Last week the “Mission: Impossible” franchise saw its biggest opening ever — $61.2 million — with the release of its sixth film, “Fallout.” The action blockbuster’s first installment hit screens in 1996, and for more than 20 years the series has served to showcase the gravity-defying acrobatic abilities of lead star Tom Cruise.
Cruise, 56, plays Ethan Hunt, a field agent for a fictional U.S. intelligence agency who has battled terrorists, rogue agents and evildoers on a global scale. “Fallout” shows Hunt at his most vulnerable, a bit sentimental and more inclined to ask for help — provided it comes from his friends.
That’s where Benji Dunn comes in, a tech expert played by Simon Pegg who joined the franchise from its third outing. As far as character longevity goes, Pegg has been doing well. The life of a “Mission: Impossible” agent is fraught with peril, and being a Cruise co-star tends to be a one-time gig.
“Whenever we get the script, we immediately look at the back and ask ourselves, ‘Do I die in this? Or can I come back?'” Pegg tells The Japan Times. “The truth is that no one is safe.”
Pegg, 48, is in Tokyo to promote “Mission: Impossible — Fallout,” which has been getting rave reviews overseas. At this point, he’s a familiar face in the long-running franchise, which has allowed his character the chance to grow.
“Benji has changed enormously, but on a believable curve,” Pegg says. “I think that was important because otherwise it would be hard to relate to him. He’s not the incredible hero and you don’t expect him to knock out the villain. On the other hand, he’s very reliable and loves his job. Being an agent is like being a monk — there’s all the hard work and dedication and you get precious little in return. Benji’s OK with that.”
Still, it seems a tad unfair that over the years Ethan has monopolized the spotlight, dallied with various beauties and even got himself married. Benji hasn’t been as lucky in love — or even getting a social life.
“I can’t decide whether Benji loves Ethan or Ilsa,” says Pegg, referring to the British agent played by Rebecca Ferguson who first appeared in “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” and now in “Fallout.” “Maybe he loves them both? On set, we joke around that Benji and Ilsa are having a secret affair, but if it’s Ilsa he’s after, he knows he doesn’t stand a chance against Ethan so he keeps quiet and leaves the two of them alone.”
In real life Pegg has been married since 2005 and has a daughter. He became known to Britons as Tim in the Channel 4 sitcom “Spaced” (1999-2001), before co-writing and starring in cult hits “Shaun of the Dead” (2004) and “Hot Fuzz” (2007). He also scored the role of Scotty in the cinematic “Star Trek” reboot in 2009.
“I have a feeling that my experiences in Hollywood mirror Benji’s experiences in the IMF,” says Pegg, referring to the Impossible Missions Force agency at the center of the series. “I went to Hollywood from a little island nation on the North Sea called Great Britain. I decided that I really liked being there, put in the work to make things happen and a lot of years went by. But, like Benji, there’s a small part of me that can’t believe I’m able to do this, and be among all these big stars. A part of me is still saying, ‘Wow, I’m here.'”
While Pegg is a self-proclaimed sci-fi nerd, he sees Benji’s past as somewhat different.
“I imagine him as an army kid, born in the U.K. and brought up in the U.S., and he’s retained the British accent,” he says. “When he’s not training as a field agent, he’s playing computer games and would love nothing better than to have Ethan play with him. He’s probably the most content member of the IMF team because he’s not eaten up by ambition or always asking himself, ‘What if?'”
Pegg adds that Benji is a realist, always trying to be Ethan’s voice of reason — though when it comes down to it, he’ll always fall in line with Ethan’s plan “no matter how crazy it seems.”
“In ‘Fallout,'” he says, “Ethan has moments of genuine self-doubt and he’s unsure about how to proceed — which is very rare. That gives this particular ‘Mission: Impossible’ a certain human quality … like, it’s not just about the action and beating the bad guys.”
True, this is the first time the almost impossibly infallible Ethan admits to being in over his head, reassuring his team more than once with a frustrated “I’ll figure it out” — all amid bone-shattering shoot-outs and potential nuclear catastrophe. Always the master planner, this time Ethan is prone to improvising and seeking counsel from his old pal Benji.
“Playing Benji requires leaving one’s ego at the door,” Pegg says. “I have to stay true to the character, which means staying true to the ‘Mission: Impossible’ ethos, which means staying true to Ethan — every minute of the story.”
An upshot of Ethan’s increasing reticence is that the job of espousing witticisms and cracking one-liners has been increasingly left up to Benji. Maybe the years of nonstop action have finally caught up with our main hero, after all, if Ethan is the same age as Cruise, he’ll be hitting 60 in four years.
“It’s more that with each installment we’re all thinking, ‘How do we top this?'” Pegg says. “It always feels like we’ve done the unthinkable and pulled off the impossible and there’s nowhere to go from here. I think that’s always on our minds, and the issue is a lot bigger for Tom Cruise.”
“Mission: Impossible — Fallout” is now playing in cinemas nationwide. For more information, visit www.missionimpossible.jp.