Following the release of the 2004 horror comedy Shaun of the Dead, an interviewer asked British actor Simon Pegg whether he intended to abandon his homeland for Hollywood. The question seemed preposterous. Shaun, which was made for $6 million, had proved moderately successful in both the U.K. and America, where it grossed $14 million. It had also found favor among a host of directors including Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino. But the world of Tinseltown and big-budget filmmaking seemed a distant one, and Pegg was not delusional enough to believe that Shaun of the Dead an homage to George A. Romero's zombie flicks that he co-wrote with director Edgar Wright would have him on the speed dial of any L.A. agents' phones.
So, Pegg answered no, he wasn't about to ''go off and do Mission: Impossible III.''
Which might have been the end of the matter. Except that another filmmaker whose funny bone had been tickled by Shaun of the Dead was Lost overlord J.J. Abrams, who was about to start casting the third installment of a certain Tom Cruise-starring action franchise.
And so it came to pass that a year after the interview, Pegg went off and did Mission: Impossible III.
''J.J. Abrams had seen Shaun and really liked it,'' says Pegg, over lunch at a Manhattan hotel. ''He called me at the office and said, 'Do you want to be in M:I-3?' It was that simple. Then I was suddenly in L.A. acting alongside Tom Cruise and Ving Rhames. It was very odd. The size of the production was shocking. So much food,'' he continues. ''That was the biggest thing I took away from it. Unlimited smoothies!''
Pegg also took away the memory of telling Cruise about a new film he was co-writing with Wright called Hot Fuzz, which relocates the Hollywood buddy-cop action movie to a small English village. ''He laughed really loudly, like he does,'' says Pegg. ''He seemed really into the idea. He just kept saying, 'That's great! Great!'''
British moviegoers are now sharing Cruise's enthusiasm. Released there on Valentine's Day Pegg's 37th birthday the $16 million Hot Fuzz, starring Pegg and his best friend Nick Frost, grossed $12 million in its first five days and to date has earned more than $40 million in the U.K.
Hot Fuzz stars Pegg as a top London policeman reluctantly transferred to Britain's most crime-free village. There he is teamed with Frost's bumbling, movie-obsessed constable, who instructs him in the ways of the action flick just as Pegg's character begins to wonder whether the village is really as free of criminal activities as it seems. The result is a kinetic mix that fuses the plot and quaint setting of an Agatha Christie mystery with the machismo-drenched tropes of the buddy-cop blockbuster. Hot Fuzz does for the action flick what Shaun did for the zombie film: It references the genre and reveres it, rather than poking fun at it, Naked Gun-style.
''We're always adamant that they're not spoofs,'' Pegg says of Shaun and Hot Fuzz. ''They lack the sneer that a lot of parodies have that look down on their source material. Because we're looking up to it.''
The film opens here on April 20 and has the potential to transform Pegg and Frost from minor cult figures to genuine stars, just as it has done back in the U.K. and across Europe. Frost, 35, says he relishes visiting the dwindling number of countries where they aren't well-known.
''You can go and have a beer,'' he says. ''Or, you know, see a prostitute.''
Frost is joking about the prostitute, yet the burly actor is not exactly a traditionalist when it comes to bedroom associates. Back in the mid-'90s, he and Pegg, who refer to themselves as ''heterosexual life partners,'' shared a twin bed in Frost's London apartment.
''He had nowhere to stay, so he came to sleep on the floor of my bedroom,'' recalls Frost. ''But I can't see a man on the floor, so we topped and tailed for a bit and then we ended up just sleeping next to one another for about eight months.''
At the time, Pegg was a budding stand-up comedian who had started to attract the attention of TV producers. Frost, who'd left school at 15, was a waiter in a Mexican restaurant where Pegg's then girlfriend worked. She mentioned to Pegg that Frost was interested in doing stand-up, and Pegg encouraged this ambition with often disastrous results. ''The worst one was when I walked onto the stage and someone said, 'Get off, you fat c---,''' recalls Frost. ''I didn't even pick the mic up. I went straight home.''
But when Pegg started writing a sitcom, Spaced, he penned a role for his new buddy as the gun-crazed best friend of his character, an out-of-work cartoonist. ''The thought of having to stand in front of people and act was f---ing terrifying,'' admits Frost. ''But I didn't have anything better to do.''
Pegg recruited his friend and former collaborator Wright to direct. Wright, 33, had spent his teenage years making microbudgeted genre flicks in his sleepy rural hometown of Wells. One of the movies was Dead Right, which the director now describes as ''a Dirty Harry film with people whose b---s haven't dropped yet.''
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