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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

As a kid in Gloucester, England in the '70s and '80s, Simon Pegg idolized American action heroes. He obsessed over "Star Wars." He was the kind of kid who would put up a picture of Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia, on his bedroom wall. In short, a nerd who would channel his boyhood passions into a career in comedy.

Simon Pegg is best known for what has become a cult classic, the zombie comedy "Shaun of the Dead." Plus "Hot Fuzz," the buddy cop film set in an English village where missing swan is a call to action.

(Soundbite of movie, "Hot Fuzz")

Mr. SIMON PEGG (Actor): (as Sgt. Nicholas Angel) Yes, Mr. Staker, we'll do everything we can. Can you describe it to me?

Mr. STEPHEN MERCHANT (Actor): (as Peter Ian Staker) It's about two-foot tall, long slender neck...

(Soundbite of a bird)

Mr. PEGG: (as Sgt. Nicholas Angel) Yeah.

Mr. MERCHANT: (as Peter Ian Staker) ...got orange and black bill.

Mr. PEGG: (as Sgt. Nicholas Angel) Anything else?

Mr. MERCHANT: (as Peter Ian Staker) Well, it's a swan.

MONTAGNE: Simon Pegg called his new memoir "Nerd Do Well: A Small Boy's Journey to Becoming a Big Kid." It reads like a fanboy time machine.

And you write that you and your friends would play "Star Wars" and you identified with Luke Skywalker, even though Han Solo was the really infinitely cooler guy, as you put it.

Mr. PEGG: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Although Luke Skywalker was pretty cool for a kid.

Mr. PEGG: He's kind of whiny though, wasn't he? He was like, oh, I want to go down the shop with my friends.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEGG: And Han Solo was always like, Hey, baby.

Yeah, but I kind of say in the book that maybe my identification with him was because I was kind of a farm boy, miles from anything interesting and maybe related to his desires to sort of get involved with the fight against the Evil Empire, which I kind of was. I was living in the countryside and Gloucester, albeit a wonderfully historic and picturesque town, isn't really the center of activity anywhere.

MONTAGNE: In the book, you shared the very first joke you ever told. You were -what - six?

Mr. PEGG: That's right. Yeah.

MONTAGNE: It was...

Mr. PEGG: I do. I remember it was...

MONTAGNE: Your audience was, of course, your mother and grandmother.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEGG: I remember the intellectual process of thinking, hang on, this might be funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEGG: You know, and kind of - but I pretended I didn't realize that it was funny though. I decided to go for pretending to be cute and sort of unworldly.

MONTAGNE: Tell us the joke.

Mr. PEGG: We were talking about my friend and I said, oh, his dad is a dentist. And she said, where does he practice. And I said, no, he's a real one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEGG: And, you know, it's a very simple joke but I was only very young. And it just struck me as interesting that I seemed predetermined to seeing things that way, you know.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. But George Romero - of course famous director of "Night of the Living Dead," "Dawn of the Dead" - he would seem to have had quite an influence on you. Where did you come by your interests in zombie films? Was it from seeing the George Romero films?

Mr. PEGG: Absolutely. And there was another sort of a mythic hype attached to those films when I was a kid, because when the VHS was introduced, the studios at the time were so shortsighted they didn't think that video would last. And so they didn't attach any of the new releases to it. So what you basically had was a huge archive of various slasher films. And it was this treasure trove of gore and horror. And as a result, a sort of right-wing group banned a whole bunch of what they called Video Nasties.

Some of them were great movies like "Evil Dead" and "Dawn of the Dead." And these films got lumped in just because they were full of crayon red blood and nobody actually got the fact that there was some fun involved in them. And so the hunt for a copy of "Dawn of the Dead" was like the Holy Grail for teenagers in the '80s where I lived. And before I saw it, I knew all about it. I knew there was a guy who got his top of his head chopped off by helicopter. I knew there was the, you know, a moment someone got their guts ripped out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEGG: And it was like, I've got to see this - this sounds great.

MONTAGNE: I gather from memoirs that, even as a younger kid, you had access to the "Encyclopedia of Horror" that you...

Mr. PEGG: Yeah, that was the book that I had. That had stills from "Dawn of the Dead," which made it even more tantalizing. You know, the description of it as an American mall that becomes awash with blood. I remember the wording and thinking, God, I've got to see this.

And there was also something kind of frightening about it, as well. There was an idea that you could watch these films and be mentally scarred by them. You know, you hear rumors about these kids, they find a pirate video of "Dawn of the Dead" and they've all gone mad and killed each other.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEGG: You know, these apocryphal stories that would go around school. Even to the point that my friend had a copy of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and he came around to my house one day and knocked on the door and said, Simon, I've got it - I've got "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" - do you want to come and see it. And I was so frightened to watch it that I actually said no. I was 12.

Looking back, I'm glad because that film is so scary and brilliant. But I'm glad it and watch it when I was 12 'cause I wouldn't have slept for a week.

MONTAGNE: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Well, "Shaun of the Dead," which you co-wrote, that takes your character who's a kind of slacker, I guess.

Mr. PEGG: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: His friend, Ed, who is worse than a slacker. What is Ed?

Mr. PEGG: He's a slob, but one below a slacker.

MONTAGNE: All the characters in it sort of keep moving along in their own lives, even as there's the big zombie attack going on. Describe for us the moment in "Shaun of the Dead," where, you know, average life just suddenly appears in the midst of this attack by zombies.

Mr. PEGG: We started off with the idea that even in the face of a zombie apocalypse your life only changes in so much as you find yourself in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Nothing else changes - you're still scared of spiders, you still like the same music, you still have the same little quarrels with people.

There's a moment in the film when they realize that the vinyl is quite a good weapon against zombies and they decide to throw records at them. But they choose really carefully which ones to throw, because Shaun doesn't want to lose his original pressing of "Blue Monday" or The Stone Roses' second album, and all this kind of stuff. And so whilst the zombies are encroaching upon them, they're flicking through his records choosing which ones to throw.

(Soundbite of movie, "Shaun of the Dead")

Mr. NICK FROST (Actor): (as Ed) "Purple Rain"?

Mr. PEGG: (as Shaun) No.

Mr. FROST: (as Ed) "Sign of the times?"

Mr. PEGG: (as Shaun) Definitely not.

Mr. FROST: (as Ed) The Batman soundtrack?

Mr. PEGG: (as Shaun) Throw it.

Mr. FROST: (as Ed) Sade.

Mr. PEGG: (as Shaun) That's Lizzie's.

Mr. FROST: (as Ed) Yeah, but she did dump you.

(Soundbite of throwing and breaking glass)

MONTAGNE: One part of you that sort of brings out the nerd in you, is the whole question of certain zombie - a change in the form, I guess - which goes from zombies who, in your movies and most zombie movies, are very slow. You can practically, you know, it just get past them. There are suddenly in some zombie movies fast zombies. And again, there is this sort of a controversy about fans of the zombie genre.

Mr. PEGG: Yes. It is a schism in the church of the undead. I personally don't like fast zombies because, A: It's fun to get annoyed about something so trivial. And B: I think it removes their appeal, you know. The zombie is a kind of a tragic figure. The one thing that really, I think, has cemented the zombie as a popular creature in film history is that they're a bit pathetic and you can actually feel a bit sorry for them. They don't have any agenda. They just do what they do, which is eat flesh.

And when they start running around screaming like velociraptors, you just don't care about them anymore. You just think, oh, go away, you noisy speed demon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Yes. Thank you very much for joining us. It's been a pleasure.

Mr. PEGG: Thanks, Renee. My pleasure, not at all.

MONTAGNE: Simon Pegg's new memoir is called "Nerd Do Well."

And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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