‘I wanted to keep it sweet,’ says Tom Malloy of his new rom-com, ‘Ask Me to Dance’

tom malloy interview

Briana Evigan and Tom Malloy co-star in “Ask Me to Dance.”

In the arts, it’s always smart to have a fallback plan.

Jersey guy Tom Malloy learned that early.

“I did a film called ‘Gravesend,’ ” he says. “I was still going to Montclair State then, but I’d go up to New York at night for the shoot. It was this gritty little indie, and we got Oliver Stone to put his name on it as ‘presented by,’ and when it came out (in 1997), I thought I was going to be a household name. It didn’t happen.”

But the actor didn’t give up.

“The thing is, I didn’t want to be a waiter and just wait around for the next part,” he says. “I wanted to do movies. So I started writing scripts, putting projects together. I remember telling my agent, ‘I want to be an actor-writer-producer,’ and hearing, ‘No, no, no, you have to focus on one thing!’ But since then I’ve sold about 25 of my screenplays. I just produced my 20th film.”

That movie, “Ask Me to Dance” (see trailer below), opens in theaters Oct. 7.

Malloy, who is big on multi-tasking, also stars, wrote the script and is making his feature-film debut as director. The project also allowed him to indulge another long-time love — dancing West Coast Swing.

Tom Malloy with Amy Smart in “Love N’ Dancing.”

“I had written and produced and starred in one movie about dancing, ‘Love N’ Dancing,’ but I didn’t direct that one,” says Malloy, 47. “This time I wanted to do something that was really my vision. And I didn’t want it to be the usual dance movie, you know, where someone takes lessons and it changes their life — which is, like, 90 percent of dance movies. I wanted to focus more on comedy, which I’ve always loved.”

The movie centers on Malloy and Briana Evigan, from the “Step Up” movies, who play two lonely singles. They both love going to clubs — which is where the musical numbers come in — but neither seems able to find the right partner, either on or off the dance floor. The film details their often ridiculously bad dates while teasingly keeping them apart — until the happy ending.

“It’s kind of a throwback, in a way,” Malloy says of the old-fashioned film. “It’s not taking place in the ’50s; both the characters date outside their race, which is just there and not something we make a thing out of. There are a number of gay characters, too. But there aren’t any F-words, or sex scenes; I wanted to keep it sweet. It’s really about looking for love, and how you can connect on the dance floor.”

Malloy connected with the arts early on. Born in Red Bank, he grew up in Hunterdon County. His mother was a singer who put aside her career to raise a family; his sister was a dancer who ended up touring the world with “Sesame Street Live.” Malloy started performing comedy in grade school, and by the time he got to Hunterdon Central Regional High School, he was co-starring in all the school plays. (His frequent leading lady? Classmate Vera Farmiga.)

Tom Malloy, right, with Jason Chambers in “Ask Me to Dance.”

After “Gravesend” came and went, Malloy continued to look for, and book, jobs in other people’s movies and TV shows. He had a tiny part in “Anger Management,” small roles in episodes of “Third Watch” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” After nearly 30 years in the business, he’s definitely still one of those “the face is familiar, but …” actors.

“Maybe every six months or so, someone will recognize me,” he says with a laugh.

He’s a far more constant presence in his own productions, though, some of which went straight to DVD, some of which debuted on streaming, and some of which (like “Ask Me to Dance”) got theatrical deals. Almost all are straightforward crime thrillers or horror films, with titles that tell audiences what to expect: “The Alphabet Killer,” “Terror House,” “#Screamers” …

“Every indie filmmaker wants to make an edgy drama,” he says. “And that’s the least saleable genre out there. It’s smarter to stick to action, horror, sci-fi. Comedy is OK, but you’ve got to make it a little vanilla. Too much drugs and cursing and sex and it gets harder to distribute.”

Malloy has had so much success, he’s lately added another hyphenate to his producer-director-actor-writer I.D. — educator. His book on film financing, “Bankroll: A New Approach to Financing Feature Films,” has already gone through two editions. When publishers asked him for another update, the movie business was changing so rapidly Malloy realized future revisions had to happen in real time.

Tom Malloy has his own filmmaking podcast, “Filmmaking Stuff.”

He’s since started — with partner Jason Brubaker — a kind of online academy, FilmmakingStuffHQ.com. Subscribers can sign up for programs priced from $97 to $497 a month and get personal coaching and the kind of info few film schools cover — how to raise money, how to attract stars, how to find a distributor. (Filmmaking Stuff also has its own YouTube channel and podcast.)

“People starting out have to create their own opportunities,” Malloy says. “The technology has changed so much, it’s made it much more affordable — it’s not like the old days when you needed a 35mm camera and a whole crew. You can get what you need at Best Buy.

“Take that four or five grand you were saving for a new car, go shoot a short film with your friends and put it on YouTube — you never know who’s going to see it.

“Don’t just sit at home waiting for the phone to ring,” he emphasizes. “Create stuff.”

For more on “Ask Me to Dance,” visit askmetodancemovie.com.

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