Many actors will tell you that crying on camera is easy. Dying's a little harder. And slapstick's a little harder than that. But the hardest challenge in acting? Many will say the toughest thing to do on camera is to act drunk. Convincingly.
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost faced that challenge pretty much every day on the set of their latest film, The World's End, the final instalment of their 'Cornetto Trilogy' that started with zombie-flick parody Shaun of the Dead in 2004 and continued with 2007's Bad-Boys-in-a-quaint-British-village, Hot Fuzz. As with those films, Pegg co-wrote the World's End script with Edgar Wright, who has directed all three, and there's a genre-spoofing hook: what begins as a flick about five childhood friends, led by Gary King (Pegg), returning to their hometown to go on the ultimate bar crawl – 12 pubs, one pint at each – eventually turns into atake on Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But much amber ale is drunk before the blue blood starts flowing.
"We actually had workshops on how to act drunk," says Pegg, in town briefly to spruik the film with Frost last month. The duo worked with physical comedian Cal McCrystal and choreographer Litza Bixler to get the art of being drunk on screen – but not obviously playing drunk – just right. "We had to measure how drunk we were in terms of the pint count – whether we were at a pub and we'd drunk four pints, six pints or seven pints, we had to differentiate between those levels of drunkenness. Also, add in the fact that adrenaline would have shaved off a couple of pubs off each level, because you sober up when you get adrenalised. It was a bit of a puzzle."
That painstaking attention to detail is one of the things that has long separated the Cornetto trilogy from a lot of modern comedy, grounding each entry in reality even as it rattles towards its over-the-top, hilariously violent finale. (It's called the Cornetto Trilogy by the way, because a different coloured Cornetto wrapper is seen in each film – red, blue, then green – a wink to Krzysztof Kieślowski's Three Colours trilogy.) Shaun felt like a slacker we've all played Xbox with at some stage and the Hot Fuzz buddy-cops were never caricatures; we rooted for them, even feared for them, as they fended off zombies and elderly florists.
It's an attention to detail that carries over to the fight scenes that litter The World's End. In the film, Pegg, Frost and their drinking crew (rounded out by Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan and Martin Freeman) find themselves brawling, Drunken Master-style, with possessed, body-snatched citizens in nearly every pub they visit. One particularly violent encounter with a gang of youths takes place in a pub loo. The crew spent five days on the scene, with the editor on set to ensure everything flowed perfectly (it moves in a blur of smashed doors, pulled-off limbs and broken urinals), and the guys did all their own stunts.
While Pegg has worked on two Mission Impossible and two Star Trek films, it was Frost who found the stuntwork relatively easy. "Simon's sick of me talking about Cuban Fury," he explains, as Pegg lets out an audible yawn, "but it's a dance film I did and I trained seven hours a day, every day, for seven months to learn how to become a salsa dancer before we shot a frame of the film. I was very lucky that we had a week between Cuban Fury ending and this film beginning, it helped a lot with learning the choreography." The big man had another ace up his sleeve: "I'd done a lot of kickboxing as a 31-year-old man." He leaves it at that.
Pegg had more trouble, breaking a bone in his hand as he leapt over a bar. "I had a spiral fracture of my fourth metacarpal," he says. "But I did another six takes on top of the break; I didn't tell Edgar because we hadn't got the shot yet. There are scenes in the film where I watch and think, 'Ooh, my hand was broken then!' When I'd jump up the ladder, grabbing on to it, I could feel it going… 'chlouang'." The spelling of that sound, by the way, comes courtesy of Frost. We sounded it out together.
The film is every bit as funny as its predecessors, but the edges feel sharper, darker. Pegg's Gary King is as tragic a figure as you're likely to find in a multiplex, a peaked-in-high-school loser who hasn't managed to outgrow his glory days and uses the 12-pint pub crawl to drag his old mates – all of whom have moved on with their lives – down to his level. And, obviously, he's an alcoholic. "I don't think comedy has to be fluffy, and I don't think our comedy's ever been fluffy," says Pegg. "Shaun has to kill his own mother [in Shaun of the Dead]… albeit second-kill her. It's important to drape comedy over substantial story, characters and ideas, because it makes the comedy so much richer. For us, Gary's backstory needed to be tragic. We wanted people to think, 'Oh, he's such a dick', and then: 'Maybe he isn't, maybe he's in pain, and maybe someone I know who's a dick isn't a dick, maybe they're in pain.'"
The Cornetto Trilogy's persistent concern with the homogenising of British life is a tangible theme here. This isn't a British pub nostalgia fest – far from old-school charmers, some of the pubs in The World's End are the kind of bland, made-over shitholes you'd find in Sydney's outer burbs. And just as London was once full of zombies, these big-chain drinking houses are packed full of robot-aliens. "The high street is being homogenised, and with that the pub – and I think that's quite frightening," says Frost when we inevitably talk booze. But it's not the pub that's his concern. "Alcohol in pubs is expensive because it's taxed so heavily, and it's such a nerve-wracking thing because people are being driven to drinking cheap alcohol at home. At least when you go to a pub you socialise; but to be forced back into your unit and fed cheap alcohol is a terrifying concept."
Pegg gave up alcohol himself five years ago, and while it was "Pavlovically" difficult at times to be shooting so much of the film in pubs (or on sets or train stations dressed to look like pubs), "it's also strange to be in the gigantic hangar of a spacecraft – when you're an actor you appreciate the artificiality of the environment you're in." (The beer in the film is water, caramelised sugar and creaming soda – for head.)
Pegg seems to have less affection for the pub's place in society than Frost. "In the UK – and here [Australia] as well – the pub forms a cornerstone, culturally and socially. And it's essentially a place where people go to imbibe a chemical to make them feel differently. When you start getting into that, the reasons behind that, why we anaesthetise ourselves with alcohol, why we need it to loosen up, and why we're allowed to drink something that causes so much damage, burden on our health system, and so much death and misery, just because it's taxable…" He stops for a second. "Pubs are places we think we go to meet, but we don't: we go to do that [get drunk] and we go in strength in numbers because it makes us feel better about essentially poisoning ourselves."
Don't worry: there's no sermonising in the film. It's all subtext hidden under a thick layer of blokey hilarity and a lot of fun, workshopped, drunk choreography. There's a message, but it's mostly a damn good time. And, as ever, Wright, Pegg and Frost have built it all with an eye towards rewarding repeat viewings with plenty of Easter Eggs. The pubs are all named after real pubs in the UK, for example, and each name was carefully chosen to telegraph exactly what's about to happen inside – The Famous Cock, for starters, is a pub that we learn Gary was banned from as a kid.
Frost's next project is a TV series called Mr Sloane, created by Curb Your Enthusiasm co-executive producer Robert B Weide, and Pegg will be working with Australian director Kriv Stenders (Red Dog) on a thriller to shoot in Perth called Kill Me Three Times. He's looking forward to coming back, and it doesn't sound like the usual big-star pandering. He likes Australia, he really likes us. "I came over to do the Adelaide Comedy Festival in 1996 as a strapping young stand-up," says Pegg, reflecting on his first visit. "It was the other side of the world… a very romantic experience for me. I'd just broken up with a girl and I was a free man. So I had a lot of fun with… some Adelaide people. Yep, those lovely farm girls, they were great."
The World's End screens from Thu Aug 1.