Will Forte on “internal brain warfare” and the path to Nebraska

Will Forte on “internal brain warfare” and the path to Nebraska

According to Will Forte, it wasn’t his intention, but the Saturday Night Live alum wound up headlining two dramatic films in 2013: the Irish indie Run & Jump and the latest from director Alexander Payne, Nebraska. Coming as it does from the director of Election and Sideways (and, most tellingly in light of its themes of family and inheritance, The Descendants), Nebraska is full of outlandish character bits and wry observations of Midwestern life—only a few of which belong to the erstwhile MacGruber. As David Grant, a man escorting his father (Bruce Dern) to claim a fortune David knows doesn’t exist, Forte largely plays the straight man, silently reacting to the crackpots, cusses, and criminals that make up the Grant clan. Prior to the film’s limited release, The A.V. Club spoke to Forte about this new phase of his career, how he got over his Nebraska-related anxiety, and what it was like pretending to punch Stacy Keach.

The A.V. Club: What have you learned about yourself as an actor by taking these more dramatic roles?

Will Forte: I was very nervous going into each one. It was completely out of my comfort zone. [Laughs.] I don’t have any dramatic training—or even acting training. I came up through The Groundlings, which is a wonderful improv and sketch-comedy place—but it’s a different kind of thing. You learn yourself as a comedic actor. Or at least I thought it was a different—and then once I got into the production on both of these movies I realized it’s not totally different from comedic acting. I just worked up in my head that this is a totally different thing.

AVC: What were some of the similarities that you discovered in that process?

WF: Bruce [Dern] would always say, “Just find the truth of the scene,” and, “Be in the moment.” That seemed like actor mumbo jumbo to me at first—and then it really started making sense. Just be in the moment and react like a normal person would react. Nebraska is so well written: very real situations grounded in reality. You realize, “Oh, just say the words.” It’s so well written that it does a lot of the work for you, and Alexander [Payne] is such a wonderful director that he just puts you in these situations where it’s much easier to succeed than it should be.

These roles are so much closer to who I am in my real life—but it makes you feel really vulnerable. I was exposing my secrets in a way I’ve never felt before. In MacGruber, I run around naked with a piece of celery up my butt. [Laughs.] That’s the easy stuff. That’s just fun and stupid and easy. It’s just so much scarier, for some reason, to act like a normal person. In other things, you’d feel like you get to hide behind the character. There is nothing that makes me feel more secure than having a mustache. [Laughs.] It feels like a mustache is a security blanket covering my whole body, and when I don’t have a mustache it’s like, “Oh my gosh—I’m naked.” A nicely manicured mustache is a really nice thing. 

AVC: It’s funny that you should say that, because you wear some fuller facial hair in Run & Jump, and you’re kind of scruffy in Nebraska.

WF: More than anything, I just want to get it out there that I miss mustaches and I love them. It’s a theoretical mustache, is what I’m talking about. 

There was something about having the beard in Run & Jump that made me feel faith in trying this new thing. It’s very weird, but it helped me—even though I was playing someone who was somewhat similar to who I am in real life—it made me feel like I was a different person. And there was something about that that helped me get out of my head. I’m a huge overthinker, so I constantly give so much weight to these unknowns in a negative way. Then once I show up and start working, it’s not as bad as I thought, and everything makes sense, and I’m working with these wonderful supportive people, and it becomes a very pleasant experience.

AVC: Bob Odenkirk plays your brother in Nebraska. Did you and he compare your experiences in transitioning from comedy to drama?

WF: We didn’t really talk about it. He directed The Brothers Solomon, so we’ve known each other since that experience. So it was really fun to get to work with him like this. [On The Brothers Solomon], he was directing, he was in charge of the whole set, and you don’t get as much chance to spend as much time together as you like. On this, it was so much fun because Alexander had to do all that stuff, so Bob and I got a chance to hang out.

AVC: Did anyone ask Bob for Breaking Bad spoilers during production?

WF: Well, back then, I can’t remember where we were in Breaking Bad—I don’t think the first part of the final season had come out. And why would anybody want spoilers? That’d be crazy. I just finally saw the last couple episodes. I was behind, so I didn’t get to watch it the night that everybody watched it—I watched it about two weeks later. And what an amazing ending. That whole show was my favorite show of all time, but those last three episodes were so amazing.

AVC So you’re satisfied with the way Walter White went out?

WF: I am so satisfied. I don’t think I have ever been so satisfied with a series finale. It gave me exactly what I wanted as a viewer. I don’t know how everybody else felt—it’s generally been well received, right? I don’t see what else you could want out of an ending.

AVC: In other interviews, you’ve mentioned that you went into Nebraska as an Alexander Payne fan. What about his movies made you want to work with him?

WF: He’s got such a unique point of view on stuff. I saw Election and just loved it. That was such a funny movie. That was the first time I had ever heard of him—I never saw Citizen Ruth. Every movie that he’s made is so different it’s hard to put them in categories—they’ve got so much stuff going on. I’ve just always had so much respect for him because his comedy in his movies comes from such an interesting place—a grounded, realistic place. I’m used to doing such bonkers, absurd stuff that I’ve always respected the type of humor that he’s able to find in situations where you wouldn’t expect to find humor. I just never thought I’d get the chance to be in one of his movies. It’s been the most unexpected, delightful situation.

AVC: And the experience of working on Nebraska matched up with your expectations?

WF: Oh yeah. I had read the script and loved the script and knew that Alexander Payne was directing. I loved the character and felt this weird connection to him—I just never thought I’d have any chance at getting the part. But I said, “What the heck, I’ll put myself on tape.” I didn’t hear anything for four and a half months, which didn’t surprise me. I sent this tape off and immediately forgot about it because I thought, “This is not going to happen.” And then I got this call, out of nowhere, that [Payne] had liked the tape and wanted me to read the scenes with him in person. That blew me away. Just getting to that point was a major career highlight. So when I went in and did the scenes and he seemed to react positively there, it was another incredibly exciting thing. But I still didn’t think it would go any further than that. A month later I found out I got the job.

After getting the job, that’s when all the self-doubt set in. There was this period—it must’ve been four months—between when I got cast and when we started production, and I got really nervous about everything and overthought everything. I felt like every aspect was coming together in such a wonderful way—the script is so great, Bruce Dern is going to play my dad—that I had this real fear I would come in and disappoint everybody. I just didn’t want to screw up their movie. That was four months of internal brain warfare.

AVC: How did you get over those nerves?

WF: When we finally got out to Nebraska, we had a week before we started production. I think we called it a “rehearsal week,” but we didn’t rehearse—we just drove around to the different places that we would be working in and got to know each other as people. So by the time we started filming, it was so comfortable and fun. I’ll find something to get nervous about in any situation, so there were still nerves from time to time. But they were so good at relaxing me and making me feel like I was part of the gang. After that, it was just so fun to watch [Payne] work. He knows exactly what he wants, but I don’t know how to describe his directing style. It’s one of complete confidence, a relaxed confidence. He’s so relaxed that the rest of the crew just follows suit. It’s this wonderful set of really nice, super-mellow people who are really, really good at what they do.

AVC: Can you articulate what it was about David that made you connect with the character?

WF: I think it’s a bunch of stuff. I felt like the character is an overthinker himself. He’s certainly stuck in his life a little bit. Another thing was that I just had this relationship with my grandpa—my mother’s father—who was this wonderful man, and we loved each other very much, but he was a man of few words. So I was used to that kind of communication. That felt very familiar to me.

The family in this movie is nothing like my family, but there’s something so relatable about all of these characters. I feel like when people come out of this movie, there will be characters that they’ve seen in different parts of their lives. But mainly there was something about this guy that I can’t put my finger on. I just really felt like I knew who he was, and I don’t get that feeling very often when I read a script. If I do, nobody lets me play that part.

AVC: Bruce Dern and June Squibb get a lot of the big laughs in Nebraska. How did that square with your impulses as a comedian?

WF: It was my pleasure. I get to be a nutball all the time, so it was fun to see if I could be a realistic straight man. And not just a comedy straight man—I get to do drama stuff in this and it was terrifying and thrilling to try it out. And Bruce made it so easy, because he’s so good. When somebody really inhabits their character, it makes it so much easier to act off them. I don’t know if he knew how intimidated I was at the prospect of working with him, but he was so good to me—always supporting me and encouraging me. He’s just an awesome guy. He’s very talkative and vibrant—he’s the exact opposite of the person you see in the movie. The cameras would roll, and he would transform into this man of few words. There’s no trace of Bruce Dern in this character. It’s amazing.

AVC: Do you view Bruce and your fellow Nebraska co-star Stacy Keach as guys whose career paths you could base your own on?

WF: I would be the luckiest person in the world if I could have a career like those two guys. I have this picture that I took of the three of us—I think Stacy was wearing the sweat suit that he wears in the movie. Or maybe that was just his personal sweat suit. He is the epitome of cool to me. He’s like a jazzman. I don’t know if he’s into jazz at all or anything, but he’s just really cool and mellow and I loved the chance to even be around those guys. Listen to them talk and tell old stories—they worked together before a long time ago.

And June Squibb? She’s so great in this—and she’s the exact opposite of her character, too. A very sweet, wonderful woman who plays this crazy, acerbic person. They were just so wonderful to me, in being teachers and buddies.

AVC: Can you walk us through the process of punching the epitome of cool?

WF: It was nerve-racking. I am a peaceful person so I have never been motivated to punch anybody, because nobody’s ever done anything to my family. To punch somebody, I would need that “mom lifting the car from her baby” situation or something.

So there’s this stuntman who tried to teach me how to throw a realistic-looking punch—to make it look like someone would punch and make it look like it’s connecting with Stacy Keach’s face. We choreographed this whole punch, and it’s maybe from a distance of four feet? Something pretty far away, but with the camera it’s supposed to look realistic. But when we got in there to film the scene, the distance was half that. So I had worked out this arm motion, but now I was supposed to do that at half the distance. I was so nervous, because I had to turnaround and then turn back around and basically go right into the punch. I was nervous that I was going to hit him. I kept throwing the punch wrong because I was so nervous about it that I didn’t want to get anywhere near his face. 

And he would keep taking this punch—he was perfect every time. Everything looked perfect on his end. We just had to keep doing it because I couldn’t throw a punch that connected with him. So finally, we got one. But it was something that was on my mind the entire time. “Do not punch Stacy Keach in the face.” But if I did connect with his face, something tells me that he would not even get a scratch on him—and my hand would break. He is a hunk of man.

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