IN the new movie Day of the Flowers there is a scene in which a young Scotswoman visiting Cuba takes to the dance floor with a local.

If the salsa partner in question looks suspiciously like a world class mover it is because he is. Not content with recently publishing a first novel to add to his bestselling autobiography, the Cuban ballet star Carlos Acosta is shaking up perceptions again with his first lead role in a film.

Acosta, 40, had previously made a brief appearance in the 2008 ensemble drama New York, I Love You alongside Natalie Portman, but John Roberts's comedy-drama is his first proper chance to show what he can do with a screen role. Acosta plays Tomas, the unofficial tour guide who helps Rosa and Ailie (Eva Birthistle and Charity Wakefield), two Scots who have come to Cuba to scatter their father's ashes and find out more about their mother's past. Roberts says Acosta was right at home in every sense. "He's got a very natural way with the camera - he was extremely relaxed and incredibly focused. He needs to do very little and your eyes are going to go to him."

I caught up with Acosta when Day of the Flowers had its Edinburgh International Film Festival premiere. Having first come to the UK as a teenager, the dancer, who is to ballet what Leonardo DiCaprio is to acting, has visited many cities outside London, including Glasgow, where his then girlfriend was a dancer with Scottish Ballet. This, however, was his first time in Edinburgh.

Day of the Flowers was among many scripts he had been sent, and at first he was concerned that Tomas, being a retired dancer, was not going to be much of a leap. "I thought I'm not interested to just be who I am. If I'm going to act, let it be acting, so that I know what it is and it can stretch me artistically." After reassurances he was on a plane home again.

Acosta has been coming and going from the one-party state all his professional life. "If you have a working contract you can always say, look I'm hired somewhere else and the government will let you go." Problems only arise, he adds, if you don't have a job to go to and want to audition somewhere. "I've always been one of the lucky ones in that I've always had companies interested in me, even coming to Cuba to look for me, with a contract."

"Interested" is an understatement. Since leaving the Cuban National Ballet School, Acosta has danced all over the world for companies ranging from English National Ballet to Houston Ballet. Still dancing as principal guest artist with the Royal Ballet in London, and now a choreographer too, he can be seen next as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Opera House on December 7. As with all of Acosta's performances, it is sold out.

A far easier way to see Acosta in action is at the cinema in Day of the Flowers. As a dancer he says he is used to acting out a role, but this time it was different. Ballet requires "theatrical acting", he says, projecting yourself and your character right to the back of the auditorium. In film, the camera is up close and personal. "I think I understand that, because even in a theatre what I'm aiming for is a kind of intimacy in what I do, so that the audience feels close to the character."

At the same time, he was aware that this was a very different art form from dance. "One is movement, the other is words, how you deliver the text. Dancers are not used to speaking. We move, that's fine, that's how our brain works, but when you have to speak…"

In the film, Rosa and Ailie have accents broader than the Clyde. Acosta had no problem with that, but the taxi driver from Edinburgh Airport was another matter. He laughs at the recollection.

"Man, I didn't understand a word of what he was saying. 'Rah, rah, rah, rah, aye, aye, aye.' I tried to be polite but I just didn't understand him."

What he liked about Eirene Houston's script was that it was a more grounded portrayal of Cuba than is usually seen on screen. "Cuba sometimes can be very cliched, very postcard, romanticised. The truth is it is a place [where] a lot of people are trying to survive." At the same time, he says, there are lots of people like Tomas, quietly getting on with their lives. "He is a very proud Cuban, which I connect with."

Acosta was born in Havana, one of 11 children. His father was a truck driver. They are hardly the average beginnings for a ballet star, and Acosta knows it.

"One of the wonderful things about the revolution was that whatever you wanted to be you could do it. If you did the work you were given the chance. Be a doctor, be a scientist, be it for free."

In ballet, Cuba has earned a reputation far beyond its borders. The way Acosta describes it, the art form runs rather like football in Europe, with scouts going all over the country to talent spot youngsters.

"Cuba became like a dance factory in a way. They produce and produce and produce dancers, it's amazing, but it's basically because the government has invested over the years and the message is it is great to be a ballet dancer, it's a symbol of pride, something positive."

Now married with an 18-month-old daughter, Acosta began thinking about branching out from dance when he reached his late 20s.

"I got to a point where I said I've done all the classical repertoire, I've danced with everybody in the world, what can I do?" The results have included his own ballet, the semi-autobiographical Tocororo, A Cuban Tale; his acclaimed autobiography, No Way Home; and now his debut novel, Pig's Foot, described by one reviewer as "a rich stew of magical realism".

While he has made an impact elsewhere, it is clear from speaking to him that it will take something very special to draw him away from his first love of performing in front of an audience.

"When you taste glory the rewards can be so addictive. You know that okay, you are working six, eight hours a day every day but when you go to perform something happens." It is a sensation, he says, that simply cannot be bought, and it makes up for the long hours in rehearsal rooms and all the rest of a dancer's life on the road. "It's the most amazing thing you can imagine. Once you experience that, that's it, you are hooked, and you can cope with loneliness, everything else, it doesn't matter."

Perhaps there is one role, however, that could beat dancing on stage for thrills. In Day of the Flowers, Tomas is a good guy. Did he fancy being a bad guy at some point?

"A lot of people have said that I would make a really good James Bond baddie," he laughs. "I'd love to be some bad guy, that would be wonderful. The bad guy is always more fun."

Day of the Flowers opens in cinemas on November 29. Pig's Foot is published by Bloomsbury. The film's screenwriter Eirene Houston is Face to Face with Teddy Jamieson in Monday's Herald.