Simon Pegg is a paragon of modern geek culture, not only for his Cornetto trilogy with Edgar Wright and Nick Frost, but also for his participation in—among many other fanboy favorites—Star Wars, Star Trek, The Boys, and Mission: Impossible. Pegg will once again sign up for fuse-lighting duty alongside Tom Cruise in next year’s Dead Reckoning: Part One. Yet first, he’s accepted a more realistic espionage assignment with The Undeclared War, a six-part dramatic affair written and directed by Peter Kosminsky (Wolf Hall) in which he stars as Danny, the head of the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the organization responsible for overseeing the country’s cybersecurity. That position proves a vital one when Russia sabotages England’s digital infrastructure, sparking a covert computer screen-waged war that ensnares Pegg’s bigwig along with star intern Saara (Hannah Khalique-Brown) and NSA agent Kathy (Maisie Richardson-Sellers), who soon strike up a romantic relationship that further complicates their efforts to thwart the imminent threat.
Though set in a fictional 2024, The Undeclared War (Aug. 18 on Peacock) is fashioned as a plausible what-if saga about the perils of our new world order, in which nations are almost wholly dependent on digital capabilities and, thus, susceptible to targeted attacks carried out with a keyboard. Moreover, it’s a story about the cunning disinformation campaigns being waged by foreign powers as a means of undermining democracies’ social and political stability—an idea it addresses in believable and harrowing detail.
The Undeclared War is meant to unnerve in timely fashion, and it’s that aspect of the series that spoke to Pegg, who embodies Danny as the last bastion of calm and rationality in a conflict designed to arouse passions and incite rash—and potentially catastrophic—actions. For the 52-year-old actor, it’s an opportunity to temporarily leave the fantastical behind in exchange for a more true-to-life, and terrifying, high-tech spycraft project. Ahead of the show’s domestic premiere, we chatted with the star about deep fakes, online anxieties, the toxicity of contemporary social-media culture ,and whether he’s lining up a Mission: Impossible spinoff of his own.
Deep fakes factor heavily into The Undeclared War, and there are some very convincing ones of your Mission: Impossible costar Tom Cruise online. Do you fear people making such phony videos of you—and/or have you seen any already?
No, never. You see them pop up now and again these days on social media. Yeah, I think they’re very sinister and not particularly funny [Laughs].
South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone were at one time planning a deep-fake movie (Deep Fake: The Movie). I assume this means you’re not in favor of such projects?
I know they were doing something with Peter Serafinowicz, with his sassy Trump character. I thought that was hilarious, I must admit. But then maybe I’ve got double standards.
If, as The Undeclared War contends, social media and news broadcasts are awash in fake news—as a means of creating real-world clashes, dissention, polarization, and chaos—what can be trusted these days?
I don’t know, it’s really difficult. I think we are living in a post-truth era in a way, and I think what’s said in the show is true about when people just no longer trust anything, then it really is who shouts the loudest that gets listened to. The fact that we all live in our own echo chambers, and we tend—because of algorithms—to consume stuff which is geared toward our own kind of ideological outlook, we start to hear what we want to hear in a way. Independent journalism appears to be something rare now.
I think you have to be very careful about what news sources you watch, and that goes both for the stuff that you agree with and the stuff that you don’t agree with. It’s all very well to condemn a news organization that is patently biased toward a political party, but then to only watch a news organization that is patently biased toward the one that you support—I think that somehow you have to find the middle ground. You have to be intelligent, and you have to be discerning when it comes to who you listen to. It’s a really tricky time for information. Information has been weaponized. Propaganda has been around forever but with the advent of the internet, it’s enabled it to just become completely pervasive, and the effect of it is devastating. We’ve seen it. It’s happened on a geopolitical level across the world.
It seems we’re seeing it even now, in the States, with the reaction to the recent FBI raid of Mar-a-Lago—you can’t trust that the comments and conversations taking place on social media are real, and not manufactured by foreign elements.
There’s absolutely no doubt whatsoever that discussions online regarding that particular incident, or any particular incident, will be contributed to by foreign adversarial players who will get in there and whip things up. There’s no doubt in my mind that, immediately, the troll farms in whatever country were getting in there and stoking up the MAGA crowd and putting all sorts of stuff in their heads—and doing the opposite as well. Because that’s what those countries, and those players, want to do: they want to sow discord and destabilize our society. It’s no longer about bombing towns. It’s about creating utter chaos. And in the eyes of the citizens of those adversarial countries, it’s them looking and thinking, I’m glad I’m not there, I’m glad I have this leader, I’m glad he or she is looking after me because these other guys are crazy. And it’s working.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that, immediately, the troll farms in whatever country were getting in there and stoking up the MAGA crowd and putting all sorts of stuff in their heads—and doing the opposite as well.”
Did making The Undeclared War—which is so tapped into issues involving digital threats and security—make you want to completely disconnect?
It makes me very aware of what I am consuming online, certainly. I learned things doing this show that I just didn’t know, and I think everybody should know—like the existence of troll farms. That is something that does happen. A lot of the time when you’re having an argument online with someone about some political hot potato, you’re probably not talking to someone in the same country as you. That’s a very real part of this new theater of war that we exist in.
Reports about the origins of the “Snyder Cut” movement suggest that social-media manipulation isn’t exclusive to politics. Do you feel like certain pop-culture communities suffer from similar fake-news problems?
Yes, 100%, and for different reasons. The other side of this is that the internet has given us all the capacity to feel relevant and to feel like we have a point of view and to express it with impunity—you know, our darkest and most egregious thoughts, we can just put them out there and not worry about the consequences because there’s no accountability. All that bullshit means nothing. I mean, all that crap means nothing. It’s so beside the point. It so suits our leaders that we’re talking about crap like the “Snyder Cut” while people are being executed in the street in Ukraine or Yemen. It suits the way society goes now, and the way society is going now, for us to be kept infantile by discussing meaningless things like that when there are far, far more important things to talk about.
Did the show consequently make you feel more unnerved about the state of the world—including the possibility of a full-blown cyber-war?
We’re living in a very tenuous peace at the moment, particularly online. All of us, every major cyber player on Earth, has exploits already planted in each other’s cyber infrastructures. We’re living out a similar deterrent situation as we did in the ‘80s with the nuclear arsenals, in that everybody has things ready to go off. All that stuff in the show about dropping Putin’s plane by 20,000 feet or switching the lights off in his office, that’s all doable—and to us as well. If the internet shut down today, there would be catastrophic consequences. And that’s just switching off the internet. There are so many online things we’ve come to depend on, from hospital appointments to just basic day-to-day living. That would be like dropping a bomb on the country—it’s a similar thing, and it’s entirely feasible that it could happen. So yeah, it did make me feel like, oh shit, maybe the safe West is a myth.
On a somewhat lighter note, what’s the key to acting in front of computer screens?
Actually, all of the Zoom calls in the show were done live, for real. Whenever I’m on Zoom to someone, either I’m on a set on a different sound stage calling in, or they are. The screens, the design for all the code we were looking at, was all done by professional coders and they were programs that ran; when you clicked on something, it would go to the right screen. So, it was all done for us, and it was very immersive. Peter Kosminsky is such a stickler for authenticity. He researched this show for five years, and he had unprecedented access. We don’t even know what access he had in researching the show, other than that he spoke to people who knew what they were talking about. A lot of the time, it was just like being in a role-playing ride. We were in this incredible reproduction of what GCHQ may look like inside, and it all felt very real and interactive.
You’ve been involved with various genre projects, including Star Wars, Star Trek, and Mission: Impossible. Was The Undeclared War enticing because it was something different—a more straightforward and realistic spy saga?
Are you saying Mission: Impossible’s not realistic? [Laughs] Yeah, it was. I was really thrilled to receive the script from Peter. Peter is a legendary creator over here, a multi- multi- multi-BAFTA-winning writer and director, and to receive a script from him, you immediately think, oh wow, this is going to be good. Then I read it, and I read all six in one go, which is rare, because it usually takes me ages to get through one script. But this was so compelling. And the fact that it was a role that was far more dramatic, and not the kind of thing people assume that I do—that alone felt like enough motivation to immediately pick up the phone and say, yes please.
At this point in your career, is it important to strike a balance between more dramatical and fantastical fare?
Yes. A while ago I felt like all my childhood dreams, I’ve ticked all those boxes now. I’m kind of done with that, really. I’d like to diversify and do more things like this, and flex different muscles as an actor. Ultimately, I’m in this for my own enjoyment. It’s a job, yeah, but part of the wonder of this job is getting to do something I love doing. So, I want to keep being able to evolve and not just be stuck doing the same thing. Doing this, it just felt weightier.
Is it also nice to move between a relatively small-scale endeavor like The Undeclared War and extravagant blockbusters such as Dead Reckoning, which have so much riding on them?
Absolutely. I think bigger isn’t necessarily better, ever. I think that the way television has evolved into something more cinematic and sophisticated than it used to be, it’s no longer the poorer cousin of cinema. It’s a thing unto itself that has as much artistic potential and worth as the great cinematic screen does. So, I feel like it was absolutely a case of, I’d love to go and do this thing because it feels like much more of an acting challenge, and more of a departure for me. I find that really fun, to be challenged to do something different. I love doing Mission: Impossible, I love doing those films, they’re great fun and it’s huge filmmaking on the grandest scale. But it’s also fun to scale it back sometimes.
Both The Undeclared War and Mission: Impossible feature you as a tech genius. Now that you’ve been in four Mission: Impossible movies, with the two-part Dead Reckoning still on the horizon, isn’t it time for your character Benji Dunn to receive his own spinoff?
[Laughs] I’ve always talked about Dunn and Dusted, which I’ve constantly pitched at McQ [writer/director Christopher McQuarrie], which is the Benji spinoff. But it would be rubbish, because it would just be like Mission: Impossible with less stunts [Laughs]. I mean, who wants to see that? Nobody.
Wait, you’ve been working with daredevil Tom Cruise for years, and you’ve just talked about doing your The Undeclared War Zoom calls in real-time. You don’t think you can handle your own stunts?
Two words: Fuck that! [Laughs]