A high-stakes cautionary tale of cyberattacks in the lead-up to an election that feels all too real is The Undeclared War. That is largely due to the fact that it is the most recent creation of acclaimed British writer and director Peter Kosminsky, who has diligently researched the topic for years.
It takes place in 2024 and is about a group of shady analysts from Britain’s GCHQ who are engaged in an online battle to protect democracy. Hannah Khalique-Brown, Simon Pegg, and Mark Rylance, a frequent collaborator of Kominsky, make up the ensemble cast.
To decipher the bafflingly prescient drama, which is currently streaming on Peacock, I met with Pegg.
Simon Thompson: The Undeclared War is a cautionary tale set in 2024, which is just far enough away from the present to make it very relevant to the world we live in today. You rarely get something that happens in that window. Was that an appeal in any way?
Peter Pan: Yes, when I received the script, that intrigued me. When we shot it, we were still in the middle of Covid. It depicted the end of the pandemic, Boris Johnson’s removal, and now we are here. It occurred while the show was being broadcast in the UK. Peter Kosminsky, without a doubt, has a very shrewd outlook on the future.
Thompson: How does it feel when you have written something, performed it, and the reality is unfolding simultaneously with the show’s airing?
Pegg: It’s been interesting, especially with the invasion of Ukraine that occurred after we finished filming the first scenes. The show does mention it, but we had to acknowledge it later in post-production because we wanted this world to feel extremely credible. It’s hard to watch because you want it to stay true to the moment and nothing crazy will happen that would make it feel like it was yesterday. As it worked out, it truly does.
Thompson: Some projects come up while you’re looking for others do not. Which of those was this intended for? Did you have a list of people you wanted to work with that included Peter?
Pegg: Yes, but it wasn’t like I specifically asked my agents to pursue this. Prior to Peter delivering the script, I had indicated that I would like to perform in more dramatic roles. I think he was looking for someone a little bit arrogant to play Danny, the den mother at GCHQ, where there are so many young hackers with incredible talent. Given Peter’s impressive resume, his consideration of me for the role truly surprised and humbled me. It was a joy to receive this because I feel like when people think of me, they think of me playing around. Before I even read it, I said yes right away because I knew it would be good. When I read it, I knew right away that I had to do this.
Thompson: You have worked on a lot of projects in which accuracy in terms and facts is crucial, making you credible even in fantastical settings like Star Trek or Mission: Impossible. Impossible. But this is a completely different setting. Did that make a significant difference to you?
Pegg: With unadulterated diversion, you’re requesting that the crowd suspend their doubt and, you know, get involved with a reality where a great deal of impossible things occur. Because this is a drama from the real world, we approached it with that level of seriousness. Peter spends a lot of time and effort developing his character. I received a two-page document with information about Danny’s life, including where he was born and raised and other personal details. This gave me the confidence to channel genuine authenticity into the performance because I had a real backstory. When it comes to Star Trek or Mission, Stanislavskian techniques are rarely required: No offense intended to those, but with this, it felt like there was more of a responsibility to do the right thing.
Thompson: In Mission Impossible, Danny and Benji do share some similarities. Benji clearly belongs to the cool tech side, and Danny is his brother who chose to follow the advice of the careers teacher and work in government. Did you get that?
Pegg: Funny thing is, I was using some of the same terms. I remember saying something about the technology at GCHQ being air gapped at one point in this show, and I had actually said the phrase in a Mission: Scene from impossible two months earlier. Yes, I was aware that Danny and Benji shared an odd parallel, and Danny effectively oversees GCHQ’s Benjis. He is, without a doubt, very skilled in coding and has the knowledge necessary to hold that position of authority; however, he is much more like the straight-up guy. He is not a lone wolf.
Thompson: When it comes to social media, we talk a lot about hackers and Russian troll farms, but seeing them in shows like this makes it seem more real, and this portrayal seems pretty accurate.
Pegg: In our show, a Russian troll farm is a place where ordinary people gather to argue on social media. They start arguments and divide us because they are very familiar with our language, culture, and lingo. It would appear that Putin’s ultimate goal is to destabilize other countries so that the population sees his own regime as superior. That’s changed a little now that it’s clear that he wants more territory, but that’s still how the world sees him. They see him as someone who causes trouble, and all he wants to do is make himself look good, which he is doing very well. Troll farms were unquestionably present during Brexit, our election, and the American election, and they had an impact.
Thompson: How was it to collaborate with Peter and dissect the research behind this?
Pegg: He’s amazing, creative, and the friendliest, most laid-back director I’ve ever worked with for actors. He cares a lot about his performers and wants to provide us with the most welcoming and secure environment for creating. He would come into the makeup trailer each morning to talk to each of us individually about the day’s events. He would never shoot or block anything. I suggested, “Why don’t we shoot this stuff in this way, and then we can just pick up that actor’s stuff when they get here?” one day when someone was late. He replied, “No, I want it to be real for you to react to that actor.” That amazed me. He prioritized expediency over providing the actors with the best possible setting.
Thompson: Since you and Peter are both British and learned their craft at the BBC and Channel 4 respectively, did you share a similar background? Right now, those are under attack.
Pegg: Yes, particularly producing a show for Channel 4 at a time when our government threatens a very important independent channel. We talked a lot about that. You should know that Channel 4 was where I started my career with Spaced. The Undeclared War’s return to Channel 4 felt like a complete loop. We both discussed how crucial it is for Channel 4 to maintain its independence and avoid being taken over by the Tories.
Thompson: I was reminded of another thing you’ve done in your career during the scenes with you as Danny in the GCHQ offices: The Office W***ing sketch and Big Train.
Pegg: Yes (chuckles). We always played it straight, and that was the key to the Big Train style of comedy. We always played it with a strong sense of drama. There was never any bravado displayed or a wink at the camera. We weren’t performing comedies. Big Train was based on the idea that the situation was a joke and couldn’t be funny unless we did it perfectly. Because I was in The Undeclared War, someone told me that they saw it and were waiting for something funny to happen because it felt like a Big Train sketch. (Laughs) That was depressing. I know precisely very thing you mean in light of the fact that many Huge Train outlines occurred in everyday conditions. Even though GCHQ is a component of British intelligence’s core, it is still a space for offices. People still eat snacks and work at their computers there. Despite the nature of their work, there is a melancholy.
Thompson: Would you participate in Big Train? Could you reunite everyone for something like Comic Relief or a celebration of an anniversary? The show has been cancelled for just over two decades.
Pegg: It was made in 1998, so it’s been nearly 25 years. What is Comic Relief? Yes, probably, but you must also move on.
Thompson: The Undeclared War concludes in the year 2024. The twentieth anniversary of Shaun of the Dead also occurs in 2024.
Pegg: Yes, I do know.
Thompson: Have you begun chatting about what you can do to celebrate that together? It sounds like something you’d like to remember.
Pegg: Edgar will undoubtedly want to do something. The recent book by Clark Collis was excellent because it was all about making it. It was strange to read about yourself in the third person, which is strange. Additionally, it was a very comprehensive account of Shaun’s development. I truly appreciated it. I’m not sure. Most likely, there will be screenings. We will most likely hold a Q&A following a large screening because Edgar enjoys them.
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