What's a tubby English actor doing in a salsa romcom? Nick Frost talks about burgeoning fame, avoiding being typecast and why you don't need to be smokin' hot to get the girl.
For seven hours a day, six days a week, for seven months, Nick Frost learned how to salsa dance, preparing to play the tappy-toed hero in his latest film, Cuban Fury.
It may not be quite Daniel Day Lewis in a wheelchair, but it's still kind of method acting, and it's certainly hard graft. "‘But when you're doing a romcom with salsa, it's not taken as seriously," the British comic actor (Paul, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, World's End) says cheerfully. "And it's not like there is a Bafta for most effort."
But it is a willingness to take on the heavy lifting that typifies the unusual, still burgeoning career of Frost, 41, who two decades ago was happily waiting tables in a Mexican restaurant named Chiquitos in the truly unfashionable London suburb of Cricklewood.
It was there he met comedian and writer Simon Pegg, without whom any Frost story is incomplete. Pegg inspired Frost to look beyond the fajitas, eventually casting him in the iconic 90s slacker sitcom Spaced - and from there, guided his best mate into a movie career which began alongside Pegg in the brilliant zombie spoof Shaun of the Dead.
"I am really proud that has happened, but what it equates to in real terms - and I am gonna swear now - is a lot of f.....g hard work," says Frost, on the phone from Sydney on a three-day promotional visit so tightly scheduled it leaves no chance for an Auckland sidetrip to see his Kiwi-resident sister.
"I always worked hard at whatever job I did. But even at 28 or 29, I never had a plan. Only after I had done the first season of Spaced did it occur to me ‘you are pretty good at this, you could do this full time if you wanted'.
"Since then it's been 11 years of just working all the time, sometimes to the detriment of home life . . . people ask me what the secret is - it's just f.....g work hard."
And so filming on Cuban Fury actually began a week after the shoot was completed on the World's End, the last in the Pegg-Frost-Edgar Wright trilogy begun with Shaun of the Dead, which was released late last year. Since then, Frost has also filmed an entire series of a sitcom being launched on British screens in May.
Now, he says, continuing a drive to kick beyond being simply Pegg's comic sidekick, he's in that period where he can write and develop his own ideas. "I just kinda work a lot," he says, a response he repeats when asked if he's still salsa dancing. "I like working, its good for me. It's bad when I don't work."
The salsa was Frost's idea, despite his dancing background being limited to some misspent teen years as a raver, complete with one of those shaved-at-the-side, floppy-curtains-atop haircuts. Ignore the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw's sniffy declaration that "the truth is Nick Frost clearly can't dance salsa at all well", for Frost actually looks quite good on the dancefloor for the big, sweaty chap he is. It's a valiant attempt to break type.
Whether it succeeds, he says, is up to the audience. "But the obvious thing is that it is not just men with abs and ice-white teeth who get the girl," he argues.
"Everyone has got a girlfriend. Just because I don't look like Ryan Gosling, that doesn't make a love story any less powerful.
"The goal of every actor must be to not do the same thing again and again. If you're a character actor, which is what I am, essentially you want the best characters you can get."
Fame comes more easily now than when it first really struck, post-Shaun, when he told Britain's Independent newspaper he had a tendency to get "a bit sweary and aggressive" with people who paid him too much attention in public. Now he seems simply resigned to it: "I try not to think about it, to be honest. There's a corner shop near me and sometimes I make the mistake of nipping in there at 3pm, just as all the kids from the local college are in, and it's ‘oh bugger'. But it's the only downside. I still have exactly the same mates I had before I was famous, there's a little pub I drink in . . . I'm not complaining, it's a very amazing position to be in."
Frost's backstory includes his parents' business going bankrupt in his teens, abruptly dumping them into poverty, a spell in a kibbutz in Israel and a general sense of aimlessness through his twenties that's counterpointed by the obvious drive he possesses now.
He's still fond of his six years at Chiquitos. "I think it is where I became an actor," he says. "If you wanted to maximise the potential of your tips, you had literally, within a few seconds, of seeing the table walk through the door to ascertain what kind of people they are, give them a backstory, and as a result of that taper your service to what you imagine those people are.
"That's kind of acting, in a way, becoming a different character: so if they're posh people, you go slightly posher, and say sir a lot, and if they are a geezer, be a bit of a lad, and with girls, be flirty and funny."
At that time comedy and acting hadn't crossed his mind, although he'd always been funny. If that serendipitous meeting with Pegg hadn't happened, what would have happened? "Maybe I would have been the south-east regional manager of a chain of city-centre Mexican restaurants with my own company car."
"Yeah, maybe. I've never not been happy. Even when I was waitering, or in a chicken house, or just labouring, I have always been happy. I always had a drive in me that says ‘just don't do it if you don't want to'." He laughs. "That said, I am not a father, and if my kid came to me as a 28-year-old and said I am not really bothered, I would probably be really cross."
Cuban Fury opens on Thursday.
- Sunday Star Times