Simon Pegg on ‘Madman’ Donald Trump and Brexit: ‘I Feel a Little Bit Ashamed’
The star and co-writer of Star Trek Beyond dishes on his new film, its touching tributes to the late Anton Yelchin and Leonard Nimoy, and much more.
Simon Pegg’s first Star Trek as a screenwriter and not just chief engineer of the USS Enterprise offered an unprecedented opportunity for the erstwhile young Scotty, even though he’d racked up several writing credits of his own (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Paul, The World’s End) as one of the UK’s biggest comedy stars.
Talking Star Trek Beyond on a recent afternoon in Beverly Hills, he let out a high-pitched giggle when asked if he’s intent on becoming the Jonathan Frakes of his Trek generation. “I don’t know! But Jonathan Frakes is quite a lovely man,” he smiled.
Pegg and co-writer Doug Jung penned the third installment of the new franchise launched by J.J. Abrams in 2009. Unlike Star Trek and its sequel Star Trek Into Darkness, Beyond goes for a tight, retro, rather episodic feel that sees a jaded Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) leading his crew against an insidious new alien enemy (Idris Elba, under mounds of makeup).
“It was quite a daunting task, not least because of the practical situation we found ourselves in and the short amount of time we had to write it,” he admitted. “As difficult as this was at times, I’ve come out of it feeling utterly enervated. It’s been an incredible experience, for better and for worse. It’s been extraordinary. So I would love to do more. Certainly I’d like to play Scotty again.”
Faced with the task of crafting a threequel adventure capable of spurring the Enterprise crew on into untold franchise adventures while continuing the character arcs of a sprawling cast, Pegg and Jung delivered a tale of existential heroism and unity that sees Kirk and Spock pondering their purpose in life as Elba’s Krall threatens to destroy the Federation itself.
“We liked the idea of people questioning their position in the galaxy, and life,” he explained. “For Kirk it was about whether the reasons why he did what he did were his or his father’s. For Spock it was attaining a deeper understanding of who he was. We loved it as a poignancy that he discovers a photograph that Spock carried with him until he died, of the most important people to him: his crew. It tells Spock that he should stay there.”
When Trek icon Leonard Nimoy passed away, they decided to write the loss into the film, thus intertwining Nimoy’s contributions to the beloved sci-fi property with Spock’s.
“We knew immediately we wanted to pay tribute to him in some way,” said Pegg. “Then we thought, wouldn’t it be good to actually make Leonard’s passing—or the passing of his character, Spock, part of our Spock’s arc? To actually give him a presence in the movie that had an effect on what Zach [Quinto]’s Spock does and the decisions that he makes?”
“It’s like Spock helps from beyond. It just felt really lovely and right, and tasteful and fitting for a man who is the face, really, of Star Trek—probably more than Kirk,” he added, flashing Nimoy’s iconic Vulcan salute. “We wanted to make a worthy tribute to the man.”
Tragedy hit the Trek family again less than a month before opening day when 27-year-old Anton Yelchin died in a freak accident. Director Justin Lin, weeks away from his final edit, went back through footage of Yelchin’s performance as the buoyant Russian navigator Pavel Chekov and added a touching glimpse in the film’s final scene to honor the fallen crewmate.
It’s a heart-wrenching scene to watch as a Trek viewer—let alone as a friend. “Justin went back and edited the final moment so that when Kirk says, ‘To absent friends,’ it cuts to Anton, which is really moving,” Pegg said. “It’s hard to even imagine it now, watching the film because he’s there, he’s alive… and I still can’t quite even begin to process the fact that we’re talking about him in the past tense. It doesn’t make any sense to me at all.”
The decision to move forward with the film’s press tour just weeks after such a loss was a tough one, but Pegg says he and his castmates determined it was the best way to honor Yelchin’s memory.
“He’s someone who we all loved very much,” said Pegg. “We made a decision, we all sat down together and said, ‘How are we going to do this? How is promoting this film even possible now?’ We talked at length about it and realized that if we didn’t do it and we withdrew from this process we risked harming a film that should be seen because it stars Anton Yelchin.”
“And it’s helped, it really has helped. When I watched the movie… when I saw him, it made me happy. It didn’t make me sad. It was quite upsetting at times, but generally speaking, it was Anton—and he’ll be there forever.”
Yelchin’s cheeky Chekov is one of the first characters you see as Beyond opens halfway through the Enterprise’s latest five-year tour through the stars.
“I love the bit at the beginning!” Pegg smiled. “We had this whole thing going through the movie that Chekov really wants a girlfriend—whenever you see him, a lot of the time he’s talking to girls. The first time you see him he’s thrown out a room by an Orion girl, and in Yorktown he’s talking to the shell-headed girl. Anton was only 18 when we did the first film. He was this figure of bouncy youthfulness, and he always played it like that—little jumps and bounces.”
Pegg fell momentarily silent. “We all spent so much time together last summer because we were so far away from home. Me and Anton and Sofia [Boutella] spent a lot of time together. We had a little gang,” he paused. “It’s unspeakable. I feel for anybody who’s had a loss like that.”
Along with tributes to beloved fallen comrades, Pegg, Jung, and Lin packed Beyond with plenty of lightness and inside nods for the hardcore Trekkies—as well as fans of Pegg’s cult sitcom Spaced.
“It’s a deep cut, that one!” he laughed. “I remember when we were on set shooting that scene and Chris said something different. I went up to him and said, ‘Chris, you have to say this—it’s important.’ He was like, ‘Why?’ Just do it for me…”
“There’s enough stuff in there to keep a genuine, dyed-in-the-wool Trekkie happy,” Pegg promised. “Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon, is in it. He’s friends with Justin and he just came by one day, he plays the alien that translates at the beginning. We wrote in lots of crew names from the original series. Two crew members [who become Krall’s victims] were supposed to be Tomlinson and Martine, who are getting married at the beginning of the TOS episode ‘Balance of Terror.’”
As Star Trek’s new gatekeepers, shouldering fifty years of Trek history and the long shadow of series founder Gene Roddenberry, Jung and Pegg’s Trek outing has the distinction of introducing a strong new female character in Boutella’s Jaylah well worthy of fan worship. It also features a much-ballyhooed homosexual Sulu, the first out gay character in Trek canon (“It was such a good way to make it feel as if it was something that already existed.”). And in Elba’s Krall, it has a menacing new villain whose violent anti-inclusionary ideology echoes with particular resonance in a year that’s seen the rise of Trump and, across the pond, the success of Brexit.
Krall, Pegg says, “is a separatist. He’s someone who doesn’t believe in togetherness, to give it a more slightly ‘kumbaya’ term. He’s also someone who doesn’t believe that it’s better together. This guy believes that heroes are made in conflict, not in peace, but really it’s just sour grapes. He feels like he got left behind, like he’s been betrayed.”
“As someone from the UK who’s just faced that very real thing of opting out of a collective which surely had to be for the greater good…” he trailed off, shaking his head. “I was shocked by it, and I feel slightly embarrassed by it. I feel like we’ve taken a retrograde step. And here, you’ve got a madman talking about building a wall between America and Mexico.”
Pegg lives just outside of London, but was stateside glued to his news feeds during the Brexit vote. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I think the trouble is the Leave campaign offered all these promises that they just couldn’t keep, and the next day they said, ‘Oh, no—we can’t do that.’ Also, some people thought if they voted Leave all the immigrants would leave. I mean, it was a fuck up. I feel a little bit ashamed.”
Like most Brits, he’s uncertain of what the repercussions will be. “I think it’ll certainly have an adverse effect on our economy. It’ll be hilarious if we have to adopt the Euro because the pound bottoms out. I think that it’s going to affect our film industry and make it more difficult for our professionals to cross borders or to bring in other Europeans, of which there is a huge amount. I don’t know what lies ahead. I just feel like we’ve kind of shot ourselves in the foot.”
Pegg draws parallels between Krall’s destructive designs on the utopian Federation outpost of Yorktown and the sentiment back home that’s fomented divisive waves of anti-immigrant exclusion. “You’ve got to move on and embrace everyone and don’t resist inclusion,” he says. He could be talking about Krall, Leave voters, or certain segments of the American populace. It’s an unintended effect, but one moviegoers might walk away from Star Trek Beyond mulling as they exit the multiplex doors this weekend.
Offering social commentary and hope for the future, however, has always driven the Trek universe. “Star Trek has always been a social commentary that’s had something to say about humanity, and it’s used science fiction in the best way as a metaphor for who we are now,” said Pegg.
The takeaway from Beyond, he adds, is that “it’s about togetherness. It’s about the fact that if we all set aside our differences and worked as a team, or worked towards an end together, we can achieve a heckuva lot more.”