Close Encounters of the Nerd Kind
Can Nick Frost and Simon Pegg make America safe for the British Comedy Invasion?
Can Nick Frost and Simon Pegg make America safe for the British Comedy Invasion?
If you want to catch a nerd, it’s best to start looking in his natural habitat. And San Diego’s Comic-Con is the nerd savanna. Every July thousands of lightsaber-wielding, Dungeon Mastering geeks descend on Ron Burgundy’s hometown for a carnival of dweebauchery unmatched anywhere on the planet. Collectively, their judgment has the power to bend popular will and bring major motion picture studios to their knees. Win their hearts and you’ve won a great victory indeed; fail them and your quest could be over.
Last summer Simon Pegg and Nick Frost were going nerd hunting. Pegg and Frost are a pair of English actors and longtime friends best known in the U.S. for the goofball zombie flick Shaun of the Dead and the buddy-cop send-up Hot Fuzz. They’d just wrapped work on their latest movie, Paul, which they cowrote and which stars Seth Rogen as the voice of the titular CGI extraterrestrial and Sigourney Weaver as a government baddie trying to capture him.
Saturday Night Live’s Bill Hader, who plays an FBI agent hot on Paul’s trail, was on the scene for the sneak preview. “They blew the roof off the place,” he says. “It was insane. Everywhere we went, it was just a madhouse. A wall of people. It was Simon and Nick, Seth Rogen and Sigourney Weaver, and these nerds were just like, ‘AAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!’ Just masturbating right there.”
To a certain type of moviegoer (male, 13–49, possibly owns a Chewbacca mask), Pegg and Frost are their generation’s Abbott and Costello (or maybe Cheech and Chong). Their fans include inhabitants of Hollywood’s highest echelons: Peter Jackson (who had a cameo in Hot Fuzz), Quentin Tarantino (who helped bring Shaun of the Dead to the States and once called Frost the funniest man alive), Steven Spielberg (who cast them in his next movie). All of which amounts to a sci-fi dream come true for the duo, who are serious fanboys themselves. Pegg wrote his college thesis about the “hegemonic discourses” and Marxist themes in Star Wars movies and, while at Comic-Con with Shaun in 2004, waited for hours to meet Carrie Fisher, the real-life Princess Leia. (She had no idea who he was.)
“It’s so evident how sincere they are,” says director Greg Mottola (Superbad, Arrested Development), who helmed Paul. “Particularly Simon, who’s truly a hardcore geek himself. He’s very well-rounded, very smart, very well-read. But he’s also very connected to the 12-year-old boy inside him.”
It’s a blustery winter afternoon in London, and Christmas is in the air. Pegg and Frost have arranged to meet at a place called the Naval Club, not far from Buckingham Palace. Founded by officers of the Royal Navy, it’s the kind of place where silver-haired commodores in brass-buttoned blazers sit around reminiscing about torpedoing U-boats and defending the empire. There’s an oak-paneled fireplace, couches the color of pipe tobacco, and lots of paintings of clipper ships and Winston Churchill. It’s the kind of quintessentially English place that might easily find itself on the receiving end of a Pegg-Frost spoof.
The guys haven’t seen each other in a while because Pegg has been in Dubai shooting scenes for the upcoming Mission: Impossible sequel. (He plays the tech guy, naturally.) He’s looking British-movie-star dapper in an overcoat and wool tie, with just the right amount of scruff. Frost, meanwhile, is big and bearish, with a friendly smile and a torso made for hugging. They greet each other with customary silliness: “Hello, Crabtree!” “Hello, Evelyn!”
Watching the two of them interact is sort of like watching a pair of puppies take turns licking each other. They trade compliments, finish each other’s sentences. It’s sweet—like “dude, you’re making me barf” sweet. They’ve been friends for almost half their lives: Frost is godfather to Pegg’s 20-month-old daughter; Pegg was Frost’s best man. Sometimes they’ll take vacations together, rent a cottage in Scotland and take their wives for a long weekend of hiking and drinking. “Or I’ll bring stuff around to his house and cook for the family—something that’s slow-cooked, roast or pork, so we get together at one in the afternoon and it’s not ready until seven.” (Pegg: “He’s a great cook.”) Even their dogs, Kenny and Minnie, are friends. “We’re family,” says Pegg. “My mom calls him Son Number Two.”
“Nick is, like, the funniest guy Simon has ever met,” says Bill Hader. “He’s so taken with him. Nick will be telling a story, and you’ll just be watching Simon look at him like…” He makes a face like Pepé Le Pew with the little red hearts floating over his head. “He just can’t believe he’s getting to hang out with him. He’s like [points, whispers, excited], ‘That’s Nick Frost!’¿”
In some ways they couldn’t be more different. Simon John Beckingham—Pegg is his stepdad’s name—was born on Valentine’s Day 1970 in the English port town of Gloucester. (How English? His elementary school doubles as Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies.) His dad played keyboards in a jazz band; his mom moonlighted as an actress in the community theater. Young Simon specialized in impressions—Margaret Thatcher, among others—and also did stand-up at the local seniors club. Eventually he graduated to film school, joined the English comedy circuit, and landed gigs on a few TV shows.
Frost, meanwhile, was born in 1972 in London and grew up playing rugby and getting stoned at raves. His dad owned a modest furniture business that went bust when Frost was 16, and the family had to move to a council estate—England’s version of a housing project. Frost’s dad had a nervous breakdown; his mom had a stroke. He had to quit school and take a job at a shipping company to support the family. By his early 20s he was waiting tables around London and studiously avoiding anything resembling ambition.
And then came their meet-cute moment. In 1993 Frost was earning £1.92 an hour working at a Mexican chain restaurant called Chiquito. Pegg’s then girlfriend worked there, too, and thought
the two of them would hit it off. One of the first times they hung out, Pegg was joking around and made a beep-boop-beep noise like a droid from Star Wars (and not even a famous one—the little one Chewbacca scares away). Frost instantly knew he’d found a kindred spirit. Pretty soon they were hanging out every day. Pegg taught Frost about Woody Allen and stand-up; Frost taught Pegg how to shotgun a beer. Nora Ephron couldn’t have scripted it better.
Pegg’s girlfriend eventually broke his heart—“the whore!” says Frost, probably kidding—but it only brought the two of them closer. “The night we broke up,” Pegg recalls, “I punched a window, and there was blood everywhere. Nick took me to the hospital, and then I moved in with him. Since then we’ve seen each other through a lot.”
Sometimes with not the best results. “I put Nick in the hospital once,” Pegg says. “We were wrestling—we were into WWF at the time—and he did a choke-slam on me, and I landed on his thumb and broke it. We were so drunk we didn’t even realize it.”
“We smashed my bed to bits,” Frost says. “Simon’s sister heard it and came in to see what was up, and Simon and I were topless, holding bottles of sherry, and my thumb had fallen off.”
For years after they met, the guys just hung out as friends. But when Pegg got hired to script a pilot for the BBC, he wrote in a character especially for Frost, even though his friend had never acted before. The show, Spaced—about a couple of twentysomething slackers who spend their days on PlayStation and whacking it to Gillian Anderson in The X-Files—made both of their careers. (Recently Fox was rumored to be working on an American version, to be executive-produced by Charlie’s Angels director McG.)
Although they’re often thought of as a pair, they’d actually only done two movies together before Paul. Both Shaun and Hot Fuzz were loving yet knowing genre exercises, the kind of movies made by guys who spend a lot of time bullshitting about movies over pints at the pub, full of obscure pop culture references that they trust their equally well-versed audience enough to get. (Both films were directed by fellow Brit Edgar Wright, who also directed Spaced; while the boys were shooting Paul, he was busy with last year’s Michael Cera–starring Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.)
“The thing they’re really good at is not making a parody of a genre,” says Hader. “They’re like, ‘We love those movies. We’re doing the genre.’¿” Shaun was equal parts gory and zany—a zombie movie for people who had seen (and adored) way too many zombie movies. Hot Fuzz, meanwhile, was an homage to ridiculous action flicks—including shot-for-shot references to scenes from Bad Boys II and Point Break—that also worked brilliantly as its own ridiculous action flick. (Paul is the same, mixing anal-probe gags with genuinely thrilling car chases and shoot-outs. As Hader says, “I got to shoot a gun a lot.”)
It’s a fine line to tread, laughing at vs. laughing with, so it helps that they have such a similar sense of humor. Friends say Frost can be a little darker, a little more inappropriate, but generally they share much of their comedy DNA. “They’re so silly, which is the best kind of funny to me,” says Kristen Wiig, who plays Pegg’s creationist love interest. “It’s the perfect balance between silly and articulate.”
“There’s something very good-natured about it,” Hader adds. “It’s sweet and smart and witty, as opposed to mean or gross. And even if there’s a gross line, they’ll try to go, ‘Well, what’s the sweet way to talk about a dick?’¿”
Back at the Naval Club, even talking about what they find funny has the guys cracking up. “An old lady falling over once made us laugh for an hour,” Frost says, failing to suppress a laugh. “We got kicked out of church.”
“There are things Nick finds funny that he knows I find cripplingly funny,” says Pegg. “He knows when to say, and what to say, to absolute maximum effect. When we lived together, without fail he would do it as I drank milk. I regularly spit milk all over the kitchen.”
What kinds of things would he say?
“I pissed in that…”
Frost: “That’s not milk.”
But whatever jokes they’re working with, the key to their movies has always been the interplay between the two. The central relationship in Shaun is a love triangle between Pegg’s Shaun, the girlfriend who’s begging him to grow up, and the lovable-oaf best friend (Frost) who just won’t let him. In Hot Fuzz they dispensed with the third leg of the triangle altogether, cutting a love interest for Pegg named Vicky and giving all her lines to Frost instead. It’s the same kind of not-so-hidden subtext that has lately characterized movies like Mottola’s Superbad and every Judd Apatow film.
“I think we started that movement,” says Frost. “It’s all right to show that you love your mate. It doesn’t mean you’re gay—which, as we know, is the biggest fear of American men of college age.”
“I think Superbad is lovely, really tender, that film, because it’s not a joke about homosexuality. It’s saying you can love your friend. Even though in Hot Fuzz we did play with the gay subtext of those movies. I mean, Lethal Weapon is ridiculously homoerotic.”
“When him and Busey are fighting topless…”
“…in the rain, and ‘Put it in your mouth!’ But I think it’s much more manly to accept male affection than it is to deny it.”
Which brings us to the Bed Thing. For a while in their 20s, when they were short on money and floor space, the two shared not just an apartment but also the same single bed. They started out sleeping head to toe, then eventually just snuggled up spoon style. Pegg says
it was “liberating.”
“If you don’t mind fat taters on your rump,” adds Frost.
What if one of you brought a girl home?
“That never really happened,” Frost says. “We weren’t ‘players.’¿”
“We just wanted to read,” says Pegg. “We’d have a biscuit—”
“—and a cup of tea—”
“—and I’d hold one side of the book and Nick would hold the other.” (The night before Pegg got married, they bunked up once again, for old time’s sake.)
“We have a group of male friends who are all very tactile with one another,” Frost says. “But there’s a history of that with the Hells Angels, too. They would kiss each other to freak out the squares.”
“A hug off Nick will cure anything,” says Pegg.
“Except cancer,” says Frost. “Well, I can cure cancer of the huggle glands, but that’s it.”
Pegg and Frost first came up with the idea for Paul back in 2003 while they were filming Shaun of the Dead. It was a dismal London day, pissing down rain. Pegg thought, We should make our next movie someplace warm. That led him to the desert, which, naturally, led him to aliens. He sketched a doodle of a little green man flipping the bird, and Paul was born.
In the movie Pegg and Frost play Graeme and Clive, two English sci-fi dorks (stretch!) who come to California for Comic-Con and decide to take a road trip to alien hot spot Area 51. After a freak car accident in the desert, they meet Paul, who’s on the run from the FBI; adventure, obviously, ensues. The cheeky thing is that Paul, in an ingeniously referential twist, has been hanging out with Hollywood types for years, providing inspiration for basically all our alien pop-culture knowledge, from E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Spielberg is a big Paul fan) to Predator to Mulder and Scully. “This way,” Pegg explains, “we can retroactively rip off every film ever.”
Geographically and subjectwise, Paul is the duo’s first really American film. In England their faces are on buses and billboards, with Pegg’s best-selling memoir displayed in bookstores next to Keith Richards’. But here in the U.S. they’re still essentially cult figures. And even though, thanks to the universal language of pop culture, jokes about Boba Fett work for geeks no matter the accent, there’s also something undeniably British about their films that they’ll have to jettison to make the move to a wide American audience.
“The movie was almost like this meta thing,” Hader says of Paul. “They’re these two British stars making their American debut, and it’s a movie about British guys who find an alien—so all three of them are aliens in a weird land. I thought it was really smart.”
Before they started working on the script, the duo decided they ought to get to know the country a little better. In January 2007 they rented an RV and set out to see the American West, which they refer to (mistakenly, charmingly) as “the Midwest.” Like Graeme and Clive, they drove from L.A. out to Vegas, headed north to Area 51, east through Utah to Salt Lake City, and then up to Wyoming.
“It got pretty hairy at times,” says Pegg. “It was winter, so it was getting down to minus 50. Our shampoo was freezing in bottles; beer was freezing in the cans.” A lot of times they felt like they were in another world; Frost, for one, can’t describe the trip without resorting to Star Wars references. “In Wyoming you’d come over the hill and it was like it had snowed on Endor,” he says. Or, talking about a big coal plant: “It was like looking at Jabba’s palace.”
(Their cultural exchange program continued during filming in New Mexico: Hader, an Oklahoma native, took them to their first rodeo—“They wore cowboy shirts and ate funnel cake and drank Budweisers and had ribs”—while every Sunday Frost fed the crew a traditional English roast.)
The trip also brought them some close encounters with what Pegg jokingly refers to as “what Sarah Palin calls ‘the real America.’¿” One run-in with some redneck hunters in full-on Swamp Thing camo even made its way into the script. (“It scared the shit out of them,” Mottola says. “It was their ultimate idea of scary Americans who want to shoot foreigners or homosexuals or whatever.”)
But Frost says he has a soft spot for good old-fashioned American nutjobs, like conspiracy theorists and creationists. “I think that’s part of the American dream: to believe whatever the fuck you want,” he says. “I mean, it’s crazy. But it’s good that you have that opportunity.”
“I have a huge affection for America,” Pegg adds. “You’ve got to be careful, because Americans absolutely hate being told who they are. But I think culturally America exhibits the same tendencies as a young person—which is both great and dangerous.”
On one hand, “America is much more enthusiastic and optimistic” than England, which he likens to “a grumpy, cynical, sarcastic old person.”
On the other, “they did a study on the teenage brain, and they found that it goes through something like dementia during development.” He laughs. “What I’m saying is that America is like a psychotic teenager.” He laughs again. “Don’t write that, for God’s sake! They’ll burn our videos in the street!”
After a while Pegg has to run. He’s onlyhome for a few days, then it’s off for more Mission: Impossible filming. Hollywood has come calling in a big way for Pegg. In addition to the M:I franchise, there’s the latest Chronicles of Narnia film, in which he plays a sword-wielding mouse, and J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, where he mans the dilithium chamber as engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott. His life has very quickly become a bizarre fantasia of hanging out with Tom Cruise (“I was expecting, like, a spaceman or something, but he’s just a normal guy”) and hanging with the queen at Narnia screenings: “I am surely, in the history of humanity, one of the only people to see a British monarch in 3D glasses.” (He’s also good friends with Coldplay’s Chris Martin—watch closely and you can spot him as a zombie in Shaun—as well as godfather to Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter, Apple.) Frost, meanwhile, will be joining his buddy later this year in the $130 million Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, codirected by Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. (He also does narration for the U.K. version of Supernanny.)
Yet even as their careers take off, they won’t be splitting anytime soon. Once Pegg finishes shooting the Star Trek sequel, the two will start working with Edgar Wright on their next movie, an Armageddon comedy tentatively titled The World’s End. They’ve also talked about doing a Paul sequel and publishing a book of their texts to each other—the kind of thing every group of friends thinks would be hilarious, but in their case, actually might.
As long as it doesn’t get in the way of cookouts and dog walks, that is. “I’m talking for Simon now,” says Frost, “but if working together meant it would jeopardize our long-term relationship, I think we would just be mates. Because it was that before it was this.”
“Our work is not the most important part of our lives,” Pegg says, looking lovingly upon his buddy. “At the moment our work is a convenient way for us to hang out.”