Simon Pegg On What He Learned From ‘Mission: Impossible,’ Including Driving a Speed Boat

"The stakes are higher," says Simon Pegg of becoming a 'Mission: Impossible' action hero, which has included fight training and speeding a boat though the canals of Venice.

Simonn Pegg in ‘Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One. Christian Black

Before joining the IMF team in 2006’s Mission: Impossible III, Simon Pegg was best known as the quirky star of Shaun of the Dead. At the time, the British actor couldn’t have imagined that he’d go on to play the globe-trotting, death-defying agent Benji Dunn in five movies opposite Tom Cruise. But in Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One, Benji remains an integral character, aiding Cruise’s Ethan Hunt in the frantic search for their new foe, an AI dubbed “The Entity.” Pegg and Cruise are joined by a group of newcomers and M:I regulars, including Hayley Atwell, Ving Rhames, Rebecca Ferguson, Esai Morales, Vanessa Kirby, Pom Klementieff and Henry Czerny, in what is being called the series’ best film so far. 

For Pegg, the Christopher McQuarrie-helmed action flick was an opportunity to both learn new skills and hone in on the emotional truth of his character, who nearly died at the end of 2018’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout. It was also a chance to watch Cruise do even more insane stunts, like drive a motorcycle off a cliff in pursuit of a train. Here Pegg discusses his history with Mission: Impossible, working with Cruise and why he hopes fans will go see this one in theaters. 

When you were initially approached about the role of Benji, how was he presented to you?

I remember J.J. Abrams called me up at my office. I was writing Hot Fuzz with Edgar Wright and the call came in that J.J. Abrams was on the phone. I was vaguely aware of him as the guy that did Alias. In his inimitable way, rather than an offer coming through my reps, he just called me and said, “Hey, do you want to come be in Mission: Impossible III? I’ve got this really fun part for you.” I’d never been in a Hollywood movie and I was flattered and terrified. He just said, “He’s Ethan’s tech guy. He works in the lab and you’ve got this really great scene and I’d love you to come and do it.” And that was pretty much the brief that I got. Then after M:I III came out, I got a call about a year later suggesting Benji be a field agent.

Was Benji becoming a field agent in Ghost Protocol nerve-wracking for you?

I was at a certain point in my life when I was ready for it. It was a new beginning for me. Tom had said to me, “You know, you gotta get in shape for this. You’ve got to be an agent, so we’ll get trained and stuff.” I was so up for it. I remember going into Prague to shoot the scenes that were supposed to be in Red Square in Russia and joining a gym and getting really, really into my fitness and fight training. It was genuinely exciting. I welcomed it with open arms. 

Tom Cruise, Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg in ‘Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One.’ Paramount Pictures

What’s made you keep coming back to these movies and to Benji over the years?

It’s such a privilege as an actor to be given the opportunity to build on a character. When it’s with a film series, you get to do it over a longer period of time. If you’re playing a character in a TV show, that evolution is constant, whereas with this you get to readdress him or her every time you come to do another film and evolve them forensically. That’s a real gift. It’s always a no-brainer to say yes.

Do you get a script when a new movie comes up or just a call?

MQ—Christopher McQuarrie—will say, “Hey, let’s go for dinner.” And we sit and we talk and he explains everything that he has planned and the basic story. It’s always the most exciting, fun dinner to have. I love McQ. We are such nerds together, like movie nerds. All we talk about is movies. And when we’re talking about our movie it’s even more exciting. So nowadays, because of the way we work, McQ has the structure and the story and the big events worked out and then he’ll let the locations we go to tell him the story that we’re going to tell as the film progresses. So it’s less about having a completed script and more about an idea of what’s going to happen. 

Even if there’s not a script, do you discuss how Benji has evolved and where he is emotionally in the film?

McQ and I talked at length about where Benji would be for this one and in terms of what had happened to him previously where he was almost killed and came very, very close to being vaporized in a nuclear fire. We wanted all of that to weigh on Benji a bit. He knows that the only family he really has is his friends or the people around him. He’s made the choice to become this IMF agent and it’s like the priesthood or something, where you reject your normal life to join this thing. At this stage in the film, he’s fully matured and is much more of an accomplished agent. He’s less of the wet-behind-the-ears new guy that he was in Ghost Protocol

In Dead Reckoning, what was interesting to you about the idea of the villain being an AI?

When McQ told me that back in 2019, I felt like, “Oh, that’s a cool idea. It’s very Mission Impossible.” There’s always been a strong technology thread in Mission Impossible, and it felt very on brand. But then in the three years that have elapsed, it’s become such a talking point. It’s not a new idea—we can go back to HAL and The Matrix and all those films that have toyed with AI before. But we haven’t seen it depicted at a time when it’s getting close to that. The IMF are all about subterfuge and inventing truths to entrap people and wearing masks. The Entity feels like it’s the super IMF. They’re coming up against themselves, but times one thousand. 

In Mission: Impossible, the characters get scared and injured and even die. What feels exciting about being in an action movie where you’re not playing someone who is a superhero? 

The stakes are immediately higher. The moment you start to enter fantasy realms, death and vulnerability start to have no meaning. There’s a place for that, and there’s a whole genre of those kinds of characters, but what you get with a more human story is more relatability. You get the fact that if Ethan doesn’t make that jump, then he’s going to die. He’s not just going to hit the ground, roll over, and stand in a cool position. That brings it all a little bit closer to home for us as the audience. 

How many of your own stunts do you do?

As much as I can. Luckily for Benji, mostly what I do is sit behind the computer and tell Tom where to go, which I’m not complaining about in any way. But I drove that boat around the Venice Canals—I had to learn to do that. The basic theory is that when you hand it over to a stunt professional, they just do the stunt. They can’t act. They just have to do the physical action. And so you can’t really get a performance in the midst of a stunt. What Tom’s really keyed into is the idea that if the actor does the stunt, then the performance never stops. So I never want there to be a moment when it switches to someone else and I can’t do my own physical action or comedy or whatever. Tom really leads from the front with that. 

Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie on the set of ‘Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One.’ Paramount Pictures and Skydance

Had you ever driven a boat before?

I learned to drive a twin engine speedboat for Fallout. So I had some experience. But the thing about driving a boat around Venice is the canals are just so narrow and the boats are so expensive. You can’t afford to grind against a concrete jetty. You also have to drive into the future a little bit. Like every move you make happens two seconds later. So it’s a really, really complicated thing to do. But it was so much fun. I’d never been to Venice. So to get there and immediately go out on the Grand Canal with [stunt coordinator] Wade [Eastwood] and start driving around a little course—that’s a dream come true. 

When it’s time for Tom to do one of these big stunts, like drive a motorcycle off a cliff, are you on the set for it?

Yeah. Actually, if you look on my Instagram, I put up a video that I took on the day on my phone, which is basically us watching Tom do it and our reactions, which are hysterical. In the moment, you don’t know what’s gonna happen. I’ve been there for so many of Tom’s big stunts and there’s always a degree of uncertainty. However hard he trains, no matter how brilliant our stunt team are, you can’t account for a crosswind or a bit of grit coming off the ramp and going into the eye or something. So it’s a pretty terrifying experience. But my God, it’s exhilarating.

I don’t know if I could handle watching it. 

What I’ve learned over the years is it’s easier to be there than it is to not. If you’re back at base and you’re just wondering what’s happening, it’s much worse. 

Tom talks a lot about the importance of seeing movies in the theater. Is that a sentiment you share?

One hundred percent. I’m such a believer in the cinematic experiences as a democratizing force. People talk about the cinema as, “See it on the big screen.” The only reason the big screen is there is so that so many people can watch it at the same time. And it’s vitally important for us as a society to share stuff like that because we’re living in such a divisive time when we’re all pulling away from each other. We’re all becoming more insular because we’re constantly on our devices. We’re getting into fights online about the silliest things. And yet, the cinema is a place where you can sit with 300 people, none of whom you might have anything in common with, and you get this moment of shared emotion, which is the glue that holds us together. It’s a tribe and I think our tribes are disbanding the more we fracture in society. I feel like cinema, theater and any sort of shared experience, music—they’re vitally important for us and for our survival. I know that sounds slightly hyperbolic, but I believe it.

What was the last movie you saw in a theater?

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. There’s a lot of talk at the moment—and it’s online rubbish—about there being some kind of rivalry between all the big tentpole films of the summer, but it’s just not true. I’m just rooting for everybody because it’s important that everybody does well. I’m gonna go see Barbie, I’m gonna go see Oppenheimer, I’m gonna go see Asteroid City. I’m gonna go and see everything I can. Because it’s important for the survival of our industry that we all get out to the cinema. It’s not a competition; it’s art.

Have you started filming the second part of Dead Reckoning yet?

Yes. We were shooting them simultaneously. So we were still shooting parts of Part One when we’d already started shooting Part Two. And it’s got to be ready for next year, so we hit the ground running as soon as we come off the press tour. I’m gonna have the peculiar experience of promoting a film and then going back to shooting that same film. 

Will this actually be the last Mission: Impossible film?

I think it’s the end of a certain phase of Mission: Impossible, but I doubt very much it is the end of Mission: Impossible. It’s too vivacious. And I’m not sure we’ve left ourselves anywhere to go. I was talking to McQ this morning about our 99 percent Rotten Tomatoes score. What do we do? We’ve only got one percent to play with. If we don’t pull in 100 percent for Part Two, everyone’s gonna be like, “Oh, well, it didn’t do as well.” We’ve set the bar too high!

Simon Pegg On What He Learned From ‘Mission: Impossible,’ Including Driving a Speed Boat