In person, smartly dressed and poised, Simon Pegg is perhaps the furthest thing from the perpetual man-child character that he's most recognized for, starting more than a decade ago with the zombie-battling comedy Shaun Of The Dead. The movie, born out of an episode of the short-lived British series Spaced, was a critical hit and launched his career as the charming but relatable leading man. His newest project, Hector And The Search For Happiness, adapted from the best-selling novel, is an adventure comedy about a psychiatrist who takes a journey around the world to find what makes people happy. The film could, at gunpoint, be described as the gentleman's Eat Pray Love, and seems to mark a foray into loftier material for Pegg, while remaining well in his wheelhouse.
The London-based actor's significant fan base will attest that his performances, even cameos, are consistently delightful, more often than not they're passion projects, as he prefers to work with longtime friends and collaborators like Nick Frost or Edgar Wright. Even more impressive could be his ability to live a fairly quiet life with his wife and four-year-old daughter in Hertfordshire when not working. Accomplishing this, as well as his participation in two juggernaut Hollywood franchises, Star Trek and Mission Impossible, which just started production in Morocco, it would seem that Simon has got it all figured out.
You play a psychiatrist in this film. What kind of experience did you have with the practice before you started and what kind of research did you do?
The research I did into the profession was a couple of dinners with my costar Rosamund Pike, my wife and I, and a psychiatrist friend of hers. We just chatted over some food. It was a social evening about his work and how he felt about it. I also ended up meeting another psychiatrist by chance while I was on holiday and spent the evening with him. I felt it was better for me to chat about the practice in a social environment and not so much me just sitting on a couch.
What appealed to you about the character of Hector?
I liked that the character was the most unsympathetic person possible, this middle class white male who just couldn't find his own true happiness. But everyone is brought into his experience because depression, as well as social anxiety, does not see race or age. Everyone is affected. There was dramatic lack in his emotional spectrum and even worse he didn't even know how capable he was of being truly happy. The film is about an adult, but it's told from the perspective of his wounded inner child and that spoke to me.
You had to travel quite a bit during the filming, what did you discover during your journeys?
One of the most interesting things that I discovered during the filming of this movie is that when we traveled to the slightly less affluent places, like parts of South Africa, people were much happier than they were in the cities. I don't know if it has to do something with the crisis of choice that we face in Western society. We have so many ways to entertain and amuse ourselves. And so many places to shop for every little convenience we could want. It appears like we have so little understanding or our own emotions. There was a small township that we drove through a few times to get the scene of me seeing the locals. We did a couple takes, as many as we could before the people in the neighborhood started to get annoyed with us filming. But I saw so many smiles while we were there. Broader, more tangible smiles than I had seen anywhere in the cities. I wonder if it has to do with the more intense struggle that you have to survive, and the gratitude that it instills on every waking day. Here in the city, we're spoiled, safe, pampered and seemingly more fucked up. It's like we don't know how to take what we have for granted.
Did you find yourself looking at yourself while producing this film? Did you find yourself questioning your own happiness?
It clarified a lot of things for me. I'm 44 now. I had an epiphany about four years ago. I quit drinking. I learned that it was something that I was using to change the way that I felt, and that was not a positive habit to maintain. What I needed to do was to sit down and talk about how I felt. That's made the most difference for me. It's changed everything. I see a little bit clearer. The message of the film is that happiness is not a rainbow that you chase. It is the chase. And on top of that, you can't have just the brightest color; you need the whole spectrum. It's okay to feel all of it.
I think adversity has also found its way into inspiring the arts. Societies never seem to be more artistic than when they are oppressed, when they are allowed to be. I do think in a weird way our extreme comfort breeds this catatonia, which is dangerous.
What have you learned at this age that you are surprised by?
Can I just say that I'm having the most excellent midlife crisis ever right now? The whole notion of taking stock of my life and making changes has had incredible benefit to my happiness. Having a child has also changed everything; just realizing that I'm not the most important being on the planet is a relief. I'm relishing my mortality. I'm trying to make some positive changes. I'm trying got make my midlife crisis something special. I remember a Simpsons episode where Lisa tells Homer that “crisis” and “opportunity” are the same word in Japan and Homer yells, "Crisitunity!" I think that's a really nice message. I've been able to turn some things around and get happy. So what if I also want to buy a sports car? [Laughs].
What kind of car?
It's a white Jag.
Do you think it's more difficult to be happy in this day and age than when you were growing up?
I can relate it back to the television channels. When I was growing up in the 80s I had about four channels to choose from. You had to make a choice from those four. Now we have hundreds of options, we can't make a choice and we're also not happy when we eventually do make a choice. Life was easier when there was less choice. It seems crazy.
Is technology having a negative effect on connecting with others?
It seems like we're trying to avoid interaction. I mean, take my own mother, whom I love more than anything. Sometimes I can't be bothered to talk to her, I just text her. Is that because that requires me to use energy?
What tool have you discovered that has helped you become happier?
Snowboarding. Seriously. Just after I got myself all straightened out, I went off to do a movie in Vancouver, away from my wife and my daughter. That was difficult. A lot of my happiness is centered in my house. I started going snowboarding because it forced me to focus on being in the moment: I had to pay attention so that I wouldn't fall off and die. When I look back on that experience, I know that it was my version of being meditative. I've gone from a novice to a complete badass snowboarder. I worked through everything on those slopes and now it's a huge passion of mine. I go whenever I can now.
What are your favorite slopes?
Whistler and Portes Du Soleil are both beautiful places.