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Simon Pegg on leaving comedy behind (for now) with The Undeclared War

War, what is it good for? Elaine Benes may think that’s an actual quote from Leo Tolstoy, but Edwin Starr’s protest anthem against the Vietnam War is just as good of a question to ask in 2022 as it was in 1970. Yet instead of guns and bombs, wars nowadays are fought by 1s and 0s as cyberattacks and sophisticated computer technology are now the weapons of choice between warring nations.

That’s the scenario that the Peacock series The Undeclared War operates in as the show depicts a realistic future where Russia tries to undermine Great Britain’s elections in 2024 by hacking into its systems and causing chaos. Sound familiar? In an interview with Digital Trends, stars Simon Pegg (taking a break from his Mission: Impossible and Star Trek franchises) and newcomer Hannah Khalique-Brown discuss the challenges of playing sophisticated hackers, Pegg’s enjoyment of playing a straightforward dramatic role, and what the audience can gain from watching the show.

A woman interviews another woman outside in The Undeclared War.

Digital Trends: Simon, what was it about The Undeclared War that appealed to you?

Simon Pegg: Well, aside from the script, it was Peter Kosminsky, who is an incredibly respected and prolific titan of British television drama. He’s done so much, and everything he’s done has won awards. He’s someone that you want to work with. So to get the script from him in the first place, I was like, “Well, I’m obviously going to do this.”

And then I read it and I was so engrossed in the story that I consumed the whole six episodes in one go. And by the end of it, I was amazed and flattered that I was offered the role just because it’s a really important story that people should see. The show talks about a very real situation we find ourselves in these days.

Your character, Danny, is pretty high up in the food chain at his job. How did you prepare for a role that called for a lot of technical knowledge?

Pegg: Peter is an amazing actor’s director. He is at pains to make his actors feel comfortable and give them everything they need to give their very best performance. He gave me a document all about Danny’s life and about his pathway towards working in GCHQ [Government Communications Headquarters], his early childhood, right through to his family ties at the time.

I also made sure that when I was approaching the screenplay as an actor, I learned my lines well in advance, because I wanted to be able to say those lines and sound like they were just dripping off my tongue. With all the dialogue with the terms about coding and about politics, I wanted Danny to sound like an authority and to have authority, and that really came down to just approaching it in a very studious way.  Usually, I’ll get into work, and I learn my lines in the makeup chair, so I enjoyed doing something that was a bit more challenging.

Hannah, Saara is an incredibly complex character who undergoes a lot of transformations throughout the show. How did you approach playing her?

Hannah Khalique-Brown: Great question. Well, she’s very different from me. It’s funny, Peter kind of made a joke about a few days into us working together and really getting to know each other. He told me that I was not really like her. The way she thinks is different, the way she speaks is different, and the way she stands. She doesn’t move her hands around as I do.

The key for me is no matter who it is, I have to understand the character and fall heavily, deeply, and unconditionally in love with them. And that was my key to Saara. From early on, I felt this intense connection with her that opened all of the doors in her mind and all of the things that are different about us.

I like to work in a way where I really build up a human life that’s separate from mine. I have to build that memory, that life story, that history. I have to live those memories. I have to make sure that Saara is a real human being who has lived for 21 years in her life.

I also did prep on the technical side of things because she’s a computer genius and I didn’t know anything about coding. Peter told me I needed to familiarize myself with computer programming, so I taught myself how to code, learned two programming languages, JavaScript and C++, and I did some projects utilizing those skills.

Simon Pegg and a group of people standing and staring at a screen in a scene from The Undeclared War.
THE UNDECLARED WAR -- Episode 101 -- Pictured: -- (Photo by: Jonathan Birch/Playground Entertainment/Peacock)

Simon, Danny has a limited amount of screen time, and we really only see him at work. How did you bring him to life within those parameters?

Pegg: I spoke to Peter at great length about Danny. He’d actually met people like him from GCHQ through research. We talked a lot about him and who he was and his relationship with the rest of the characters. Danny is very avuncular and normally quite a funny guy in normal circumstances. He’s probably very approachable.

We had the idea that he’s very well-liked at GCHQ, but the moment we find him is the beginning of an international crisis. And so you only very rarely see the glimmers of his kind of funny side, because all he’s doing is putting fires out for the entire series. It was really interesting just to have that knowledge about him in the background so that I could play that as the kind of bedrock of who he was, even though you never really see it. It was a really detailed approach to playing the character.

How did you approach your scenes with Hannah?

Pegg: Well, that was really good fun just because Hannah’s very new to this. It took Peter a year to find Saara in Hannah. And he really hit the bull’s-eye with her. She’s such a capable, competent, talented, self-assured actor. But also, she wears a kind of innocence on her sleeve. It was really fun to work with someone for whom everything was so fresh. That can’t help but rub off on you. We had a lot of fun.

Hannah, you share multiple scenes with Simon and Mark Rylance. Can you talk about acting with those two guys?

Khalique-Brown: It was incredible. I couldn’t believe that one of my first acting jobs involved working with Simon and Mark. They’re both incredible actors who are very different. Simon has mostly been known for his comedy, but I think he blows everyone away with the nuance he brings to this performance. He’s such a kind, generous, lovely man, and he’s really funny on and off the screen.

Mark is one of the most wonderful human beings I’ve ever met. I have this book that I take with me everywhere that I write everything I learn about acting in. And I would write every day in the green rooms, in the car, on the way back home, and before the day started at lunchtime. And I would ask him questions about acting and write it down. I figured I’m never going to get this chance again. I learned so much from him. It was a complete master class working with him.

What do you want viewers to take away from The Undeclared War after they’ve watched it?

Khalique-Brown: I think on a personal level, I would love them to find themselves able to fall in love with Saara. She’s really flawed and complicated and probably not like the usual protagonist of these types of shows. I also hope they watch it and think about the larger political and social issues the series depicts and realize this stuff’s actually happening, and we shouldn’t let it get where it goes in the show.

The Undeclared War | Official Trailer | Peacock Original

Pegg: I want viewers to reconsider their relationship with the internet and the world and to understand that what the show talks about is not science fiction. The Undeclared War is not particularly exaggerated. It’s dramatized, sure, but it’s not an exaggerated reality. We are dealing with this situation every day. We have an even more tenuous kind of war deterrent than we did back in the ’80s with the nuclear arsenals.

We are constantly vulnerable to attack, even on personal, social, and political levels. And all that can come via the internet. And it is still relatively new. And yet in however long it’s existed, it’s had a prodigious effect on society and on how we react. It’s caused arguably irrevocable damage to our interactions. And I think that’s something we should all be really aware of.

All six episodes of The Undeclared War‘s first season are available to stream on Peacock.

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