Simon Pegg had a breakout role as the title character in “Shaun of the Dead” fifteen years ago. Edgar Wright’s zombie comedy, which he co-wrote, became a cult hit and spawned two follow up films, “Hot Fuzz,” and “The World’s End.” The success of these films gave Pegg exposure and helped him make the leap into big budget franchises like “Mission: Impossible” and “Star Trek.”
The actor, however, goes back to his indie roots for his latest project, the compelling character study, “Lost Transmissions,” which premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. In this contemporary drama written and directed by Katherine O’Brien, Pegg plays Theo, an LA music executive who suffers from schizophrenia. He is charming when he is making up songs or encouraging Hannah (Juno Temple) to sing, but behind his sunny façade, Theo’s disposition is troubled. He refuses to take his meds, is being evicted, and has a series of ugly outbursts. (One in a car is particularly disturbing).
Inspired by a true story, O’Brien’s sensitive film looks at how mental illness impacts Theo, and by extension, Hannah. One tense sequence has her trying to prevent him from doing drugs, and results in a chase across various backyards until the cops arrive.
Pegg turns in a nervy, unfiltered performance as Theo. The actor met with Salon at the Tribeca Film Festival to talk about mental illness, music, and “Lost Transmissions.”
“Lost Transmissions” is inspired by a true story. What research did you do on schizophrenia, and what did you learn about mental illness?
I’ve certainly suffered from depression and spoke about that recently. That’s a very common kind of mental illness. Playing Theo, I wanted to be absolutely sure of what schizophrenia is. It is often misunderstood as a condition people tend to associate with split personality, or having multiple people living within them. That’s not actually what schizophrenia is; it’s actually something completely different.
I decided to go to talk to a psychiatric nurse who had actually cared for the person who the film is based on for a while. I also sat down in a room with two guys, one of whom was in the midst of a schizophrenic break, and one who was out of it and has since relapsed. It was fascinating to hear them talk about their situations lucidly. One was talking in the past tense at that point and telling crazy stories about how he was convinced that the BBC was trying to kill him. And the other guy was saying that he [knew] that what he was suffering from was a condition but at the same time, he was feeling it in a very real sense. I remember he said, “I’m getting ready to kill all of you in case you attacked me.” It was fascinating. I felt it was a huge responsibility to get this portrayal right, and not just wing it.
You are known for your comic performances, but here you show a deep, dramatic range. What appealed to you about playing Theo?
I got sent the screenplay, and I was really happy that someone sent me the screenplay—had even thought of me for that role. The other factor was that in my film career I hadn’t been directed by a woman, that felt like something I needed to correct. So, it was the perfect storm of a really great story and script and the opportunity to put myself in that situation creatively. I was chuffed that she thought of me.
I didn’t plan to be a comedic actor. When I was 16 and began to follow acting in education as a career, I had aspirations to be working at the RSC, doing Shakespeare. At university, I drifted into comedy, which is how I got into working professionally—through stand-up comedy.
You are a sad clown. You play these not pathetic, but . . .
I recently played a character who was suffering from anxiety and depression—that was Gary King in “The World’s End.” That character is an alcoholic, suicidal, depressive. The root of our comedy was our character. Because it is a rainbow, a mixture of highs and lows.
Theo is charming one minute and impossible the next. How did you calibrate his mood swings and outbursts in your performance? You are adorable one scene and unforgivable the next.
The point of it is trying to show the variations in mood and behavior that can occur and how someone ostensibly fun and charming to be around can descend into unforgivable and unacceptable bouts of aggressive behavior. I think you have to really like Theo for that to really work when you see him behave in the other way. You have to understand why Hannah really takes to him.
What do you think accounts for Hannah’s loyalty towards Theo? She sees what he’s capable of, and what he puts his friends through. What motivates their relationship? And I like that it’s a non-sexual relationship.
That was important to Katherine. He obviously sees potential in [Hannah] that other people haven’t seen. He fosters her creative spirit and encourages her. He’s one of the first people who has seen that in her and she responds to and appreciates it. She doesn’t want to abandon him when he is in need of help.
There’s a strange thing with schizophrenia. It can create an extreme awareness of your surroundings. The resulting behavior is a kind of sensory overload whereby the neurons are so spaced out in your mind. Imagine that the information you receive every day is the size of a letter box opening. Schizophrenia opens [gestures wider] so you are receiving all this information and you are creating patterns where there aren’t patterns. I think it's her seeing him go through that that got to her and made her want to help.
She’s a proxy for the viewer. You become sympathetic towards him.
He’s a human being. It’s easy to reduce people with mental illness to a category like “mad,” to subtract credibility from them. Politicians do it all the time. Great visionary politicians are often dismissed by their rivals as “mad” because their ideas are “dangerous.” It’s an easy way to dismiss someone—to call them “mad.” It’s sad that that’s how we view mental illness, as something to be derided.
You have admitted that you had problems struggling with fame and depression. If it’s not too painful, can you talk about that?
I was making this film when that came about. I was doing an interview with Empire magazine in the U.K. The journalist was someone I knew and trusted. Notions of mental illness had been on my mind a little bit. Let’s talk about it. It’s relevant. The point of the film is openness and not being afraid to talk about stuff like that. The fact is, it’s indiscriminate. It doesn’t matter what you have in terms of material gain or supposed personal happiness, and the trapping of that. It doesn’t distinguish between people who supposedly have everything, or whatever they want, and people who are destitute and have nothing. You can exacerbate it even further, if you find yourself in that situation and the circumstances of your life are terrible too. One facilitates the other. As in the movie, Theo goes from being a seemingly well-adjusted middle-class socialite to being on skid row within a few days. That is something that can happen to anybody.
You think he has it together, but he crumbles very quickly.
You can’t always have the wherewithal to check yourself in [to a clinic]. The only way you can receive help in some circumstances is to voluntarily check yourself in, but people with delusions seem to think they are saner than everyone else, so there’s this vicious circle of people who can’t get help and find themselves abandoned by the system. Once you get into that arena, there’s very little chance of getting out of it—which is a terrifying thought. That’s the key thing: Ask for help. It’s easy to say that, and some people—particularly men—find it hard to ask for help, but it’s an important thing to be able to do.
Music is important to the film. The song, “True Love Will Find You in the End,” by Daniel Johnson—who himself is no stranger to psychotic episodes—plays a role in “Lost Transmissions.” What music do you listen to?
Oh, God! I can only tell you what I’ve recently purchased. Music is incredibly important to me.
My father is a musician, a jazz pianist. My wife is a music publicist. I listen to a lot of music. The last album I bought was by a band called Japanese Breakfast. I’m currently obsessed with Phoebe Bridgers. I love her album “Stranger in the Alps.” I think, from her songs, she’s had to deal with a certain amount of emotional turmoil. She has a great little super group called boygenius, a collaboration with Conor Oberst, from Bright Eyes and Better Oblivion Community Center. I’m hoovering it up. I’m disappointed that I’m here in the U.S. while she’s on tour in the U.K.
Why do you think Theo not only rejects his medications, but also takes drugs—which were reported to have caused his psychotic break?
I think because he hasn’t got the wherewithal at that moment to understand the situation he is in. Delusional people don’t always, if ever, think they are having delusions. They think that guy down there is looking at us. It might be fun to do these mushrooms in this moment. Vulnerable people do crazy things sometimes. There I am using that language — crazy! It’s amazing how easy it is for us to use epithets like that. It’s derogatory, when they are actually about something really serious.
Yes, thank you for making that point. The way the film talks about mental illness and uses language is very important. But let me follow up on what you said about being fun in the moment — Theo is trying to live moment to moment. I see Theo to be like a child at times, and needful of a minder. What observations do you have about being reckless and being responsible? Not that you’ve ever been in your life…
Oh, yeah, right. It’s interesting with Theo. He kind of wants to be looked after in some respects, but in other respects, he is suspicious of people who want to look after him. He is sort of childlike when he’s most vulnerable. At its height, when it’s most severe, he’s scary and difficult to be around. But you must deal with all of those moments when people are susceptible to care and they want to be looked after and when they absolutely don’t. They are the same person.
That’s the purpose of the opening scene, when you see Theo at his most ebullient and fun and charming. That’s to set his baseline from that point. You go off to delusional behavior fairly quickly.
Theo talks about embarrassing himself. As an actor you do extreme things on screen, in character that you probably wouldn’t do in real life. Can you talk about working/living without a filter?
That’s the catharsis, you get to do things like that. In “Spinal Tap”—which is being celebrated at this very festival—I think it’s Viv Savage who says, and I’m paraphrasing, about having the stage to do all the crazy stuff on otherwise he’d do it in real life. It’s fun to be able to let loose when you’re on camera and rehearse those emotions and experience those things through role play so when you come off camera, you can just be boring and ordinary, which I am.
Are you boring and ordinary?
Oh, yeah! I love it. I like nothing better than retreating to my little house in the country and hanging out with my wife, my daughter and my dogs and playing Minecraft and watching movies.
I quit drinking almost ten years ago and the further away I got from that, I realized how much of society is engineered towards putting you in a situation where you do do that. It’s licensed and commercial—we are encouraged to poison our bloodstreams. I don’t go out to parties anymore unless it’s something specific to celebrate. The notion to do that every weekend—you go out to hookup or get drunk—and I want to do neither, so I’ll just stay home.
Throughout the film, Theo is encouraging Hannah to feel not think. Your performance makes us feel about Theo and think about how to handle mental illness. What can you say about heart vs. head, what connects with your emotions, and what do you desire?
I think to be totally rational about it, feeling is an advanced, more instinctive kind of thinking. The idea of thinking is when you over-rationalize or overcomplicate things by dwelling on them too much, or letting insecurity creep in. When you feel, it’s what you want to do on a fundamental level. It’s like when you walk into a shop and you see the thing you want before anything else, and you might go around the entire shop and try everything else on, but you come back to that first thing you saw, because you felt it. It’s romantic and a little bit, over-spiritual to attribute that to some non-intellectual process. I think it is an intellectual process, a very deep-rooted one.