies (“Shaun of the Dead”) and actioners (“Hot Fuzz”); stints in the “Star Trek,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Doctor Who,” George Romero “Living Dead” and “Star Wars” universes; his memoir “Nerd Do Well.” But his interests, as he tells us, are vast. In “Man Up,” he makes his first straight-up rom-com, playing a divorcee who winds out in London with a woman (Lake Bell) who, due to some misunderstandings, is actually only pretending to be his date. Pegg talks about not hating romantic-comedies, his difficulties writing female characters and his complicated relationship with things he loves — even “Star Wars.”

You've been globetrotting a lot recently. Was part of the drawl of "Man Up" that it was being shot back home?

I was immediately taken with notion of shooting in London, because that meant I could sleep in my own bed and see my family regularly. The real draw, initially, was that. Then I read it and thought, “Oh, this is f—ing cool.” And it was written by a woman, so it was about doing something with a more female voice. And I liked the idea of playing against a female lead, rather than it being about me.

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A straight-up rom-com in 2015 can seem unusual. They rarely exist now unless they’re anti-rom-coms.

I hear this term “anti-romantic-comedy,” and I say, “Well, if you’re going to make a romantic-comedy, make a romantic-comedy.” A lot of people of late, in British romantic-comedies as well, try to reinvent the rom-com by making fun of it or denigrating it, to be subversive. Then it doesn’t really work, because it stops being a rom-com and it start being just slightly snarky. Ultimately what it becomes is the very thing it’s supposedly trying to dismantle. Which is less interesting, really, because it’s like capitulation rather than doing something honestly. I liked that this was unapologetically a rom-com in every way. Even though it ticks all the boxes on a form you might get about how to make a rom-com, it still had a slightly spiky, irreverent edge to it. At no point was it at expense of the genre.

What do you think caused the backlash against them?

There were the rom-coms that Matthew McConaughey wound up rejecting, where the main characters became these unrelatable, unobtainable, beautiful people. One thing I’ve heard the most whilst promoting this film is, “Why is he the lead in this film? Why is this ginger pig in a romantic-comedy?” It’s like, “Well, I’m a person. [Laughs] These things happen to people. They don’t just happen to f—ing models.” Maybe the rom-com became tiresome because it was about people we don’t give a s— about falling in love because they were so beautiful. Lake is attractive, but she’s not conventionally beautiful. It makes her more relatable. And me, I’m not Matthew McConaughey by any means. Maybe my chest and stomach, but no one ever sees that.

Rom-coms have become guilty pleasures. Personally, I don’t often confess that I’ve watched “Notting Hill” more times than some great films.

It’s a guilty pleasure. It shouldn’t be. There shouldn’t be such a thing as a guilty pleasure. If you like it you should be happy about it. But I agree, sometimes you’re on an airplane and you don’t want to watch Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Color” trilogy. You want to watch “Crazy Stupid Love” — which is actually a very, very good contemporary rom-com.

We’ve been talking about how “Man Up” conforms to the genre’s tropes, but it’s also about real anxieties, with two people who’ve been damaged and find themselves adrift at ages when most people are supposed to have gotten their stuff together.

It’s people who’ve been around the block a few times, had a relationship or two, or maybe had the one they thought was the one and it’s failed. These are post-rom-com rom-com characters. What I liked was despite the obvious deception in the movie, which is Nancy saying she’s someone else, she’s actually meeting a guy who’s being equally deceptive. He’s pretending to be a cool painter type and putting on all these facades and pretentions to put across that he’s a different person. He’s probably more of a dick than she is.

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Still, there’s a good stretch where it seems Nancy might be more of a creep than rom-coms usually allowed. We’re maybe not sure about her for awhile.

It’s bold to do that. And men wouldn’t write a woman like that. That’s why I liked Tess’s script. She’s not an idealized version of what a woman is. She’s more realistic. Tess wasn’t afraid to make unattractive or creepy or just a bit desperate. If a man did write her he’d probably be accused of misogyny. It’s tough for female writers, when they’re given a chance, which is sadly not enough, to get across the honesty of what it’s like to be a woman in modern society. Some men can write women really well, if it’s coming from a good place. But I’ve certainly always had a problem writing women. Edgar [Wright] and I will openly admit our weakness is writing good female characters. That’s why our films are generally about blokes. It great to see and hear female voices in cinema, because you tend to get more rounded and more convincing female characters.

Lake apparently kept her British accent up through the entire shoot, even when you weren’t shooting.

It’s funny because she gave a bit of a speech at the end of the movie, after she did her last shot, to say thank you to the crew. She did it in an American accent. It was supposed to be this big, “Wow, she’s American, it’s incredible!” But it actually turned out to be a weird moment where the crew felt she had lied to them. It backfired badly. She walked away and everyone went, “What the f—?” It’s a testament to her accent that she was able to upset that many people.

Almost every interview you’ve done has discussed your connection to geek culture, to “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” and “Doctor Who.” But you seem to have interests besides the nerdish.

I’ve cultivated that aspect of my public persona as much as anything. I often think of myself being looked on as a comedian or a geek. I don’t feel I’m either of those things. I have certain geeky interests and I’m very much a fan of those kinds of films. I wouldn’t be working in them if I wasn’t. But I do have a love of other things, and aspirations beyond the everyday-guy-in-extraordinary-situation films.

Often times there’s this segmentation between high art and geek culture, as though you can’t love seven-hour Bela Tarr films and “Star Wars” about equally.

I think it’s possible to enjoy both. I got into huge trouble with this recently, when I went off about the infantilization of society and how we’re all consuming things that children consume. Kids and adults tend to watch the same things. They’ll play video games and watch cartoons. Even if they’re a supposedly dark superhero movie or fantasy movie, they still have toys attached to them. There’s toys of the Joker from “The Dark Knight.” That’s because that culture has been monetized. It’s no longer a subculture. It’s a corporate-owned entity.

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I actually remember, when I was a young teen in the early ’90s, when it wasn’t clear if it was cool to be obsessed with “Star Wars.” I remember finding out all my friends were watching them on the sly, and then suddenly, later in the decade, it was the biggest thing in the world again.

There was a time when it was the purview of sci-fi kids and the fringes of society. That’s where the seeds of it were sown. It was this tiny underground thing, and because of a combination of social and economic factors, and because [“Star Wars”] was new and fun and bright at a time when America was a bit depressed, it had this massive seismic effect that swept around the entire earth. It changed cinema — probably not for the good. [Laughs] I may get killed for saying that, but it changed the cinema and made it about spectacle. Now all big movies are spectacles. There aren’t big movies being made anymore about the mafia or pissed-off New York taxi drivers. They’re all bangs and flashes. That’s kind of the fault of “Star Wars.” I love “Star Wars” with all my heart; I’m very proud to be in the new one. But I can see that’s probably the case. Oh god, I’m going to get into trouble again.

Was the blowback of you talking about the infantilization of culture really that severe?

A few things I said got hoisted up in the air as clickbait without any context. The column [he wrote in response] was trying to contextualize what I’d said. But it was huge. I’m not even on Twitter anymore and I felt the waves of hate from people calling me a betrayer and that I’m biting the hand the hand that feeds me. It’s like, “Oh, f— off.” [Laughs]

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
 
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