Nick Frost is not going to lie – there were moments that he thought he’d made a monumental mistake in agreeing to do his new film, Cuban Fury. About eight weeks’ worth of moments.
“The worst part of my day was opening the door at Pineapple Dance Studios and having to walk through 50 19-year-old ballerinas,” Frost says. “As a 40-year-old man you’d think I’d kind of like that idea, but I could see them looking at me and thinking, ‘who’s this guy? does he work in the kitchen? I’ve never seen this lump before’.” He shakes his head ruefully.
It’s true that if you were going to pick an actor to volunteer for seven months of intensive salsa dancing training, I think even Frost would forgive you for not coming up with his name first. He’s best known as the pint-necking, Xbox-playing, wisecracking sidekick of Simon Pegg, first seen in legendary Channel 4 comedy Spaced and then in the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy: Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and World’s End. There have been other roles – as one of the Thompson twins (alongside Pegg) in Spielberg’s Tintin movie and as John Self in a small-screen adaptation of Martin Amis’ Money, but Frost is still best known as a likeable, stoner-type, rather than a salsa-ing romantic lead. And it’s evident that he’s feeling just a little bit nervous because when I tell him that I enjoyed the film (I did – it’s funny and silly) he looks totally unconvinced.
“You’ve seen it? Oh right.” He looks downcast. Come on, I liked it. It’s about dancing and it’s got Ian McShane in it, what’s not to like?
“Well, you know,” he says sheepishly. “It’s a new thing for me leading a romantic comedy so I’m having a real crisis of confidence, but I want people to like it.”
And there you have it. Simple, sincere, unaffected – exactly what an ordinary person might say if they’d made a movie. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the charm of Nick Frost. He is an ordinary person, the kind of person that makes you wonder why loads of other ordinary people don’t just go and get themselves a Hollywood film career. I mean Frost isn’t a trained actor, he was a waiter in Chiquitos for six years – that’s where he met Pegg, whose girlfriend also worked there – and now he’s on first-name terms with Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. He’s obviously driven, he’s written a film (Paul, co-authored with Pegg) and produces most of the projects that he’s involved in these days, but there’s still a sense that he’s just a regular, albeit funny, guy who happens to make movies. And so, still, the question remains – why would he, as a total novice, volunteer for seven months of seven hours a day salsa dancing lessons so that he could convincingly shimmy his way through Cuban Fury?
As it transpires, there are several reasons – some personal, some professional. But let’s be clear about one thing, it was not because he wanted to lose weight.
He’s a stylish chap, Frost. Bounding about in a studio space in south London he’s wearing indigo denims, navy suede desert boots, a navy cardigan and navy polo shirt beneath buttoned to the neck. The hipster look is topped off with geek specs. He’s also a big man – chunky. It turns out that several journalists have already spectacularly failed to get their heads around the idea that Frost might have wanted to dance for any reason other than to lose a few pounds, somehow confusing a sweet romcom with a fitness DVD. He shakes his head – “that was so not the point”.
But it does hint at an issue about which Frost evidently feels strongly.
“There are not a lot of us in terms of the human population who are incredibly beautiful,” he says. “In fact, there’s a tiny proportion yet it’s shown to be the norm.” Working in Hollywood, Frost has a window on to that world in a different way – he’s not just seeing it on the screen, he’s working in it. He’s quick to say that it’s not all bad – he knows that he gets work because he’s a big guy, but that doesn’t mean that it’s all straightforward either.
“I’ve been in places in LA where thin women move away from me,” he says. “There’s a hotel I really love in Santa Monica, it has a beautiful bar that looks out on to the sea, I’ll go up and sit at the bar and I’ve seen women move away. It’s two things a) they’re afraid they’re going to catch it and b) they think I’m going to eat them.” He shrugs. “Seriously it’s as if they think they’re going to catch being fat. What a terrible way to be.”
And so there’s something about being the lead in Cuban Fury that’s about more than just carrying the film, or learning to dance, it’s about showing that leading men can look like Frost.
And this is where the inspiration for Cuban Fury gets personal and it ties into his understanding of dancing too.“There’s something about being attractive and aesthetic beauty,” Frost says. “If you are passionate about something then you don’t have to look like Brad Pitt to be attractive.”
It was important to Frost that the film wasn’t about pastiching salsa dancing. He’s full of respect for it and for the fact that dancing allows people to transform themselves. He watched loads of dancing videos online. His favourite was of an old Cuban couple.
“They were probably in their 80s. He was a big guy. In Cuba they do the dance with a handkerchief and the whole thing with the dance is that they’re getting to a point where he can flick her and it’s meant to symbolise him impregnating her. Watching them do what they did was amazing. They kind of didn’t do anything but you could never teach it, they’d been doing it for 70 years. It was beautiful.”
Another part of the inspiration for the film came from Frost’s experience of, as he puts it, “f**king my wedding up by not wanting to dance”. He didn’t completely wreck it, he’s happily married and has a two-and-a-half year old son, but there was a dance-related wobble.
“I kind of didn’t want to get married because I knew we’d have to have the first dance,” he says. “We managed 20 seconds and it was like me with my hands on my wife’s shoulders,” he mimics looking horribly uncomfortable, “and then we waved everyone on to the dance floor.” He is only too aware that this is not what the 80-year-old Cuban man would have done. But that’s how it is in a country where in contradiction to the blurb on the poster for Cuban Fury – Real Men Dance – loads of men actually don’t very often.
“The amount of times I’ve sat round one side of a round table with five other men, not talking, watching our wives dance at a wedding,” Frost says. “It’s pitiful. We could be up there. So often I’ve thought it’d make my wife really happy if I got up and danced with her, but I don’t do it.
“The thing is, I like dancing. I’m technically quite good at dancing. But what I don’t like about being a bigger man and a good dancer is that there’s a weird look that thinner people give to you, it’s a look like you’ve somehow beaten cancer.” He demonstrates – pulling a face that’s simultaneously pitying, and encouraging and a bit smug. “They kind of feel sorry for you and they admire your pluck. ‘Good on ya. He’s good for a big man, eh?’” He does a pitch perfect impression. “I just think f**k you. If you’re a good dancer it shouldn’t matter how big you are.”
And that’s the heart of Cuban Fury. Bruce (Frost) was a salsa champion as a kid. He loved the squeak of a suede sole on a sprung floor, the shine of a sequin on a satin shirt. But then a gang of bullies put an end to all that and, in his early 40s, his life is an endless repeat of trips to the golf range, being the butt of his colleague Drew’s (Chris O’Dowd – hilarious as a total git) jokes and a non-existent love life. Until Julia (Rashida Jones) a new American, salsa-loving boss arrives at his company. The film might be predictable, but that doesn’t make it less enjoyable, especially with support from Olivia Colman as Bruce’s barmaid sister, Sam, and Ian McShane as the grumpy, rum-swilling salsa teacher, Ron Parfitt. It’s a story of how dancing makes you happy and how giving up isn’t the answer. As Frost puts it: “Man falls in love with a woman. She makes him want to be a better person so he starts dancing. That’s it.”
It was a drunken e-mail that Frost sent one night when he got back from a night out that started the ball rolling with the film. Frost shared his idea for the film with his producer mate, but more crucially, he stated his willingness to actually do the dancing himself.
“An e-mail that I really f**king regretted,” he says. “I regretted it immediately in the morning and then I regretted it when I was two months into the training. I hated it so much.” He points to enormous floor-length mirrors that line the wall behind where we’re sitting. “Look at those – now imagine you’ve got them the whole way round you and you’re being trained by some of the best dancers in the world.” He shakes his head. He had to dance with his hands behind his back because he didn’t know what to do with them and he hated the way they looked. “It was terrible. I was watching me sexually assault a whole culture and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
“I think if I was Daniel Day Lewis I’d be up for an Oscar just in terms of f**king effort alone. I can’t imagine anyone putting in this much effort for a romantic comedy about dancing.”
Frost trained with Richard Marcel, Strictly Come Dancing’s salsa trainer, and Susanna Montero, “one of the best salsa dancers in the world,” he says. It took eight weeks for things to improve. “We used to do these long warm-ups in the morning and there was a point when I just felt I’m doing what you’re doing and it kind of looks like what you’re doing and it makes me feel happy and I can see that you’re smiling because you can see that I’m enjoying this. From that point it got much easier.” He smiles. “I started dressing like a dancer all the time. I’ve got these chinos and I’d fold the bottom up and put socks over them and I had these tiny little white shoes. It was amazing.”
So he must have made up for that bashful first dance at his wedding? Surely he and his wife did a bit of salsa? He rolls his eyes. “The whole point in salsa is that the man leads the woman,” he says. “If she doesn’t want to be led it breaks down. That’s why with my wife, I’d come home on a Friday and we’d have a drink and I’d try to teach her what I’d done. She’d resist. She’s Scandinavian – it was like trying to drag a fridge across my kitchen.” He laughs.
If there’s a secret to Frost’s success, it’s as simple as it is elusive. It’s about enjoying what you do and knowing, no matter what happens, everything is going to be OK. “I’ve been really lucky but also part of me really doesn’t care about it,” he says. “And I think that’s helped. Secretly I do care, but I’ve always had a thing in me that no matter how s**t my life has got, or how drunk I am or how in trouble I am there’s always something inside of me that tells me I’m going to be alright, it’s going to be alright. It’s got me through the s**ttest times. It’s the same with this job, if I wasn’t doing it I’d be doing something else. I’ve never not been happy with what I’ve done. I made the same effort waitering as I do making a film.”
And for now, it’s working just fine. He’s finished filming a new comedy, Mr Sloane, created by director and producer of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Robert B Weide, in which Olivia Colman is this time his wife rather than his sister. And he’s on the look out for funding for a short film that he wrote during a break in filming a recent movie with Vince Vaughan, which he’s going to direct.
“I never trained as an actor so just to rely on acting to come in all the time would be bonkers,” he says. “If you can make your own stuff – I produced Cuban Fury and World’s End and Mr Sloane – that’s a better way to do things.”
He acknowledges that there are “millions of amazing actors” who don’t work so the thought that there might not always be parts for him has crossed his mind and he’s got a family to support. But if that sounds a little anxiety-tinged, that’s not quite right. Frost just likes to keep his options open. “If I got to the stage that the work dried up, I’d just do something else and I’d be completely happy with that.” I wouldn’t believe everyone who told me that, but with Frost, I’m convinced.
Cuban Fury (15) is on general release. Mr Sloane will be on Sky in May.