Simon Pegg: 'We have no context for happiness'
- 14 August 2014
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
Simon Pegg stars as a therapist who sets off on a journey across the globe to discover the secret to what makes people happy in the new film Hector and the Search for Happiness, based on the best-selling novel by French psychiatrist Francois Lelord.
"It draws on what the book is about, which is essentially the notion that in order to experience happiness, you have to experience everything, you have to be able to define happiness by what it's not as much as by what it is."
Spoken like a true student of the psyche, except this is not a doctor's office and the person speaking is not a psychiatrist but is rather Simon Pegg, star of Shaun of the Dead, Star Trek and now, the soon to be released Hector and the Search for Happiness.
The film, which co-stars Rosamund Pike, Stellan Skarsgard and Christopher Plummer, tells the story of a successful but unfulfilled young therapist who decides that he can't help his patients unless he can find out what it is to be truly happy.
His voyage of discovery takes him to China, Africa and the US, and it was this rather hectic international shooting schedule which, ironically, left Pegg's happy box unticked.
"It's hard when you've got a family," he says back in London. "As much as I love travel, it's difficult to be away from home sometimes. When you've got children, you don't want to miss anything so it can be a bit of a poisoned chalice.
"Having said that, this worked out okay because we all moved to Vancouver for a little bit and, when I was away in Johannesburg and Shanghai, I was away for just long enough for it to be bearable."
Before these comments could be misinterpreted as the grumbles of an A-list movie star, Pegg adds he "saw some incredible sights, it was a pretty amazing experience."
"I saw enough to experience a lot and had a parallel journey to Hector from which I learned just as much as he did in terms of my global awareness."
In particular, shooting in South Africa - where Hector is introduced to a joyous family party - afforded Pegg a first-hand view of the continuing effects of 50 years of apartheid and racial segregation in the country.
"It's like a derelict building now, apartheid, it's not been knocked down, it's still there but it's just not occupied. If you take a trip through Soweto, I doubt very much has changed at all.
"We drove though Brazzaville, which is a township that is still thriving and you think, 'How is this kind of segregation ever going to be undone?,' and I don't think it will be for 50 or even 100 years.
"We all sit miles away going, 'Yaaay apartheid's over,' like it suddenly went away and it hasn't gone away, the division in wealth and poverty is still very much there."
So did this experience of hardship cement Pegg's view of the world or harden him?
"I think there is some credibility in that old 'travel broadens the mind kind' of thing, because when you see something up close and personal you do get a better understanding of it.
"I don't think I became more cynical. If anything, I think I became more idealistic, you have to be, otherwise you give up. But it's a great thing to experience the size of the world. I did 128,000 air miles last year and you get an idea of how close everything is rather than how far away."
The new film has been directed by British film-maker Peter Chelsom, behind cult UK movies Hear My Song and Funny Bones, and also, weirdly, the Hannah Montana movie.
"I always thought he was a director who had his own vision," says Pegg. "Someone who made directorial choices which I liked."
Those creative choices extend to segments of the film which are told in short bursts of animation.
"I had dinner with Pete and he showed me a little sizzle reel that he had cut together," says Pegg. "Almost like a short version of the movie, with images and it was so intriguing that I thought this was someone that I wanted to work with."
The book, Hector and the Search for Happiness - part novel, part self-help manual - was published in 2002. Francois Lelord has since published Hector and the Secrets of Love and Hector and the Search for Lost Time.
"I chose not to read it before I started shooting," admits Pegg. "Because I wanted to extrapolate my performance from the script rather than the book and didn't want to get the two confused."
He adds: "It was was the right thing to do."
A review in the Independent of the first book said: "Hector's lessons for life may verge on the banale - make sure to be good to your friends, be loved for who you are, take holidays in the sun - but their effect is unexpectedly cheering.
"The book has been billed as a 'feelgood gem' and it has so far sold more than two million copies - perhaps proving that it has made the world a happier place."
Some of Hector's life lessons, which he picks up along his way are flashed across the screen though Pegg himself concedes the secret to happiness can't be summed up in a few pithy quotes.
"I don't think it can, " he says. "I think that's kind of the point of those maxims that appear on screen, is that it can't be reduced to a soundbite or defined by a single line, it is something much more profound and complex than that.
"One of the things that rings true for me is that the route to happiness is not avoiding unhappiness. You have to know unhappiness to be happy."
According to recent reports, Americans have been less happy with each passing decade since 1900.
In Europe, happiness declined until 1950 and has been increasing steadily since. In a study by a property website, Inverness is the happiest place in Scotland and the second happiest in the UK while east London was the poll's least happy location.
And the cause of this emotional malaise? Is it the internet? Games consoles? Social networking? Video on demand? Fast food? Fabric conditioner? Take your pick says Pegg:
"Part of our condition as a middle-class 21st Century elite is that, because there hasn't really been any hardship for us, we're probably potentially more happy than any generation has ever been but we're not because we don't know what it is.
"We have nothing to compare it to, everyone is so bored, they're playing video games and acting like children because we have no context for what happiness is, all we know is comfort and comfort isn't necessarily happiness."
Hector and Search for Happiness is out in UK cinemas on 15 August.