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‘The Boys,’ ‘Shaun of the Dead’ 20th Anniversary

‘The Boys,’ ‘Shaun of the Dead’ 20th Anniversary

‘The Boys,’ ‘Shaun of the Dead’ 20th Anniversary

It took a few seasons, but last week Simon Pegg was finally in and amongst the violent bloodshed that makes The Boys so special.

On Thursday, episode five of season four dropped and gave viewers a heart-wrenching tale audiences aren’t quite used to seeing in Amazon’s beloved comic adaptation: a teary father-son moment.

In the episode, Hughie (Jack Quaid), is desperate to save his father Hugh Campbell Senior (Pegg) following a stroke. He brings a vial of Compound V to the hospital to inject into his dad’s bloodstream and later decides not to, but not before his mother (Rosemarie DeWitt) injects it instead. Hugh Sr. wakes up with disastrously messy superhero abilities. He can phase shift through walls and objects and ends up killing innocents on his ward by phasing into solid form while partially inside people. It’s The Boys, so, you know — there’s blood everywhere.

Hughie makes the difficult decision to end the hysterics and put his father to sleep, especially because Hugh Sr. becomes severely distressed and mentally incapacitated.

In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, Pegg discusses where this season of The Boys is headed (he doesn’t know any more than viewers do), why Hugh Sr. could have taken down Homelander and the 20th anniversary of his enduringly popular cult classic Shaun of the Dead, which he co-wrote with director Edgar Wright.

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Darick Robertson famously used your likeness for the original Hughie Campbell illustration in The Boys comics. This was never cleared with you, but has it ended up producing quite an awesome experience for your television résumé?

Oh yeah. If Darick hadn’t decided to do that, then I never would have ended up in the show. Eric Kripke [the show’s creator and showrunner] is so great. He was so careful about the existing fan base before the show got started. He wanted to make sure that the comic was duly honored. And I think as a way of doing that, he reached out to me and suggested I come and play Hughie’s dad, which felt like a really nice connection to the original comic book.

Initially, to me, it was just a cool thing. I was never in any way bothered by it. I remember DC wrote to me because they published it initially and sort of said, “Oh, hey, I’m glad you like the book. Can you sign this to say that it’s okay to use your likeness?” And I was like, “Don’t worry, I’m not gonna sue you or anything.” I used to be a bit of a comic book reader and I was flattered that Darick had considered my face worthy of representation. So yeah, it’s a lovely story.

We don’t see too much of Hugh Campbell Sr. in The Boys until this season. What was it like being a lot more involved on set and, crucially, finally being able to get in and amongst the bloodshed that The Boys is so famous for?

It was really great. When I got the scripts, I was reading them going, “Okay, I’m asleep in this one, I’m asleep in this one, and I’m asleep in this one.” And then suddenly episode five came along and I was just thrilled. Not least because Hugh Sr. got to sort of experience the full The Boys world in terms of having a superpower and causing mayhem, but also it felt like a very emotional, very meaningful storyline for Hughie. Because it was all about letting go and and moving on. It was just a really chewy, juicy part to play.

I had a lot of fun. Myself, Rosemarie DeWitt and Jack had such fun shooting those scenes, even though they’re really sad. Particularly when he just wakes up and we’re sitting in bed chatting, we laughed so much on set. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as much on set before. And then doing all the special effects, pretending to run through walls. … Then watching it back, I was like, “Oh, wow. Okay, I see what I was doing now.”

What is filming an episode of The Boys like? When someone yells “cut,” is it weird to be standing in a hospital gown with a fake heart in your hand?

It’s very messy. It’s blood; it’s fake blood — very sticky and very wet. My hospital gown would dry into a cardboard skirt, and then the make-up team would have to reapply all the blood. They spend as much on shaving foam as they do on fake blood, because shaving foam gets fake blood out [of clothes].

But it’s incredible. I mean, TV — having gone from Mission Impossible, which I am still on — to The Boys … you shoot so hard and fast. You’re constantly busy. It’s amazing that they created a show with such a cinematic scope so quick. Everybody works so hard. It’s an incredible crew.

Hugh Campbell Sr. is such a sweetheart. The Boys universe is no place for someone like him. Was it only a matter of time until he met a gruesome fate like other characters? Were you expecting this arc for him?

No! When I did the first season, I thought it was a kind of handoff. A little nod and then at the end, [Hugh] went off into witness protection, I didn’t think we’d see him again. And then I did a little cameo from my house for season three, in the COVID era. I did a little Zoom call with Hughie from my house. But I didn’t know if I’d come back. And then Eric got in contact before they started shooting season four and said, “Oh, we want to bring you back for a storyline.” I had no idea either that I would be back or that Hugh would come to such a — well, there’s a lot of gruesomeness prior to it — but the end itself was so tender.

I was just about to say. Your character gets a relatively peaceful, or at least tender, death that so many others are not awarded in this show. Why?

For Hughie it needed to be like that, because he was making a big decision. Hugh Sr. was all about not getting involved. He was the embodiment of Hughie’s reticence. And this season has seen Hughie get a little bit more proactive. And then there’s the whole story about Jar Jar the cat, about how Hughie wouldn’t let him go. And I think this is the step that Hughie needs to take. If it had been him killing his dad in a violent way, you wouldn’t have had that moment to reflect on, and it would have been a terrible guilt-ridden trauma. As it is, it’s trauma, but it’s a much more interactive and passive one. It was nice to see Hughie taking command and using what he’d learned from being with the boys, from Frenchie (Tomer Capone), and getting to say goodbye and tell his dad that he loved him.

What has seeing his father like this done to Hughie, and how will it change his character going forward?

It was the goodbye he needed. It’s tough. I lost my dad last year, weirdly, after I’d shot that whole sequence. You’re lucky if you get to be with a parent at that moment. Even though it’s obviously devastating, it was a privilege to be with him when he passed. And if I can relate that real world sadness to a fun show about superheroes, it was a meaningful moment and I can’t wait to see where it goes. I didn’t get the scripts beyond my episode, so I’m as excited as everyone else to see where Hughie goes next.

So you’re watching along with everyone else now?

Yeah.

As lovely as Hugh Campbell Sr. is, we also find out that he actually denied Hughie a relationship with his mother by not letting her talk to their son. Do you think this alters audience perception of your character at all?

I think it’s a nice little revelation. What was great about playing that moment was, as soon as Hugh’s power manifests, everything that he’s been holding in for all these years just starts to seep out. The whole idea of him feeling like Daphne (DeWitt) saw through him, and the fact that his superpower is an intangibility, I think you get to see the pain that might have caused that.

I would hope in the same way that people sympathize with Daphne, who had postpartum depression, his own trauma caused him to make bad decisions at times. And he was sorry for [keeping Hughie and Daphne apart]. When they’re all together for a moment, he admits that it was the wrong thing to do. So I hope people have empathy towards him and to Daphne. No one’s perfect.

Would you want powers like Hugh’s — the ability to phase shift through solid objects — perhaps without the mental incapacitation? If not, which supe power would you want?

It’d be pretty cool to to be able to phase through things, although that’s what doors are for. Maybe if I forgot my keys, it would be handy. But otherwise, I don’t know. Flying is always a great one to have. I think if The Boys teaches us anything, it’s that power corrupts. Having that ability to lord over everyone else could turn you into an ass, even if you’re not an ass in the first place. I think it’s a shame that Hugh Sr. didn’t get those powers before because I think he would have made a great adversary to Homelander (Antony Starr). He would have been impervious to him. The laser vision would have gone through him. He couldn’t have got hold of him. Hugh could have possibly tried to re-form inside Homelander. That’s a confrontation we’re never going to see now. But I’m happy being normal.

And which character on The Boys would you want to play if not Hugh Campbell Sr.?

Apart from the obvious one, Hughie or wee Hughie, as he was called in the comic books. And I actually suggested to Eric at the end when Hugh dies that he calls Hughie “wee Hughie,” as a final nod to my part in the comics. But Jack Quaid, I can’t speak highly enough of Jack as a person and an actor. He’s just brilliant, and he plays that character with such humanity. He’s the absolute beating heart of that show. He’s the human element. And I don’t think I could have ever played it as well as Jack. He is literally one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met. For a kid who grew up in Hollywood with famous parents [Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan], he’s so grounded and so genuine.

Anthony Starr is so brilliant as Homelander. He has so much fun with that role. He plays it with such subtle brilliance. That’s a role I’d like to play, but, again, I could never do it like Anthony does. He’s so great — another person who’s just a delight in real life. Butcher is a great character. Karl [Urban] has such fun with that character. The whole thing is full of such colorful, brilliant characters. It’s a bit of a smorgasbord.

Shifting the conversation away from The Boys, Shaun of the Dead turns 20 this year! Does it feel like only yesterday you and Nick Frost were bashing zombies over the head?

Sometimes it feels like yesterday. Last year, when I realized it was 20 years since we were shooting it, that was a bizarre realization. Because it’s stayed in our lives the whole time, it’s never really gone away. It’s the best you can hope for as an artist — if you are creating art for entertainment — that it stays relevant in people’s consciousness.

Nick Frost (left) and Simon Pegg in Shaun of the Dead.

People really are still talking about it 20 years on. Does it surprise you just how fervent the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, 2007’s Hot Fuzz and 2013’s The World’s End) fan base is?

If it didn’t, I’d probably be more arrogant than I already am. (Laughs.) It’s really nice. We put our heart and souls into it. I think we made it for the right reasons and with the right intentions. We didn’t want a shortcut to anything. We wanted to make the best with all the Cornetto films. We wanted to make the best movies we possibly could. And that goes back to [Channel 4 sitcom] Spaced as well. We always wanted to make a show that connected with people on quite a deep level. And it looks as though that we might have managed to do that, which is nice.

2004 was a different time for music, fashion and, in particular, comedy. But I think Shaun of the Dead is one of the few films to have aged fairly well. Is there anything that you would change, looking back through a 2024 lens?

That’s a really good question, and we did recently talk about that a little bit. Not least the joke when Ed [Frost] calls us the N-word when he gets out of the car. People often say, “Oh, do you regret that?” And I don’t, because it’s a joke. It’s a joke about how a clueless white guy has listened to too much rap music and thinks that that’s appropriate. It’s not racist to talk about racism. It’s all about how inappropriate Ed is. It’s an important character beat because it tells us that he’s unreliable and not particularly trustworthy, that he doesn’t really have his both feet in reality.

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For us, that moment was always about demonstrating how sort of clueless Ed was about the world around him. Obviously now I get everyone is more sensitive, [you need to be] a little bit more responsible about how you throw that word around. And we never set out to offend anyone. But I would defend that joke to the hilt in terms of the function of it, how it works and what it means. It tells us something about Ed. It’s funny to see somebody be so inappropriate. If he’d said something else, it wouldn’t have hit as hard. So, now, in the writing of it, we would have probably not done it, just because a lot of people would have misunderstood it. And I can’t be arsed with all that binary discourse online. It’s just boring. But I would defend the joke always in terms of our intentions, which were never anything other than to demonstrate the sort of blasé racism of white middle class kids that listen to too much hip-hop.

Something I love about Shaun of the Dead is it managed to capture Hollywood hearts with such raw Britishness. The Winchester, the corner shop, the cornettos. There’s so much about this film that’s unique to our humor here in the U.K. Were you and Edgar Wright surprised it translated so well? George Romero [creator of the Night of the Living Dead zombie horror franchise] loved it.

It was a vindication of our intentions, which was to make a film that was exactly that: very, very British. We didn’t make any concessions to sort of transatlantic-ism. A lot of the British rom-coms would do that. I remember watching Notting Hill, which is a film which I absolutely love, by the way. It’s such a great movie. But it starts out — aside from all the whiteness of Notting Hill, which was a bit embarrassing — but the first scene, it winds up on a stained glass window of Beavis and Butt-Head.

But we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to make a film that was culturally specific. We made one concession. … We never even thought that it would get a release in America. We didn’t know it would get released in the U.K., if I’m honest. But I remember talking to Edgar Wright in the writing room, and it was the scene when Ed (Nick Frost) and Shaun [Pegg] discover Mary (Nicola Cunningham) in the garden — the first zombie they encounter. And she turns around, and you expect Shaun to say, “Oh my God, it’s a zombie.” And Shaun says, “Oh, she’s so drunk.” Initially, in the script it said, “Oh my God, she’s pissed.” And in America, pissed means annoyed. I remember saying, “You know what, if people see this in America, they’re not going to get that joke, and the joke is paramount to Edgar and I. Let’s be a bit more literal about it, so that there’s no mistake.” So it’s not like she turns around and they go, “Oh, she’s really annoyed.” That’s not funny. So in an optimistic moment, we changed it to “drunk,” but that was the only concession we made.

You’ve managed to break free from that Brit-comic mold. We’ve seen you in Star Trek, in Mission Impossible alongside Tom Cruise. Is it a whole world away from the Cornetto Trilogy?

It is in some ways. Edgar and I are very, very “Script Is King” guys. We come to set with a script, we’ll rehearse it for a few weeks before and if anything comes up in rehearsal that we’d like, particularly Nick [Frost] who’s the king of sprinkling a script with gold dust, we’ll put it in. But when we get to the set, that’s what we shoot. Edgar’s very specific about his transitions. We’re very specific as writers about about foreshadowing and paying stuff off and everything’s very technical and precise. These days in Hollywood, things are much more fluid. Particularly with Mission where obviously Chris McQuarrie is the director. He kind of creates it as we go. We don’t necessarily have a complete script when we start shooting. We have beats… You still use the same method, but obviously working with Tom [Cruise], that’s a whole other experience.

Do you have a favorite joke across the whole Cornetto Trilogy?

I’d have to really think about that. A lot of the stuff I got to say as Gary King in The World’s End… I love the moment when he tells Eddie Marsan’s character to get out of the ’90s, which is a moment of complete hypocrisy, and when he says about having to describe his mother’s funeral in three words: “Very, very sad.” So loads of the stuff that I got to say in in The World’s End, because he was my favorite character to play across all those films.

I think in Shaun of the Dead, there’s a moment that I really, really love, which is when Shaun and the gang are in the garden, just before they get to The Winchester, and Shaun walks up the slide to check if there are any zombies there. And he goes up, waits, comes back down again. And they go, “Is it safe?” And he goes, (shaking his head) “No.” And Edgar told me that the first time he met Martin Scorsese, Martin Scorsese mimed that scene for Edgar as it’s his favorite scene. And I remember just feeling so utterly thrilled that Martin Scorsese had done an impression of me.

I know you’re being badgered for sequels. Could it ever happen?

I mean, Universal [Pictures] owns it. If they choose to reboot it, then they can if they want I guess. Although Edgar and I would be incensed. (Laughs.)

Why?

Shaun of the Dead is incredibly personal. There’s so much of us in that film. The whole joke of Ed and Shaun not being able to ever come out of The Winchester was real. That was about Nick and I, that was about our decision to just stay in a North London pub. Edgar was always in town. He was always in Soho, and he always wanted us to come into town and hang out at [London private members’ club] The Groucho, and we never did. We always wanted to be in The Shepherds [pub]. My girlfriend, now my wife, was the same. She was like, “Are we going to The Shepherds again?” That inspired that whole storyline.

The whole thing with Shaun’s mum, the stepdad, I had a problematic relationship with my stepfather. It was Edgar’s idea to kill the mum. I couldn’t believe it when he said that, but it was the best decision. There’s so much of our own heart and soul in that film. If someone was to reboot it, it would be a cynical and exploitative exercise. I would hope that people are in love with our Shaun enough to resist a reboot. Gary King [Pegg’s character in The World’s End] as well, that was a lot about my own alcoholism. A really personal film. And the thought of anyone just nicking the title … I always got annoyed at Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake — it’s a great movie. It’s really exciting. But I hated the fact they called it Dawn of the Dead, because that was George [Romero]’s film. They could have called it Deadish, which was a great line in the film that one of the actors used, and it still would have been a great film, but when you just take a title because people recognize it, it’s so disrespectful to the original.

And no sequel?

I don’t think so. I’m a big fan of sequels. Some of my favorite films are sequels: Empire Strikes Back, Aliens. I’m in a couple of film franchises which repeat and reboot, and it’s not that I decry sequels in any way, but I think some stories end. Some stories have a beginning, a middle and an end.

If you were to see Shaun again, if the zombies came back, there’s just not a story to tell it. We’d have to reset everything that we created in Shaun of the Dead, the journey that Shaun goes on and completes. He becomes a new person, but we’d have to then dismantle that in order to give him a new arc. Why? The best thing we can do with cinema is to challenge people and get them to see things they haven’t seen before and experience new things. Entertainment is the most overrated function of art.

Are you and Wright working on anything at the moment?

There’s something always in the works with Edgar and I. Since Shaun of the Dead, our lives have changed dramatically. We’re both busy into the distant future. The biggest challenge that we have right now is finding a moment to get together and spend six, seven weeks, to get our first draft out and come up with the idea. But we’re constantly looking for that. Edgar came over to my house last year and stayed for the week, and we just sort of talked about films and what we want to do next. We just need the time to do it. So it really is a question of when, not if.

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