Comedian Will Forte (best known on film for the cult comedy ‘MacGruber’) has been promoting his new dramatic film, ‘Nebraska’ (directed by Alexander Payne), non-stop around the country. I caught up with the friendly and surprisingly humble SNL alum recently in Austin at the end of his very long interview day. We chatted about the comedian’s history as well as the road to his well-regarded dramatic performance as David, a son who helps his elderly, impaired father (played by Bruce Dern) travel to Nebraska to try to claim an elusive sweepstakes prize.
How are you keeping your energy up? You were just in LA, now you are in Austin, and you are going to Houston?
(Smiling) Somebody just passed me a Luna Bar, and it just saved my life, so I’m just hanging on.
Hopefully, I’ll get that last burst of energy.
Yes, I have a second wind now.
What about ‘Nebraska’ keeps your energy up to keep talking about it?
I couldn’t be more proud to be in this movie. It’s, just, I never thought I’d find myself with an opportunity that I’m so thankful to have. I’m so thankful that I was allowed to be in this movie that I’ll go wherever they ask me to and talk to whoever they want me to. I love how the movie turned out. I’m so proud to be in it. It’s worth the exhausting schedule to get to share it with people.
Have you been a camouflaged dramatic actor all this time? I mean there are even elements of [SNL character] Tim Calhoun that are comedically poignant.
Well, I mean...I don’t know how to answer [this question]. It only helps your comedy to act well. Kristen Wiig is the funniest person out there, but she’s also an impeccable actress. Because she’s such a great actress, her comedy is so precise and wonderful. It’s crazy when it needs to be and precise when it needs to be. She’s able to do so much stuff because of her amazing acting talent.
Do you think you are just tuned into people to do comedy and drama is just an offshoot of that? Is it just another level of what you do?
I dunno. I have never really thought that much about it. This opportunity came out of nowhere. It wasn’t because I thought, ‘I have these dramatic acting skills that I’ve never used.’ Part of me wasn’t sure I could pull it off. I’m so delighted to have been given the chance to do this. It was just an experience that I’ll never forget. I’m so thankful that I got the opportunity.
It was a very different experience that I’m used to, but there were a lot of things that felt comfortable and similar to what I have experienced. The characters I usually do are bonkers, absurd characters, yet you are still trying to find the truth of the scene. I know that sounds like actor ‘mumbo jumbo,’ but I just don’t know how to describe everything because I never had any real, formal acting training. I kinda took a sophomore drama class in high school and that was it until I went to The Groundlings [comedy improv troupe in Los Angeles]. The Groundlings teaches you characters and improv and it’s up to you to bring your own acting experience to that. But, I never, really, did that. I just scraped by.
You got your undergrad degree in history at UCLA and then worked in finance.
Yeah, I did because my dad did. And, I didn’t know what to do. Or maybe I knew what to do, but I didn’t have the guts to go for it at the time. But, after a couple of years working at a brokerage firm, I just knew it wasn’t for me. I liked all the people there, but it just didn’t make me happy. I finally got up the courage to go to The Groundlings. And, after that, I knew that was what I was supposed to do. Even if I never had any measure of success, it just made me happy. So, I knew that was the right thing to try to do.
You got a lot of encouragement and positive feedback, it seems.
It was a place, the wonderful thing is, it’s a place where you can really do whatever you want to do. You have this freedom to really experiment and find out who you are as a comedic performer. It’s a lot of trial-and-error, but it was so fun. I would not have ever been able to do anything if not for The Groundlings. It really was such a wonderful experience.
So, how was working on ‘Nebraska’ similar to the experience you had with The Groundlings? Were you nurtured in that way and supported?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I was very intimidated going in, like I was going into The Groundlings. I think, pretty much, any experience I’ve ever had mirrored this experience: deciding to go for it, being very nervous beforehand, getting into it, and then being surrounded by a bunch of wonderful people. You realize, ‘Oh, I don’t have to do this on my own. I’ll get all these wonderful people to help me through it.’ And, you can rely on each other.
Every step of the way there’s just been this really fun experience. It’s like there are families everywhere you go. Like, The Groundlings was a wonderful family. Then, I got to be a part of all these different writing staffs [e.g., 3rd Rock From The Sun, That 70’s Show] - you get to be very tight with them. Then, at SNL, it’s a wonderful family with such history and roots. And [‘Nebraska’] was very much like that. Alexander [Payne] works with a lot of the same people. They are so good at what they do and so welcoming and inviting. They are already this established family, that is so happy to invite newcomers.
Also, they [all those who worked on ‘Nebraska’] were instantly welcoming and very warm, so nice and encouraging. Not just that, also, they are at the top of their fields. They also happen to be super-gifted people. Just to feel that level of encouragement made what could have been a really intimidating situation much more comfortable. And, it just became really fun and really thrilling.
So, it did become fun? Not just anxiety provoking?
Absolutely. The anxiety kinda went away at the start of filming. Just anxiety at the run-up. Once you dive into it you think, ‘This isn’t so bad. What was I worried about?’
Was there one moment in filming where you felt more comfortable in the character of [Bruce Dern’s son] David?
No, I always find something to worry about. Even when I talk about being so comfortable, I would find little things to obsess about. The experience was just so wonderful and so different.
Here I am, working with this director [Alexander Payne], who is one of my directorial heroes, who I never thought I’d have a chance to work with in my lifetime. And, then, Bruce Dern, who is just such a legendary performer. I’ve always been drawn to [him] because he’s such a good actor but, then, there’s a quirkiness to him that I respond to.
They call those [quirky elements] ‘Dernsies,’ sometimes. He has that counterculture aspect, too, at least, historically. Is that appealing, too?
Yeah, it was scary to go in and work with these people that I have so much respect for. I just didn’t want to go in and ruin their movie.
Your performance has been called a ‘game changer’ for your career. Do you feel like that’s true? Is it a game changer?
I have no idea. I realize what a rare opportunity it is to be a part of a movie like this that turns out exactly like you hoped it would. To get an opportunity to just have this experience once is a rare thing. So, I’m just thankful to get this once. Whatever happens after this is just gravy. This is just an experience I never thought I’d get to have. I still really can’t believe I’m in the movie.
So, you are not eschewing comedy now for straight drama?
(Smiling) Oh, God, no. Oh my God, no.
There’s still more Mumford and Sons videos and beard-wearing and such?
Yeah. I hope so. I hope so. The experience just came out of nowhere.
You still sound surprised.
I, absolutely, am. Everything about it was unexpected and exciting. I haven’t really planned out my career, ever, and stuff just kinda happens. And, so, I don’t know what the plan is from here. I would love to -- if I got the opportunity -- to get to be in something like this again, I would be thrilled. But, I’m happy I just get to experience this once. If that’s all I get, then that’s enough for me.
For your fans of your comedy, what will appeal to them in Nebraska?
It’s just a great story. This is a movie I’m very proud of and a movie a lot of people will relate to. The family that’s in this movie is nothing like my family, but I still relate to a lot of the relationships in this movie. I feel like a lot of people will relate to these characters as well. So, I hope they get drawn into the story in the same way that I did. It’s such a unique story, told in a very unique way.
Do you really think your fans will follow you?
Well, I am really proud of this movie and it’s so different than anything I’ve gotten the chance to do, but I’m so delighted to be a part of it and delighted to get a chance to do something like this.
But, I still can’t believe I’m in it.
Note: Since our interview, Will Forte has won Best Supporting Actor for ‘Nebraska’ from the National Board of Review. Also, the American Film Institute has included ‘Nebraska’ on their Top 10 films of 2013.
‘Nebraska’ is already playing in select cities nationwide and will expand its release on December 13th (including San Antonio).