At 44, Simon Pegg thinks he’s finally found happiness. The “Star Trek” and “Mission: Impossible” actor has that particular achievement on his mind recently, thanks to his new film, “Hector and the Search for Happiness.” The quest film, which opens Sept. 19 and is based on an international bestselling book of the same title, follows British psychiatrist Hector as he travels around the world, researching what makes people happy while perhaps looking for his own sense of contentment. It’s a more thoughtful role for the British actor who, along with his blockbuster action movies, has starred in the overtly comedic “Shaun of the Dead” (2004), “Hot Fuzz” (2007) and “The World’s End” (2013).
While he hopes “Hector” can serve as a gateway into more serious characters, for now, he’s getting ready to fight international crime with Tom Cruise as production gears up for the fifth installment of the “Mission: Impossible” franchise. And those rumors going around that he’s in J.J. Abrams’ much anticipated “Star Wars: Episode VII”? Though he’s a big fan of the sci-fi series and has used his friendship with Abrams to get a peek at the set — “you would if you could,” he adds — it’s just another drop in the “Star Wars” rumor pond.
Hector continually asks the other characters in the film, “Are you happy?” How would you, as Simon Pegg, answer that question?
I am, I think. I am more than Hector is, at least in the beginning of the movie. But it’s taken me awhile to get there; it’s taken me awhile to understand what it is, how to be it. My own route to it has been an interesting one, and I think the one thing the movie says very clearly is that you can’t be happy unless you’ve experienced every facet of emotion that there is. To know what happiness is you have to be able to pick it out from the forest of emotions. So you have to be scared and upset and miserable. You have to get all that stuff in order to truly be happy. And at 44, I think I’m there.
Throughout the film, Hector has a journal that he uses to write down his revelations about happiness. What are some of your secrets to happiness?
I think the key is that avoiding unhappiness is not the route to happiness. We’re offered a lot of shortcuts to happiness in society; we’re constantly encouraged to buy this, eat that, often it is about buying something that will give you happiness. And it’s not necessarily the way to be happy. You can sustain a sort of vague proxy of happiness, but it isn’t happiness itself. Happiness happens on a much deeper level, and it’s a contentment which you sort of come to terms with.
How do you think one embraces unhappiness?
It doesn’t mean seek out unhappiness; it means that you shouldn’t be afraid of unhappiness. It’s like you don’t know what light is until you’ve been in the dark. So it’s important to embrace every facet of your life, and everything will come into focus. You’ll know when you’re happy. We saw people living in extreme conditions in South Africa [while filming] in areas that have no electricity, and I have no doubt that their lives are a daily struggle. But when those people laughed, they really, really relished it. It wasn’t like a kind of numb smile; it was genuine joy because the alternative to that is something they experience every day, which is difficulty.
There’s such a fascination with happiness and discovering if we’re happy, do you think that’s always been there?
Society has becomes less of a struggle like it was in the old days — there are diseases eradicated, and perhaps there’s more affluence — but the middle class is experiencing a weird sense of ennui; everyone’s a bit bored and a bit unsure if they’re happy or not. And happiness is going down, which is why there’s so much of an industry geared toward making us happy. That happiness isn’t real; it’s a facile approximation of what happiness is and people are starting to realize, “Well, maybe I’m not happy.” You can be very rich and very famous, and you can still be utterly, utterly miserable. You can be doing something that other people would think of as dreadful, you could be mucking up horses every day, but if that makes you happy, you are a success. The true meaning of success is happiness. It’s not money, it’s not fame, it’s just the feeling that you’re happy.
When was the last time you would say you felt a burst of happiness?
I feel it a lot these days. I have a 5-year-old daughter, and she makes me happy 100% of the time. There’s something glorious about having a child that really helps define all those big questions for me: why I’m here, what the universe is, it just explains it for me. It’s like I’m here because I had to do that. Now, I’ve kind of done that, and I feel like I’ve actually achieved something which is genuinely worthwhile. Not just an artistic achievement or some sort of material gain, something which is biologically important and that feels to me like the most important thing I’ve ever done. And because of that, I’m able to feel happy in every other facet of my life. Sometimes at work, if I’m doing something like I’m on “Star Trek” and I’m sitting around in my uniform on the bridge of the Enterprise, it always makes me happy because I feel like, what fun! I’m very lucky to be here. I never take my job for granted or the opportunities I get because I never want to stop being amazed by it all, and I never want it to stop making me happy. The minute it does, the minute it stops making me happy, I’ll stop doing it.