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Burke & Hare - Simon Pegg interview

Burke & Hare

Interview by Rob Carnevale

SIMON Pegg talks about some of the many appeals and challenges of playing William Burke in John Landis’ Burke & Hare, as well as being wined and dined by his director in a famous LA diner.

He also reminisces about the pleasure of getting to swap anecdotes with the likes of Christopher Lee and Ronnie Corbett and why he still gets plenty of “pinch me” moments.

Q. What did you like about the challenge of taking on Burke & Hare as the evil Laurel & Hardy?
Simon Pegg: Well, I had read the script but when I found out that John Landis was involved I was very interested as a fan of John’s work and agreed to do the film kind of on that alone… the chance to work with John. An American Werewolf in London is one of my all-time favourite films and the actual idea of working with him on a film set was extremely appealing. I didn’t even know Andy [Serkis] was cast at this point because I came on board quite early and I was lucky enough to see a lot of the cast unfold around me and every time I got a call it was just: “Really?” And that culminated with Andy, which was just fabulous. It just got better and better.

Q. But the material itself is rich…
Simon Pegg: Absolutely. It’s a comedy but it’s a really challenging film in a way because it really dares you to love them. But it’s a satire and what people need to realise is that it wasn’t just them. There was a broader, more sinister conspiracy at work by people who were already rich. They [Burke and Hare] started doing it because they didn’t have enough money to eat. It doesn’t make what they did right, but there are other villains in this piece that aren’t really talked about – which is the medical profession and specifically Robert Knox. It’s easy to pass these two off as evil, and harder to pass them off as likeable.

Q. I gather that John wined and dined you by taking you to see Terminator Salvation and then a rather famous diner in LA?
Simon Pegg: Yeah, the Kate Mantilini [in Beverly Hills]. First, we went to see Terminator Salvation, which was hilarious because he laughed all the way through it, which made me laugh too. It was at the DGA [Director’s Guild of America] as well and John’s big, booming laugh could be heard from the back [gives an example]. But then we went out to dinner and just caught up and chatted really. We’d met once before and John just knows everything.

He was a fan of Spaced, weirdly enough, and came to our screening of it in LA when we released the DVD over there. I got a call from him last year, from Edgar [Wright] actually, saying: “Can I give John Landis your details?” I was like: “Yeah!” So, he took me out and told me about the film and at that point it was in its very early stage – we didn’t know when we were going to film it, who else was involved… the names attached to it were all different from the final cast – and thankfully as well because the final cast is extraordinary. And then I just went off and made Paul and thought: “Oh good, I’ve just booked my next job and I can relax a bit.” Suddenly, this wonderful cast unfolded around me and I got more and more excited.

Q. That’s the diner that Heat was shot in, wasn’t it – where Robert De Niro and Al Pacino share a cup of coffee?
Simon Pegg: It was yes. We didn’t sit in those seats. But I’ve also eaten in the deli where When Harry Met Sally was shot. There’s a little sign there saying: “This is where When Harry Met Sally was shot.” [Laughs]

Q. What did you enjoy about working with Andy?
Simon Pegg: Well, we were sort of a support network for each other because working with John is sort of an emotional ride because he expects you to be… and rightly so because he’s an old school guy and he works fast and you’ve got to keep up. When he doesn’t like something he’ll just tell you, he doesn’t sugar-coat it. And similarly when you do something he does like he heaps praise and love on you, so you’ve got to take it all with the same level of understanding. I found it was so easy to work with Andy. We clicked into our little relationship very quickly. We’d only worked together on one thing [The Adventures of Tintin] and we hardly worked together on that, and yet somehow we fell into it like old friends. We knew each other anyway but it was silk smooth. I think you get that from watching the film… there’s a real sweetness to their relationship and they’re very much friends.

Q. I’d imagine there were some really special days on the set, like getting to act alongside Christopher Lee? You didn’t really sit on him, though, did you?
Simon Pegg: No, we didn’t sit on him. We sat on a stunt man. There was definitely a hand came through. But it was great. That scene originally had us coming up and he wasn’t dead… he was still awake and we kind of send him on his way. But on the day it became us waiting for him to croak. But him and John [Landis] together… it was very lucky we got any work done at all really. They’re both like story machines. They both have a wealth of history that is very tellable and very intriguing.

Q. So, what was your favourite anecdote?
Simon Pegg: The one I remember, while I’ll say really quickly, was one he told about Ralph Bellamy in Trading Places. Our script supervisor had made a mistake, which she very rarely did and she was absolutely on the ball… but she’d got something wrong and was really angry with herself and got apologetic, but John said: “Listen, listen, when I was doing Trading Places, I was working with Ralph Bellamy, one of the two brothers…”, and they were filming in freezing cold Philadelphia and John had not got the shot that he wanted, and he was furious about it and was pacing up and down angry, angry, angry and Ralph Bellamy got out of the car, 80-years-old, walked up to him and said:

“I had a friend who was a neuro-surgeon and a senator was badly injured in a car crash… his brain was crushed and they flew him and another surgeon from the other side of America to this hospital to try and save his life because he was a very important guy. They worked on him for 14 hours trying to put his brain back together and they failed… he died. But then afterwards, in post-op, one of the surgeons was just in bits, crying, because he’d worked so hard, and the other surgeon said to him: ‘Come on, it’s not like we’re making movies!’” And that made our script supervisor much more relaxed.

Q. How as working with Ronnie Corbett?
Simon Pegg: He’s such a sweetheart and just a delightful human being. But he’s overlooked as an actor I think because of his history as a comedian. But when you look back, the great strength of The Two Ronnies was that there performance style was so… they inhabited so many characters, thousands of characters over those series, and did wonderful short films like The Phantom Raspberry Blower and Charley Farley and Piggy Malone and The Worm That Turned… they had this serial running every week and they were always done deadly straight; the comedy came always from the… it was less about silly faces and more about the fact that they were playing it really straight – him and Ronnie Barker both.

In fact, John [Landis] offered the role of Coleman The Butler in Trading Places to Ronnie Barker first of all, but he didn’t do it because he didn’t really want to leave for Hollywood; he wasn’t really interested and so the role went to Denholm Elliott, who was wonderful. But John’s been aware of them for a long, long time… since the ‘70s, so casting Ronnie was a no-brainer with him.

Q. I gather you also had a bit of a geek out with your costume designer, Deborah Nadoolman?
Simon Pegg: Yeah, I did. Wasn’t it her idea to make Michael Jackson wear the white socks? She also hand-stitched Indiana Jones’ leather jacket. She came up with that look for Indiana Jones. So, as soon as we had Deborah it was like: “Forget John!” [laughs] Between her and John Mathieson, our director of photography, on the monitor, let alone on the screen, it looked like a painting. It was beautiful and I’m excited to see it on the screen.

Q. You’ve just completed Paul, you’ve got Mission: Impossible IV coming up and you’ve also worked with Steven Spielberg on Tintin. Do you still get pinch me moments when you get calls from people like that?
Simon Pegg: For sure. One of my pinch me moments was with Andy and Steven when Steven was demonstrating to Andy how I should be shaken… roughed up by Captain Haddock. They were both going over the movement and I was just there being shaken like a dummy but laughing because it was Andy Serkis and Steven Spielberg who I was getting a kicking from! But that happens all the time and I hope it doesn’t stop happening because it would be awful to not have pinch me moments.

Read our interview with Andy Serkis

Burke & Hare is released in UK cinemas on Friday, October 29, 2010.