Q&A: Nick Frost talks about dancing in Cuban Fury

British actor Nick Frost transforms himself into a salsa dancer in the film Cuban Fury

Cuban Fury

Cuban Fury Photograph: Matt Nettenheim

British actor and director Nick Frost does not exactly resemble a salsa god. But that is exactly what he becomes to win the affections of Rashida Jones in his new film Cuban Fury. The movie, which features a dance battle between Frost and Chris O'Dowd, doesn't rely on dance doubles; Frost actually immersed himself in salsa training for the role. As he says, "I wasn’t there to tease or to make fun of salsa, but I was there for it to essentially be a love letter to Latin culture in the U.K."

Funnyman Nick Frost, the British actor who recently starred in The World’s End—a science-fiction film about marathon drinking—is reborn. Yes: as a dancer. “I wanted to do something that was so completely different from anything I’d done before,” he says. In Cuban Fury, he plays Bruce, an overweight, insecure man who was a salsa champion as a boy. To win the heart of Julia (Rashida Jones), he must rekindle his love of dance. Here, he shares a painfully hilarious memory. 

How much experience did you have salsa dancing?
None. [Laughs]

I mean none. Nothing at all. I’ve always liked dancing, and I’m kind of not afraid to admit I was always a keen amateur, and I was pretty good, but my dance history is essentially that I’m a house-music fan—a particular genre called hard house. In terms of dancing, it’s pretty easy. It’s one hand pumping the sky and perhaps joined by another at some point and that’s kind of it. Dancing in a hold with a partner was something completely new to me. The power of that lead. I danced with a lot of different girls over the period of my training for this film and spent a lot of time talking about leads and learning how important it is to lead in a respectful way. There’s a way that you can lead a lady that shows off her moves to the best of her ability. It’s really interesting as a man what you are responsible for in that lead.

So you had never really danced with people before?
No. Not with humans. Listen, being an Englishman, those first two weeks I found myself constantly apologizing for having to take a girl into hold. It’s just not something that my culture does—we don’t dance like that anymore, which is a sad thing, but we dance on our own, singularly, or maybe at the end of a disco when they play slow music and you’ve had a few drinks, then you might dance with a girl. But that’s for its own ends. It’s not dancing for the joy of dancing. Just those first few weeks of having to dance with a girl was so alien to me.

Cuban Fury was your idea. Why did you want to make a film about dancing?

I wanted to do something that was so completely different from anything I’d done before, and it just seemed that me doing a dance film was that idea. I think it’s a very funny idea from the get-go that I would do a dance film. I’ve always liked dancing, and I’ve always liked films with dancing in them, but it was something I was kind of ashamed of, and it was an idea I was afraid of. I never mentioned it to people and then one day I plucked up the courage to write an e-mail to my friend and producer Nira Park pitching the idea for this film. I knew at that point that Nira would like the idea so much that it would be out of my hands and that I would actually have to do a dance film.

Can you talk about your training?
Yeah. It was essentially seven hours a day every day for seven months from absolute nothing and having trouble to clump my way through a basic step to kind of being the dancer you see in the film.

What did that do to your body?
Well, the whole point of the film is that he’s a big man. I lost fat weight, but I was on a special diet so I kept the same size. It was more muscle mass than the other stuff. It was an amazing process. I never imagined it would hurt so much, physically and emotionally. I think a week in, I thought, Oh my God, what have I done? If you got sentenced to seven months in jail, that’s a long time. Do you know what I mean? It’s the same with dance training, and it kind of never got easier—there was never a point where you could turn around and say, “I can dance salsa,” because as soon as you got something down, they kept loading you up with more complex information. But, listen, that aside, what a process. I met some of the most amazing dancers and everyone was so supportive of me and once they realized that I wasn’t there to tease or to make fun of salsa, but I was there for it to essentially be a love letter to Latin culture in the U.K., they realized I was in business and backed me 100 percent.

Did you cry during training?
Richard Marcel, my choreographer, made me cry twice. I think we were about five months in, and there comes a point in a day where it’s 3pm, you’ve been dancing since 8am, and you’re physically tired and mentally exhausted. You just can’t take in any more information. Richard was trying to explain what he wanted me to do, and I just could not understand what he was saying. He actually physically manhandled me into the position that he wanted me to be in and was a little bit cross with the fact that I was being so dense. You kind of come from that school of thought where you don’t manhandle another man. I felt like he’d completely overstepped the line, and I felt foolish—like a little boy being told off. I was so tired I thought, I might strangle you! I thought I was going to hit him. And I could feel my voice going like I was going to cry, and I just had to say, “Don’t fucking touch me!” And I started crying, and I ran off to the toilets, which was quite weird because it was full of 18-year-old male ballerinas. This big bear comes crying into the toilets. I kind of got my shit together and went back into the training room, but literally as soon as I saw Richard, I burst into tears again. I got my dance bag and my little shoes and said, [In a warbly voice] “I’m goin’ home!” 

But then you went back the next day?
Oh, absolutely. It was just one of those things. And that came from a frustration that I couldn’t do something that I knew I could do. Sure enough the next day, we had a cuddle and got on with it and I did the step in about five minutes.

Because you were relaxed.
Yeah. Absolutely. It’s such a weird thing to do to become a dancer. I didn’t just learn choreography, I was a dancer. It’s just an odd thing to find yourself doing.

Do you still dance?

I do. Not salsa. We shot this quite a while ago now. I’ve still got some lovely basics and some lovely turns and a lovely lead, and I don’t think it would take me much to get back to that level, but I dance all the time. I have a little baby and he loves to dance, and he and I love dancing together. One of the other things I realized from doing that film is that there is a direct correlation between dancing and happiness. I think it’s really important. It’s great to dance.

Can you take me through the big two dances? How was the fight dance between you and Chris O’Dowd choreographed and filmed?
We had an amazing choreographer, Litza Bixler, and she got together with Richard Marcel, and we did it bit by bit. Fortunately, because we shot that slightly different, it meant that we could shoot it in little chunks: Get one chunk down and make it look good or improvise a little bit and put that to bed and move on. But it was very difficult. It took four days to shoot and it was annoyingly one of those four days in London where it was late August and it was 96 degrees so you know, it was really punishing.

Was it difficult to make dancing funny in that instance?
I don’t think we tried. The thing about that dance-off is we didn’t want to make it funny. If anything, it’s overly serious and that’s where the comedy comes from. The fact that those men are utterly serious. I love the line at the end where Chris O’Dowd says, “Oh, fuck this—I’m not doing this every lunch,” which makes me think maybe they did this yesterday as well. James Griffiths, our director, wanted to shoot that fight as if it was the kitchen fight in The Bourne Identity. And instead of dance moves, they’re using box cutters. So that’s what we tried to do.

And in the big dance at the end, was one long shot?
With something like that, you want to get as much coverage as possible, but the whole point of me learning to dance for seven months was so that I could do that three-and-a-half-minute finale dance as a live dance in one shot. We did do that. We shot that a bunch of times as a wide, from top to bottom with me doing it all.

You look really good in that.
Thank you very much! You know a lot of that is because of the audience and the crowd. They were there for a week when we shot that scene and they were so supportive—all those people had been on that journey with me from day one, because they were the heart of the London Latin scene. They knew that they were making this film and that this big man who was not a dancer was going to try and become a dancer and not just learn how to become a dancer, but learn about that culture specifically. None of those people had ever seen me dance before. I’d been to club nights with them and done bits and pieces, but they’d never seen a three-minute show dance, so when they saw that whole thing and the fact that it wasn’t just salsa, but there were elements of rumba and the cha-cha, it kind of blew them away! Their response to that dance made me want to do it again and again.

You look so hilariously happy in that scene.
[Laughs] I don’t think I’ve ever looked happier. It’s so funny—there was a section of that dance that I found on my phone that someone had taped of me and Rashida [Jones] dancing it, and there’s that moment where I take her hand and move her around and we look at each other and smile. We smile at each other so much that I sent her that clip to say, “Look at how happy we were!” We were just so friggin’ happy.

Why didn’t you want to use dance doubles?
I didn’t want that. I’m a producer, it’s my idea. There are some dance doubles. There’s some footwork. There’s some stuff in the fight that’s not me, and there’s one shot in the finale that isn’t me, but apart from that, it is all me dancing and that’s the kind of beauty of the job I do: You can decide that you want to become a dancer and make this film. It would have been so much easier to not do it that way, but where’s the joy in that? No matter if the film comes out here and doesn’t do anything at the box office or it’s never seen again, I can show my son that film in 20 years’ time and say, “I did that.” That will always be there.

Do you have natural rhythm? I think you do.
I do, yeah. I remember when I was 16, I was asked by a club promoter if I wanted to do podium dancing in his club and when I pitched the idea to my parents it got short shrift as a career idea.

Where were you dancing in the studio shots? Was it a studio or a set?
That was a beautiful set by Dick Lunn. He went round to hundreds of old salsa and Latin music clubs and old basements that were no longer clubs but had been and saw the faded colors and the dance floor was the floor from an old school. He sourced lots of incredible period furniture.

How did that get you into the right mood?
It just makes it really easy because you don’t have to imagine what it would be like. You’re actually there.
Cuban Fury opens Apr 11; see also Film.

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