How Nick Frost drunk-emailed his producer one time, then spent millions overcoming his fear of dance

Perhaps best known in these parts as a fine and plump sidekick to Simon Pegg in Edgar Wright-directed comedies about zombies, cops, and middle-aged pub crawlers, Nick Frost now has a movie very much his own to tout, and naturally it is a romantic comedy about salsa dancing. Frost conceived and produced Cuban Fury as a star vehicle for himself, with help from Rashida Jones as an adorable love interest, Chris O’Dowd as a cocky rival, and Ian McShane as a grizzled dance mentor. Now he’s here to talk about it.

Serious but not self-serious, Frost is a highly pleasant interviewee; unlike some funny people, he doesn’t need to be on all the time. One quickly detects that humility which also undergirds many of his finest performances: He is here on behalf of lovable schlubs everywhere.

Tell us, Nick Frost, what is the source of your Cuban Fury?

Somehow I had the idea to do a dance film. I wanted to do something completely different, in terms of stuff I’d done with Simon and Edgar. And that just seemed like the thing. A film where I danced a lot. [Makes a “who knew?” face.] The original idea was essentially a plain, sad man who has a passion for dancing, and woos a very beautiful girl who loves to dance, but her boyfriend is attractive, doesn’t dance, and is a dick. It was about him saving her. Seeing that she needed saving, and seeing that he could be the savior. That all stayed in my mind for about four years, I think, before I even uttered a word to anyone.

Four years of silence?

Well, I didn’t want to say anything because I knew that if someone took that idea seriously, then there could be a time when I am in a dance class having to learn to dance. And for me, dancing was… I love dancing. I’ve always loved it. But I hate people watching me dance. It’s this fear of mine. Yes, this is like an 8-million-dollar reeducation project, in terms of overcoming fear. So then one night I came in from a party, and I was kinda pissed, drunk, and I sat at my computer and I wrote the outline of that story, and sent it to my producer. It was literally one of those things where I fell into bed with my clothes on, and woke up the next morning with a mouth full of sand, and I thought: Fucking hell, what did I do? And I opened the laptop and there was a message saying, “This is a great idea! Why don’t you come in and let’s talk about it?” And at that point, there was a fear, and trepidation, but also a tremendous relief. That this filthy secret that I harbored was out at last. I could breathe. And that was it.

From that email to the first day of production was 15 months. So it was that odd thing that people really kinda loved the idea straight away. And I think they loved the fact that I wanted to do it all. There is a tiny bit of double work with feet and stunt-wire work, but 98 percent of that dancing is me doing it, and that was part of the attraction. In week one of that training period, I would never ever have imagined that it would turn out like that.

Then of course there are all the other challenges of turning an idea into a movie. Can you talk about that?

I kind of wrote a character bible, and I thought about what the film should be. We met Jon Brown, who wrote the script. We liked him. He went off and wrote a first draft in about 12 weeks. And it wasn’t a three-hour TV episode, it was a three-act film script. And we sat and we talked about what we liked. What worked, what maybe didn’t work. Individual jokes. And I go off and I sit, and probably take a week to read it through, and just note everything. And then I type the notes up, and he can either action them or not action them. You know? If he doesn’t action them, and I feel strongly about them, I can come back and say, “Hey, comedically, this might work a bit better.” But there’s no point in getting somebody to write a script if you’re going to constantly badger and undercut them. You might as well do it yourself. And Jon’s such a smart man. He’d say, “Ok, I get your note, but this is why I’ve done it.” And then I’m like, “Ok, I get that. Let’s move on.” And you do that, well, forever. He’ll go off. Apply, not apply. And then we’ll do it again. Every three months.

[We will] do that process until we’ve got something that we really like. It’s a fun way to do it, because we all like one another. There’s no ego involved. There’s pressure but it’s just us applying it. Not like a studio saying “Where Are The Changes??” We’re our own little cottage industry.

There’s a lot to be said for casting, too.

I think I’m very lucky that the work I’ve done previously is a good calling card. I started doing this job when I was about 29 or 30, and at the time I felt like a kid. I mean, I still do, to a certain extent. I feel now like a child that is taken seriously, and that’s a really beautiful thing. Some actors, at the end of a job, you say, “Hey, nice to meet you,” and that’s that. But there are other people that you know that you’re going to remain friends with, kinda forever — and not just that, but you will seek them out to be with them on set, because you know one way or another that they enable you, and hopefully vice versa, to do the best work. The audience can tell if there’s chemistry.

With Chris, I’ve known him for years, and we did The Boat that Rocked together, and we had a great time there. And we’ve been friends for a long time, and he just seemed perfect. With Rashida, I’d met Rashida a couple of times in L.A. At parties, or events. We said, “Hey, big fan.” Then when we wrote this character and wanted her to be an American, we said: Ok, let’s meet Rashida. We got her into town. We had lunch, and that turned into afternoon drinks, which then turned into dinner and more drinks. You get to a point where you’re seven hours into your date and you haven’t stopped chatting, or laughing, or throwing ideas around, or just bullshitting, and you think: This is amazing! I absolutely want to work with how this is. Not just in terms of working together, but as human beings connecting. It doesn’t happen all the time.

So is that what you most hope to capture on the screen?

You want to. But sometimes it’s not needed, and, actually, having that dynamic could be counterproductive. Sometimes you don’t need that. And then lovely Ian McShane, I’d worked with him on Snow White and the Huntsman, and he’s just — well, he’s Ian McShane! You know when he’s on the call sheet, you can hear people on set saying, “Oh, Ian’s in today!” He’s just amazing. As soon as Jon started to fashion this alcoholic Mr. Miyagi-style guru, the producer said, “We should offer this to Ian.” And it was like: YES. Of course. Of course! So I called him up an said, “Hey Ian, would you like to come and do a salsa movie, where you’re playing like a teacher…” And he just said, “Yeh. Of course I’ll do it.” And hung up. And that was it. It was like: Perfect.