A long time ago, just now: Simon Pegg on Star Wars

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In May 25, 1977, some ten months before I would eventually see it myself, Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope, then simply Star Wars, was released in just 42 theatres across the US. Exactly 37 years later, the day before I’m due on the set of Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens, then simply Episode VII, I scare the bejesus out of J.J. Abrams by screeching dramatically at the fact that his suite, at the Abu Dhabi hotel complex we are staying in, is number 37.

My first intimation of this epoch-defining space opera was through merchandise. Two days before my eighth birthday, I visited a friend and had my first encounter with Luke, Leia, Han et al, in the form of a sheet of rub-on transfers by Letraset, which featured two dioramas depicting the Death Star interior and the surface of Tatooine. The transfers presented a variety of odd-looking characters, including a boy in pyjamas, a dog-faced man in black, a number of similar-looking men in white and a bearded man in a cloak, whose sword appeared to be on fire. There was something utterly beguiling about these enigmatic figures. I was intrigued by their appearance, desperate to know their story. A few weeks later, my questions would be answered and my life would change forever. At the Star Wars Celebration at London’s ExCeL in 2007, I bought two sets of the same transfers, at auction for a very reasonable price, and completed one of many Star Wars circles that have occurred throughout my life.

Simon PeggSimon Pegg on Christmas Day 1978, aged eight, surrounded by Star Wars gifts.

I went with my mother and stepfather to the ABC Cinema in Gloucester to see the film everyone was talking about. Star Wars had been all over the news for breaking box-office records. The TV showed lines of excited people outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, underscored by the tinkling theme of John Craven’s Newsround, and my appetite for this enigmatic spectacle had been further whetted. Nick Frost and myself attend the premiere of our movie, Paul, a film replete with Star Wars references, at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. I am unsure what was more exciting, our film premiere or the location.

I strangely don’t remember watching Star Wars as clearly as emerging into the night afterwards, clutching the poster I’d bought from the foyer in a daze of elation. The poster, depicting Chewbacca, arms protectively outstretched around Princess Leia, who is clinging to his fur, and Luke Skywalker and Han Solo pointing their blasters at some unseen foe, was rolled into a tube and handed to me to carry to the car. Walking up The Oxebode in Gloucester town centre, I brandished the tube as if it were a blaster and made the first of countless “pew-pew” noises I would intone throughout my childhood and into adult life.

And now I am standing on the set of the Millennium Falcon (the entrance corridor with the smuggling compartments), holding Chewbacca’s bowcaster, quietly “pew-pewing” to myself, waiting for Han and Chewie to arrive on set and make that entrance. I’ve been on a number of film sets over the years, witnessed a number of cool moments, but I have never seen so many people gathered around the monitors as on that day.

There are several monitor stations around the set, broadcasting the video feed from A, B and C cameras. There’s video village, where the producers, writers, guests and, most importantly, the script supervisor sits; the sound department, VFX department and a few other miscellaneous feeds for various departmental needs. Each is crowded with crew who have stopped to view this momentous occasion. A number of them are the offspring of original Star Wars crew members. The whole thing has a palpable sense of film history being made, a sense that would have been completely absent 39 years earlier, as George Lucas struggled to make the original film, little knowing how significant it would be, not just in terms of its effect on the cinematic landscape but on the concept of film merchandising.

Through good times and bad, Star Wars is without doubt the defining film in my life.

I bought my first Star Wars figure from the toy department of Debenhams, Gloucester. It was R2-D2, a delicate recreation of the lovable astromech droid, the head of which revolved, making little pinging sounds. Now I’m taking a photo of my five year-old daughter with her arm around the real thing. Later, she’s kneeling by new droid on the block BB-8, as the brilliant team who operate him activate his remote and puppeteer him from around a corner. She is completely beguiled, patting his domed head and talking to him as he nods and wobbles like a puppy. Knowing the next stop is M Stage and the Millennium Falcon interior, I encourage her to let BB-8 go back to work, to which she says, “Just one more hug, dad.” In this moment I know this new addition to the Star Wars universe is going to be a phenomenon just as Artoo was 37 years earlier, inspiring me to make him my first purchase and the best 99p I ever spent.

Eventually, I pry her away and head for the Falcon. We wander around the familiar corridors; sit at the chess table. She climbs into Han and Chewie’s bunks respectively. Eventually we get to the cockpit — dad gets Han’s seat, daughter gets Chewie’s. Just two years older than my daughter I had pinned another Star Wars poster to my bedroom wall. Han, Ben, Luke and Chewie, sitting in that same cockpit, looking out with concerned expressions, most likely at the size of that moon.

Back then, my collection of Star Wars merchandise grew steadily. The Christmas of 1978 was easy for my parents. My mother has a photo of me surrounded by freshly opened gifts, including a Star Wars pillow case, book and Princess Leia action figure (I’m also wearing football things, but I grew out of that). Now I’m strolling around the Resistance base at Pinewood Studios, arm in arm with Carrie Fisher, a woman whose image I used to kiss before bed, talking about how strange it must be being back in the universe. She shrugs it off, but I know she’s playing it down because she’s tough and cool and funny as fuck. I give her a hug and unabashedly tell her that I love her. She grabs my hand, regarding my wedding ring and shoves me off with a profanity. She is as special to me now as she was then. I smile a lot that day. Almost as much as I do the following day as she and I discuss Star Wars-related porn in the make-up trailer.

Simon Pegg

Meeting the other cast members is a similarly emotional experience, whether it’s watching playback with Harrison Ford (seeing Han Solo put on his Indiana Jones-style glasses only makes him cooler), chatting with Anthony Daniels or Peter Mayhew (both delightful), or unabashedly hugging Mark Hamill like we are old friends. In some ways, at least for me, we are.

I am on set as a consultant, acting as a sounding board for J.J., who is making tweaks to the already wonderful screenplay. My computer is open in Final Draft and, at the top of my screen, the scene heading reads, “INT. S-REDACTED-R — DAY”. I hear a familiar voice and turn to see Mark walking onto set, looking trim and cool, with a beard that he grumbles about but makes him look handsome and Jedi-like. When they shot Luke placing his robotic hand on R2’s head, a moment glimpsed in the trailer, I sat at the monitors with Mark’s family and marvelled at the huge significance of the moment. Back in the playground of Castle Hill Primary School, we decided who would be who in our break-time game of Star Wars. I turned around, touched the ground and, “Bagsie be Luke!” I always did back then. There are many who would argue Han to be cooler, but I was blond and lived in a place that felt far from the bright centre of the universe. It only felt right; I wanted to be a star pilot and it was all such a long way from where I was. Luke was my hero, still is.

In 1981, I received a gatefold double album of John Williams’ score to The Empire Strikes Back, which is still my all-time favourite film score. I would sit in my grandmother’s front room for hours listening to it and imagining myself in my own Star Wars movie as Luke’s younger brother — an eight year-old boy, tagging along behind his older Jedi brother. At that time, a Star Wars film with a small child in a main role seemed perfectly reasonable to me. I was young, what did I know?

The whole thing has a palpable sense of film history being made.

Now, I’m sat on a comfy sofa on the scoring stage at Sony Studios in Culver City, California, listening to John Williams score The Force Awakens, his peerless musical cues lovingly applied to the images on the screen. It sounds like Star Wars: the new stuff sounds like it should; the old stuff brings the hairs on the back of my neck to attention. As Han and Leia’s theme plays, producer Bryan Burk FaceTimes Lawrence Kasdan so he can hear it. I smile and wave at the man who wrote The Empire Strikes Back, as well as this newest instalment of a story that has been a huge part of my life for almost 40 years. Through good times and bad, as a fan, a student, a detractor and collaborator, Star Wars is without doubt the defining film in my life.

Six months ago, I logged on to eBay and found the same gatefold edition of John Williams’ Empire score I owned as a child (still do) and gifted it to J.J. Abrams for his birthday. Not just as a birthday present, but as a thank you for literally making my childhood dreams come true. After a period of time when I thought Star Wars was a mere memory, buried in an avalanche of disappointment and diminishing returns, I found myself contributing to the very story that had inspired me so much as a child. As an actor, as a writer, as a reborn fan. There are so many more circles I could cite, but there are more interesting things to read in this month’s Empire concerning this particular milestone in cinema history, so I’ll leave it here.

Thirty-seven years ago, I walk into the ABC Cinema Gloucester, unaware that I am taking my first step into a larger world. The Force, it would seem, is with me.

This article originally appeared in Empire Magazine, issue #319 (January 2016).