Over eight seasons of Saturday Night Live, Will Forte has become the go-to guy for playing men who are blissfully unaware of their own ineptitude, whether it’s failed action hero The Falconer, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, off-putting presidential candidate Tim Calhoun, or ESPN reporter Greg Stink. He’s also good at playing absolute, yet oddly likeable creeps, such as “reformed racist” stalker Hamilton or a sex offender who’s trying to hide in plain sight on Halloween. But the one character indelibly associated with Forte, for better or worse, is MacGruber, the mulleted man-of-action who’s both inept and occasionally creepy, and whose life is an endless series of petty distractions followed by cataclysmic explosions.
As premises for feature-length films go, MacGruber’s is especially flimsy, which gave Forte, his writing partner John Solomon, and director Jorma Taccone the burden of turning their 30-second MacGyver gag into something that could sustain 90 minutes of comedy. Naturally, they brought in reinforcements like Ryan Phillippe and Val Kilmer—who join Kristen Wiig, once again playing MacGruber’s bafflingly loyal partner, Vicki St. Elmo. But ultimately, the film’s success depends entirely on Forte, whose knack for making audiences root for complete fuck-ups has never been tested like this. The A.V. Club recently spoke to Forte about the challenges of bringing MacGruber to the screen, as well as his SNL experience, including the stories behind some of the weirder sketches he’s brought to SNL (and those that haven’t made it yet), and how his reputation as the show’s resident male sex symbol affects the rest of the cast.
The A.V. Club: Who first came up with MacGruber?
Will Forte: It was originally Jorma’s [Taccone] idea. He pitched it to me, and I was not really too crazy about the idea, so I said, “No, let’s write something else this week.” We wrote something else, and then the next week he pitched it again. I again said, “Eh, I don’t know.” That happened two or three weeks in a row. Finally, just to get him to shut up, I said, “Okay, fine, let’s write it.” I’m really very happy that he was persistent.
AVC: Why did he single you out in particular to play MacGruber?
WF: I don’t know. At the time, we had been writing a lot together and working well together. Maybe he had pitched it to other people, too—who also didn’t like it.
AVC: MacGruber’s development as a character—if you can call it that—has always been limited to 30-second bursts. How did you go about fleshing him out for a full-length feature?
WF: That was very liberating, actually, that we didn’t have to worry about too much backstory. We could create whatever backstory we wanted. So we basically said, “Let’s just write what we think is funny, and create whatever backstory we need to support that.”
AVC: Do you feel like you know the full MacGruber story now?
WF: Yes, pretty much. There’s still a lot of unanswered questions about him. There’s still a lot of question marks. We know general areas. I don’t know if I could tell you exactly where he was born—but probably Pueblo, Colorado, because that’s where he’s buried. I know that it’s somewhere in the Colorado area. Never mind. That’s the weirdest answer. Somewhere within the Mountain West Conference.
AVC: The rumor is that the first draft of the script was more than 175 pages long. What were some things you left out of the finished film?
WF: It was 177 pages, and we hadn’t even finished the third act, so it probably would have been 200, 210. We just thought, “Okay, we’ll figure this out later.” Everything was so hurried that we were just jamming through as fast as we could. Most of the stuff that was left out, we had written it with way more fires and stuff. It seemed like wherever MacGruber went, when he would leave, buildings would be burning behind him. So there would just be a ton of times when he would walk away from burning stuff in slow motion. For budgetary reasons, we had to take all of that stuff out. But we were able to keep all the comedy, and still got to keep a pretty decent amount of action also. I hope that people go in and feel satisfied from a comedy angle and an action angle, because that’s what we were shooting for—to have it be funny, but to be a legitimate action movie at the same time.
AVC: MacGruber is pretty selfish, arrogant, and even petulant, yet you want him to be likeable. What’s your take on where he’s coming from as a person?
WF: Everybody’s pretty flawed. That’s America. MacGruber is you, and MacGruber is me. And it’s definitely heightened for comedic effect. Yeah, most people have one or two flaws, but he’s kind of got every flaw around. That was the trickiest part, trying to have him be super fucked-up but still likeable. That was the hardest part of the writing process, trying to figure that out. The other thing that was really hard was trying to figure out when he would be good in a situation and when he would be bad, just in terms of his skills. We didn’t want to make him too bad at his job, and we also knew he couldn’t be super-good at everything. That was really tough. We kept going back and forth. Hopefully we found the right mix.
AVC: The sketch started out as a MacGyver parody, and recently MacGyver creator Lee Zlotoff threatened legal action against MacGruber, claiming you’re infringing on his rights. Do you think those complaints are warranted?
WF: I don’t know how all that stuff works. I know that the creator had a problem with us making a movie, but we actually haven’t had to deal with it too much. Other people deal with that stuff, thank God, because we had enough just thinking about the movie. I don’t know where that’s at. [Pauses.] We love Richard Dean Anderson.
AVC: You had him on SNL to play MacGruber’s dad. Was there any attempt to do the olive-branch thing and get him to do that in the movie?
WF: Oh my God, I would have loved for him to have been in the movie. He’s awesome. I don’t know. We’re big fans. [Laughs.] I don’t know too much about that stuff, so I also don’t want to go into that territory, because I don’t know if there are legal issues still outstanding. That’s territory that my lawyers would probably say to avoid. The thing I will say is that this idea came from a great love of MacGyver and Richard Dean Anderson, so it was a real thrill when we got to work with Richard Dean Anderson. It was like we were getting his blessing, and that was really important to us, because we wanted to make sure that he understood that this came from a place of love.
AVC: There’s a certain stigma associated with Saturday Night Live films. Were you concerned about that?
WF: We weren’t too concerned. We just went in thinking, “Let’s try to make the best movie we can, and not worry about how it stacks up.” It does get kind of frustrating, because sometimes you will read articles that talk about it like… [Pauses.] If people have a problem with SNL films in general, they’ll just jump on it and say, “Oh, this can’t be good, because it’s an SNL film.” They’ll never even watch it and give it a chance. I’m really proud of this movie, and I hope people will give it a chance, because I think it’s way different than people probably expect it to be. I think they’ll be very pleasantly surprised.
AVC: This is your first leading role since The Brothers Solomon. What have you learned since then?
WF: Oh, wow. So much. This was such a different experience than I’ve ever had. It was the most creative freedom we’ve ever had. Our budget was not huge, and as a result of that, we were kind of given free rein to do whatever the hell we wanted to do, which was really exciting. We kept writing stuff and thinking, “Oh, at some point, somebody will come in and make us take it out. “This is too crazy,” or “This is too gross,” or whatever. And that point never came. So what you see with this movie is exactly what we wanted to do. It’s the three of us having a bunch of fun writing it, then having fun making it with a bunch of our friends—old friends and new friends. I think that fun comes across when you watch it. It’s rare that you get that kind of creative freedom.
AVC: Speaking of new friends, you have a lot of comic scenes with Val Kilmer and Powers Boothe. Do you think those guys are underestimated as comedians?
WF: Oh my God, I mean, Val Kilmer has been in some of the greatest comedies of all time. He’s such a great comedian. Real Genius and Top Secret! are so awesome, and then—I know this isn’t a comedy—his Doc Holliday character in Tombstone has got to be one of the greatest characters of all time. He’s a great comedic actor. I think some people forget that. We couldn’t believe that we got him to be in the movie. [Laughs.] We thought he was crazy. But that was a thrill. And Powers? He’s never really gotten a chance to do comedy, so he was so happy to get to be in a movie like this. I think it was a lot of fun for him. Ryan [Phillippe] is the same way. Ryan’s just been in a bunch of really serious movies. So we still can’t believe that we got the guys we did, because it really helped. Kristen [Wiig] and I are such crazy buffoons in this movie that it really helped to have credible actors to surround us.
AVC: With Kristen and Maya Rudolph, you have some fairly extended sex scenes. Did already having relationships with them make that less uncomfortable?
WF: I can’t imagine having to do that with somebody you didn’t know. With Kristen, I’ve known her forever, and it was surprisingly easy. It was funny, and we had fun, and we were laughing a lot; it was crazy. Maya, the same thing, but Maya was like 8 months pregnant—maybe even more pregnant. So we had to have a body double for some of the shots, because she just couldn’t physically be in some positions. It was very weird to pump away at some stranger. [Laughs.] She was very nice, but I didn’t know her. I kind of knew her by the end of the night, I guess, but yeah, that was really strange. I felt really bad for Kristen, because we made the movie in Albuquerque in August, so it was about 100 degrees, and we’re up in this second-story bedroom, tons of lights glaring on us. It was way hotter than 100 degrees in that room. And I’m a sweater, so I was just sweating all over her. Sweat and body hair were raining down on her all afternoon—and it was her birthday. So I felt very bad. But now we’re even closer.
AVC: The film leaves the door open for a sequel. What would you like to see happen in another MacGruber?
WF: That would be so exciting, if we ever got a chance to do it; it was such a pleasant experience. I would have no idea. We’ve worked so hard, and we’ve had to do every step of this process while doing SNL at the same time. So we haven’t had time to think about anything other than promoting this movie and doing our day jobs at SNL. But God, it would be exciting if we ever got to do another one, because that would mean people did go out to see this one and liked it. We hope that happens, because we’re really proud of it and love it.
AVC: Now that you’ve started edging toward movies, will you follow the lead of past SNL cast members and begin planning your exit?
WF: Well, I’m at the end of my eighth year, and you can’t do it forever. I have so much fun here, though. I love everybody I work with. It’s really like a family. I can’t imagine leaving. It’s weird. I know at some point I’ll have to leave, but I don’t really have any plan for that yet. Anytime you’re leaving, it’s going to be a crapshoot. You hope you have something to do afterward, but there’s no guarantee.
AVC: On SNL especially, but also on stuff like your recent guest turn on 30 Rock, you’re known for playing these bizarre, over-the-top characters, but you do it with absolute straight-faced commitment—there’s no ironic distance. Do you think that’s the key to being funny?
WF: Why thank you. That’s very nice. Well, different scenes call for different acting styles, I guess you would say. The kinds of scenes I like most are the ones where you just bury yourself in there. So I wouldn’t say that’s the only way to be funny, but that’s my favorite way to play stuff, to try to put myself in a situation where that kind of acting is necessary. But we’ve got other people who don’t do that stuff as much and are awesome.
I don’t know. It’s really hard to talk about it and step away from it and look from an outside angle—like, to me, it’s just what I do, and everybody’s got their thing that they do. I’ve never torn it apart and looked at it too much. I could way more easily talk about somebody else’s humor that’s on the show, but it’s really hard, because I’m me. [Laughs.] It’s kind of like when your friend is having relationship problems, and it’s so easy to give advice, but then if you have the exact same relationship problems, and he’s giving you the advice, you just can’t hear it.
AVC: Can we expect to see you again on 30 Rock as Jenna’s impersonator? That storyline was sort of left open.
WF: Yeah, I get to come back on 30 Rock for the season finale. I don’t think I’m allowed to talk about the storyline for the show, but I think I am allowed to tell you that I'll be wearing some pretty crazy outfits.
AVC: Is there pressure at SNL to build recurring characters? It seems like even sketches like your ESPN reporter bit with Jason Sudeikis—which you wouldn’t think of as being a recurring thing—tend to get brought back again and again.
WF: No. Not at all. Every week, you just go into the situation trying to create the best scene you can. You never go into it mindful of a character’s possibility of repeating. You don’t go into that room going, “Okay, I’m going to think of a recurring character this week.” It just doesn’t come that way. You’re trying to do the best scene you can for the host for that week. If you have a fun enough time doing that, you might try it out again. If it works that time, and you still feel like you have fresh ideas, you keep going. Sometimes it’s a little laziness. [Laughs.] “Oh, I don’t have any ideas; I’ll just do this thing,” because you already have a template for how it goes.
AVC: How much does the burden of the work schedule you’re under contribute to that laziness?
WF: I guess “laziness” is the wrong word. It’s more desperation. Then there are times where… [Pauses.] I love doing that sketch with Sudeikis so much. I dislike the overuse of recurring characters as much as the next person, but we just have so much fun doing that sketch. I know we’ve done it a lot this year, but God, we have fun. That’s kind of what it’s all about. Lorne [Michaels] really likes when people have fun, when you can tell people are having fun onstage. Truly, some of the funnest moments I’ve had on that stage are doing that sketch.
AVC: Have you ever had a sketch or character where you’re just like, “Aw, not this again”?
WF: Yes. When I had to do George Bush. [Laughs.] I was never that comfortable doing George Bush. I’m not a really good impersonator, and it was really tough to try to do George Bush after Will Ferrell had done him so perfectly for so long. It was really hard. I wasn’t fully confident on the show yet, either, so that was a hard situation.
AVC: It seems like this season especially, the more unusual, one-off things have ended up being among the most popular—stuff like the potato-chip sketch, which has kind of taken on something of a cult status among our readers.
WF: Oh really? That’s awesome.
AVC: But stuff like that, or the two-part “Closet Organizer” sketch—the weirder, more ambitious things—are always relegated to the dead end of the show, as though the show is less confident that they’ll succeed.
WF: I think through the history of the show, they’ve always tried to make the more commercial stuff—the stuff that might have broad appeal—be up toward the front, and then try out the more experimental stuff toward the end. Which I don’t blame them for; I think it’s very smart to do that. That potato-chip one is pretty weird. I would love if a lot of people liked it, but it definitely is not for everybody.
AVC: Where did that sketch come from, anyway?
WF: I don’t even remember when I said that. There was a little chunk of it, the part where I go [Character voice], “You don’t take somebody’s potato chips.” For some reason, that just kind of popped into my head, so I recorded a 20-second monologue of that dude talking. Then, after an all-nighter where me and my friend John Solomon—who also was another writer on MacGruber—we had been up all night, and it was 11 in the morning, and we had nothing for that week. [Laughs.] So I played him that thing, and then we just went. It went to a bunch of weird places, and we didn’t stop it. Probably we were so tired—the sleep deprivation definitely helped us, in that case. It doesn’t always. Sometimes you put some stuff up that just implodes at the table, but this particular one, luckily, did pretty well.
AVC: SNL has a policy of yanking sketches if they do poorly during the dress rehearsal, even if they kill at table reads. Do you think that ends up favoring broader jokes over more creative ones? Is that why we end up with January Jones farting at the top of the hour?
WF: Yeah. I mean, the point of the show is to make people laugh, so it is hard to go against that. It’s hard to justify putting on something that’s really weird if it doesn’t get any kind of response, and I think Lorne is really good about knowing. He’ll put stuff on that doesn’t get a great response sometimes, but he’s very good about knowing which of those things should be on the air and which should never see the light of day.
AVC: Have you ever had anything cut that you particularly lament?
WF: There was one really weird Falconer… There are two or three sketches, but it happens to everybody. I have no regrets on this show. There’s one sketch that never got cut because it never made it past the table, but there is one sketch I’m hoping to get on before my time at SNL is done. It’s called “Jenjiman Franklin,” in which a man gets set up on a blind date with a woman who is the spitting image of Benjamin Franklin—Jenjiman Franklin. And she’s really into colonial history also. I play Jenjiman Franklin. I’ve put it up maybe three times at the table, and—oh, I just really want it to go. I love it in a very weird way, so I’m going to try to keep putting it up until I wear them down.
AVC: Do you tend to fight for things, or do you just shut up and wait for your next opportunity?
WF: The longer you’re at the show, the more you learn, “Oh, stuff happens.” You understand when stuff gets cut, and if it does, they’re totally open to you putting stuff up again if it went well at the dress rehearsal, or you think you can make it better. But you just kind of learn how to deal with it, and you get a sense for when is the right time to put something up again. You never want to put it up the next week. You want to wait until they… [Pauses.] You give it a little time, so they’re not annoyed with you.
AVC: How long have you been sitting on “Jenjiman Franklin”?
WF: A while. I was going to put it up a couple weeks ago. [Laughs.] I don’t know. I felt like it was too soon after the last time we tried it at the table. Really, if I’m not able to get it on SNL, maybe I will, at some point, take it to a theater and just do a five-minute sketch performance. One night only, just get it out of my system—because I have a really, really weird love for it.
AVC: You recently had one of those “A Night Out With” profiles in The New York Times, which called you the “most crushable bachelor on SNL.”
WF: Oh, they’re absolutely right. They’re absolutely right. Finally—finally!—somebody with good taste.
AVC: Do you sense any resentment from your co-stars?
WF: Everyone’s really mad, because it’s tough to have a person this sexy walking around the halls. It’s really distracting. They can’t get their work done. And I walk around shirtless a lot—lord it over them.
AVC: Unlike some of your SNL co-stars, you don’t have a bunch of celebrity impersonations in your arsenal. It seems like Bush, Tim Geithner, and Kermit the Frog are pretty much it. Are there any other celebrities you’ve been waiting to pull out?
WF: Off the bat? No. I’m not very good at impersonations. Every once in a while, there will be somebody I just luck into being okay at, but it’s usually just—I’m really okay at it. Except I feel like I did a pretty good Kermit. That’s about it, but everybody does a good Kermit. And Michael McDonald, I can do an okay Michael McDonald. Actually, I don’t even really do it, but I do it with passion. I feel like that covers up the flaws.
AVC: You don’t even have a catchphrase—or do you? What do people yell at you in the street?
WF: I will get [Sings.] “Mac-Gru-berrrr!” They’ll sing it, or [Sings in a higher register.] “Mac-GRU-ber!” And then, every once in a while, I’ll get an [Adopts Falconer voice] “Oh, Donald” from the Falconer. But yeah, I don’t get that very often, either of those. I don’t know. I’m kind of under the radar. Not a lot of people notice me. Which is surprising, because I’m so sexy. They’re probably intimidated by my sexiness and crushability.