Movies

Simon Pegg On How He Approached Portraying A Schizophrenic Music Producer With Care And Grace


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During our interview at The Roxy Hotel in New York earlier this week, Simon Pegg compared his new film, Lost Transmissions, to La La Land, but I see a fuller connection to A Star Is Born, though only on the surface. In the film, Pegg plays a music producer struggling with his mental health and Juno Temple plays his talented protege/caregiver.

But, as Pegg is happy to point out, Lost Transmissions eschews romance for a raw story about friendship. Pegg’s and Temple’s performances highlight the heartbreaking disconnect schizophrenics endure and the hardships of caring for someone in the midst of that while also struggling with one’s own issues. It’s a different look for the actor, but it also leverages that perception of who he is on-screen to more thoroughly devastate.

Here’s Pegg on that, the lengthy process of bringing this to the screen, copious research, his connection to the subject matter, and the challenge of not delivering a broad caricature when playing someone in a mental health crisis.

Can you tell me a little bit about how [writer/director] Katharine O’Brien got you involved with this project?

Simon Pegg: The script sort of came through my agency with a little description and it struck me that I hadn’t actually been in a movie that had been directed by a woman before, which felt incredibly remiss of me. Like, not that it was my fault, particularly. It was more the fault of the industry, the choices available to me… But, so I read it thinking, you know, this is an opportunity. I was delighted when I read the script. It was such an interesting story and it was a very different role for me. I felt flattered that she sent it to me in the first place. So, we started talking and we were talking about it for a couple years, almost. Because getting indie films made is difficult. Scheduling, all those kinds of things. I went out to LA and we went to see La La Land together. That was the first time we met. It’s funny because I feel like this film is kind of the anti La La Land. I love that movie, but it’s a very, sort of, colorful, bright view of LA.

Magical.

Yeah, and this is sort of gritty realism. There was a time where I was like, I might have to walk away, just because maybe I’m stopping you from getting it made, because I can’t, I’m tied up with other things. I think it was when Mission Impossible got pushed. There was a moment when we were gonna make it toward the end of that year, and Tom [Cruise] broke his ankle, so I wasn’t able to. But Katharine very kindly hung on for me. So we just dug in, and when I came out to do press for Ready Player One, she said Juno [Temple] had read it and liked it, which was delightful news to get. And then we were shooting it a few months later.

There was an article in The Guardian where you talked about some of your issues with depression in the past. Is that part of what drew you to the role?

Yeah. Making this movie is what made me talk about that, as well. I felt like this whole film is kind of about having an open dialog about that kind of thing. And even though schizophrenia and depression are not the same thing, they fall under the same banner of mental illness.

Yeah, of course.

It felt like it was an important conversation to have, so… And particularly, the Hannah character is experienced in that, so, yeah it did feel like something I was keen to discuss.

What is it about your character that she is so drawn to, because she seems to have… I don’t want to say a fixation, but she is so dedicated.

I think it’s the fact that he’s very charming and friendly and fun to be around. He sees something in her which she knows that she has, but has been reticent to allow to flourish. He encourages that in her. I think he helps her enormously in terms of pushing her to put some of her songs down, and write, and what have you. I think she’s very new to him, so as opposed to his other friends, who’ve seen him go through this before, you know, it’s kind of… Novel is the wrong word, but for her it’s like, I’m gonna stick with this and work with this. And so she reciprocates in what he does for her. She sort of sticks in there with him and doesn’t abandon him, which is important when you are dealing with something like that, you know?

One of the real standout details in the film is how you see so many different reactions to his breakdown status. His friends who’ve been there and been through it before and it’s not the right time in their life [to help]. I thought that was really well done, with Juno’s character, obviously and especially. In the scenes, when you are in the midst of a break, can you talk a little bit about Juno’s support for you as an acting partner?

Luckily, as happens sometimes, we just immediately clicked when we met, we got on, we found common ground in various things, and we had mutual friends. So we were able to bond quickly. We really enjoyed shooting those scenes.

It’s all summed up in that one line when she is talking to him and she’s desperately trying to get him to outsmart his condition, very naively… Because you can’t do that, schizophrenia is like a closed loop, you can’t step back from it. Even though you might understand that what you are saying is absurd, to some degree, you still believe it. You still totally believe in your own illusion. But her incredulity of what he’s saying and her fascination with it, and her feeling that she can maybe help him beat it, that was already great to play against, and have that fundamentalized by a friendship. It’s not a romance. I really like that about it. I like the fact that it’s really not even in the cards. There is not even a “will they, won’t they?” That’s not there and their relationship is entirely cerebral, which is very interesting because both their cerebellums are challenged in some way.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when we are in the hospital and Katharine just sort of tick-tocks the camera between us, which is a really smart move, I think, because what Theo is talking about, as well as time… A lot of his delusions are tied to his notions of time. It was essentially just one take, so we had to do the whole scene in a one-er. And that was really really fun, just because it’s more like theater, you can’t just stop and reset yourself and do it again. You have to get it all in one. So that kind of challenge, as an actor, was really really fun, and to have Juno to play along with was helpful.

Lost Transmissions/Image.Net

Speaking of that, when you are at the height of dealing with that kind of break from reality and hitting those heights, as an actor, do you worry about going too far? How do you find the right level so it’s not a sloppy caricature?

I think the key is just knowing what you’re talking about. I didn’t want to walk into this and just wing it, and play a person based on my own preconceptions of what schizophrenia is and how people feel when they experience it.

Or other performances that you’ve seen.

Yeah, exactly. And so I went and I did a lot of research. I read and I watched footage of people with the condition. I had a long session with two people, one of whom was on the good side of a break at that time — he’s since relapsed, sadly — and a young guy who was in the midst of it. And it was fascinating to talk to those two about how they felt and how did one look back objectively on where he’d been. It was about knowing what it is to have that kind of break. Playing it in such a way that, people who are delusional have complete conviction that they are very logical.

A lot of delusions make complete sense, even though they exist within a fantasy. People with schizophrenia are often seen as oddly ultra-aware of reality because they are perceiving so much information at once, and that’s what it is. It’s a kind of, if we perceive, as “right-minded people,” to use the wrong phrase, to view reality through a certain window, and that enables us not to be overwhelmed by what we are seeing right now. All this is happening and I’m feeling fine. I’m not seeing all those people in those windows up there. I’m not seeing the fact that all those colors are white and thinking there is a reason for it, all those cars there. Schizophrenics do, and they are perceiving through a gap like that, and their brain is desperately trying to make sense of everything and trying to put things together and create patterns and that invariably leads to paranoia. We are pattern makers, evolutionarily speaking. We see patterns in things. It helps us recognize objects and faces. Schizophrenia is an exacerbation of that evolutionary imperative.

The film is inspired by true events. What were those?

A friend of Katharine’s. A version of the situation actually happened to Katharine. She’s dramatized it and shifted it into the music industry, or shifted Juno’s character. The person involved, who it is based on, was consulted. I’ve met them and have spoken to them and have become friends with them, and it’s important for me to understand the perspective of what they went through then, and how they feel about it now.

When you plan your next move, what are you looking for?

Well, I’d really love to do more dramatic work. When I was studying to become an actor… I didn’t major in comedy. It was something that I really loved, and something that I had an affinity for. I hadn’t planned to just do comedy. I think it’s easy to get categorized as one thing, I hope people… I think in a way, my history as an actor, in terms of the films I’ve done, I think it helps with this movie. Because when you watch Theo, you kind of hope that he’s gonna be funny.

He has that charm.

Yeah, he is charming. But when it doesn’t happen, it kind of dramatically assists the film’s effect, in a way.

There is an idea of a Simon Pegg role.

Yes.

And at the start of the movie, that’s what we are seeing. Then we see that being taken away bit by bit, and it definitely has an impact.

Yeah, I suppose. I think Katharine was quite smart… If you’d seen an actor do it who you’d seen be very intense and serious, that’s what you’d expect them to do. Whereas the unexpected is what you get with this condition.

Has that changed? The idea of people putting you in a box?

It’s interesting, the comedies that Edgar Wright and I wrote together always had a vein of seriousness woven into them. even in Shaun of the Dead, which is an absurd heightened story. The tragedy that happens in that film, we always wanted it to be tragic. We didn’t want to make fun or be funny at the moments when there’s genuine peril or genuine emotion. Katharine had obviously glimpsed it in something. I think it was The World’s End. She says it was the scene when Gary was sort of lying to Andy about his mum dying. And how convincing he is, that was when she decided to send me the script.

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