Simon Pegg‘s new series, The Undeclared War, is terrifying. Not in a “zombies, rural weirdos, or aliens eating, attacking, or replacing us” kind of way. More in a tiptoe toward World War III or, at the very least, utterly disrupt vital services tipping us back to the stone age kind of way. Which is way more terrifying for how realistic the scenario is.
Created by award-winning writer and director Peter Kosminsky, the six-part series (which you can stream on Peacock) co-stars Pegg as a government official working for GCHQ (the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters) overseeing the triage and possible response to a debilitating cyber attack on the UK. In the midst of this, the tension is ratcheted up by the typical territorial pissing matches and blame games while relative newcomer Hannah Khalique-Brown brings a relatable, human element to the story as she’s thrust into not just an international incident (on her first day at GCHQ) but also a family trauma. Again, everything is very grounded and slow-burn, allowing you time to sit with thoughts about the possibility of these things, which unlocks a whole bunch of anxiety.
Uproxx spoke with Pegg recently about the series and the tense state of antagonistic behavior and muscle flexes that could one day push us over the edge, the destabilizing influence of troll farms on our discourse, being a source of actorly wisdom for young actors, seizing an opportunity to play a straight drama, and the big picture when it comes to talking about mental health.
We spoke at Tribeca a couple of years ago for Lost Transmissions and afterward, we shot the shit for a moment about Game Of Thrones. I thought about that when I saw that you had said something about Star Wars and it had blown up on the internet. And so I was thinking it must suck to see something like that happen anytime you have any kind of comment about pop culture. Does that make you want to talk about that stuff less?
Yeah. I think the problem these days, is that, and this kind of feeds into the show in a way, in terms of the way that information is disseminated in that you’ll say something which is, if it’s taken out of context and isolated and then kind of turned into a clickbait sound bite, then it becomes a talking point. And then that talking point is addressed as though it was just the thing that was said. Everything is very reductionist. The discourse online is so kind of binary and unsophisticated at the moment. And I think that’s kind of what the troll farm thing takes advantage of when it comes to people in conversations about slightly more, probably arguably more important things like politics and society.
The idea is that these kinds of massive arguments and contentious debates can just erupt, fueled by, in this case [regarding politics and society], adversarial players who are actually trying to cause problems. I mean, everyone is already in this state of, “I’m ready for a fight.” And when anybody says anything about anything, people are ready to weigh in as they can online with impunity, just for the sake of it. And it’s kind of part of how the internet is being used to disassemble our society.
Certainly. I’m in the US and we certainly see that with our politics here. Even when it’s not a troll farm. Like, when the thing happened with the Trump warrant, every single commenter had the same, “If it could happen to him, it could happen to…” reaction. It almost feels like a troll farm, because people are saying the same thing.
It probably is. I mean, there will be people in that conversation online immediately.
I mean, like, Senators.
Oh yeah. They get retweeted by bots and they feel like they suddenly become empowered because they suddenly have a kind of ego boost by all these people that are seemingly agreeing with them when it’s adversarial players just trying to stoke up the MAGA crowd or whatever.
I’ve been someone who sort of thinks, “oh, maybe the internet was a mistake.” But then this show reminds you how everything is so interconnected. It would be such a devastating blow if something like this happened. How did this open your eyes in terms of the societal import of tech?
Well, I found making the show incredibly educational, in terms of it opened my eyes as to how tenuous the pieces at the moment, global pieces, particularly online are. It’s a very, very tenuous kind of deterrent that we have. It’s similar to the nuclear deterrent that we had in the ’80s. That we still have. Every player who has a cyber warfare infrastructure has exploits placed in their adversary’s infrastructure. So we’ve all got things ready to go. That line in the show about dropping Putin’s plane 20,000 feet — that could happen. We could do that. They could do stuff to us and that’s all that exists right now. We’re in that state of play at the moment. And it’s tempting to feel like everything’s fine, that we’re safe in our countries, and that everything’s such a long way away from us. But these foreign players, these adversaries, even domestic adversaries, are in our living rooms because they are in our computers and they could do untold damage quite easily. And we could do untold damage to other people. And these things can escalate very quickly because. Like Danny [Pegg’s character] says, “You get attacked, and it looks like it’s Russia. But in actual fact, it’s North Korea pretending to be Russia.” So you retaliate against Russia and Russia, if it’s a first strike for them, they retaliate on you. And suddenly you’ve got a third world war, which is engulfing the entire planet.
Hannah Khalique-Brown is so good in this, and I hadn’t seen her in anything before, so it was a revelation for me. When you’re on set with actors who are younger — not to age you — but do you feel a sense of responsibility to mentor or be available for their questions at this point in your career?
Oh yeah, 100%. I immediately got on well with Hannah. She’s got such a great attitude. She’s no ego. This was her show. And at no point did she ever behave like it was her show. She was incredibly collaborative. We’d all sit round off set during the setups and we’d talk. And she said to me quite early on, “Oh my brother and I grew up watching your films”. And I was simultaneously flattered and immediately felt old, but I just loved working with her. The two sides of that coin are: I’m working with Alex Jennings who is an incredibly established, brilliant character actor who is a joy to work with. Most of my scenes with David Neal, who Alex plays, I had such fun. I’m a big fan of his. And then on the other side of that, I’m working with someone like Hannah, who’s literally just started her career, who has boundless enthusiasm and she’s incredibly uncynical. Not that Alex is cynical in any way, but you know what I mean. It’s so fresh and she’s a delight. I’ve got massive respect for her. I think she’s going to do so well.
So you identify someone who’s just starting, someone who’s been in the game for a while, and you’re somewhere in the middle. Do you find it hard to keep cynicism at bay?
No. I generally get cast doing similar things. I’m perceived in a certain way, particularly in the states, but here too, in terms of being a comedic actor or whatever. So to be given the chance to be in something which is far more dramatic gave me the chance to flex different muscles. I came into it feeling more like Hannah than Alex. This isn’t a place where I usually get to play. And so I had zero cynicism and particularly working with someone like Peter Kosminsky, who I really admire as a dramaturge and as a writer, as a person, I felt lucky to be there and I always try and maintain that, just so I always enjoy my job. I’d hate to let cynicism creep in and start to just take it all for granted.
As a writer, do you feel like you’re moving in a different direction as far as the kind of roles you want to write for yourself?
Yeah. Not least because I’m older. I couldn’t write a show like Spaced again because that’s not me anymore. I’ve always believed in the idea of writing from the truth, of writing about what you know, never guessing. And so there has to be a kernel of truth in everything I write and my truth is different to what it was when I was 25. I’d like to try and diversify into more sort of dramatic work as well because that’s something I like to do and don’t always get the opportunity. So it feels fresh to me.
Writing from a place of truth, obviously, makes sense right off the tongue, but is that something where you question whether the material would be good if you weren’t coming from that place or is it about needing to be grounded holistically in what you’re working on?
I think it’s about the show, or whatever you’re writing, feeling authentic, feeling like it’s not sort of aimless or vague. Shaun of the Dead was as an easy film to write because, A, we were massive zombie fans, and B, we were kind of living that life at the time, same as Shaun and Ed. Shared flats and inactivity. Hot Fuzz, we had to really research. We did a lot of research and we learned about the police. We learned about the rural experience and we learned about the metropolitan experience. And then with The World’s End, again, we were all turning 40 at that time and had lived a certain amount of that kind of [experience]. Certainly, me and booze, I had lived a bit of that. And I always feel like if you’re writing from the truth, then it’s going to feel more real to the people that are watching it.
You’ve been open about things like alcohol. I know from personal experience that when you talk about something that you’ve gone through, it can be cathartic. But when you see the reaction to things like that, do you still feel the reward of that or is there sometimes a feeling of, “Oh, I wish I hadn’t revealed that much of myself?”
Sometimes. You just think a lot of people want to talk about it all the time and I feel like I’ve kind of said everything I need to say about it, but I think what the positives of it are, far outweigh the negatives. It’s good. This is a time, I think, where the notion of discussion is becoming more and more important, particularly when it comes to mental health. And I think if anything that pushes that agenda forward, the idea of actually opening up, then that’s a good thing, I think.
‘The Undeclared War’ is currently streaming on Peacock.