Will Forte, the comedic actor best known for his absurd SNL characters MacGruber and The Falconer, shows unforeseen dramatic range in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. Forte stars as David Grant, the youngest son to the mentally deteriorating Woody Grant (Bruce Dern). When Woody mistakenly believes a Million Dollar Marketing Scam to be legitimate, his youngest son David obliges his father’s fantasy and takes him on a cross-state trip to collect the non-existent prize money. Forte, who spends a vast majority of the film in one-on-one scenes with acting legend Dern, more than holds his own. Forte ably imbues the pain and disappointment behind each kind act David does for his unreceptive father. It’s an incredibly subtle and restrained performance from an actor renowned for the outlandish and the silly.
In the following interview with Will Forte, he discusses his greatest fears during the film shoot, the dynamic on set with Bruce Dern and what acting lessons Dern offered to him. In addition, Forte also touched upon how far along he is into writing MacGruber 2. For the full interview, hit the jump.
There’s an interesting casting dynamic within the film – with the two sons (you and Bob Odenkirk) primarily known for comedic work and the two parents (June Squibb and Bruce Dern) primarily known for their dramatic turns. Did Alexander Payne ever explain how he settled on this particular dynamic for the film?
Will Forte: We’ve never talked about it – but I’ve heard him speak of it. Although now I can’t remember what his answers were. I don’t know. I think he was mainly just trying to assemble a family that would look like they would all be related. I know that he started with Bruce obviously and went from there. And I somehow got lucky enough that facially I’m comparable to Bruce and June.
That’s rather complimentary…
Will Forte: They’re good looking people – so I’m fine with it. And Bob and I look like we could be brothers. I guess that makes sense. I’ve known Bob for a really long time so it was good to work with him.
When did you first meet Bob?
Will Forte: God – I met Bob… it was probably 2004 or 2005. He directed The Brothers Solomon so we got to know each other quite well. Plus his wife is a manager and manages a lot of people at SNL. So whenever she would come out, [Bob and I] would spend a lot of time together. So it was really nice to have that person (Bob) on set whom you’ve had a lot of experience with and be there in this situation, which is new and scary.
Will Forte: It was intimidating going into it – just because it was so new. And I’m a worst-case scenario type of person. When my mind has time to roam, it will go to some pretty dark places.
What was the worst-case scenario you imagined?
Will Forte: Oh… Just the day that we’re about to start, there’s a huge meeting of people and they say we’re taking a break. I go to my trailer and someone comes up to me and says we’ve found someone else… But once I got to Nebraska – we had a week where we were all just hanging out. It was called a rehearsal period but we really didn’t rehearse at all. We read through the script one time – Bruce, June, Bob, Alexander and myself. But the rest of the time it was just getting to know each other. So by the time we started, you felt like you were working with friends. I, obviously, didn’t want to be the weak link. I didn’t want to ruin this movie. I wanted to pull my oar and they just made it so much easier not to worry. Because if you’re thinking about all that stuff, you’re likely not to do as good of a job. They were really wonderful about being nurturing and teaching me and being patient. But doing so in such a way that it wasn’t like they felt sorry for me but more so like I was part of the team.
Will Forte: I guess one of the main things that Bruce would always tell me is just be true to the scene. It was always about ‘truth’. All this stuff that I would typically think of as actor’y’ lingo actually made sense coming from him. It really registered and now I know exactly what he was talking about. It’s interesting because he definitely was a huge teacher for me as was Alexander. Everybody in the cast. Just to watch them. It was almost more just learning from their example. And I even learned a bunch from the people who were first time actors. There was a bunch of people who had never acted a day before in their lives. These people would deliver these real, honest, beautiful performances. And I would learn from that. Don’t try to act too much, if that makes sense.
You’ve mentioned there wasn’t much of a rehearsal process – so I’m interested how did you go about creating these familial bonds and making them feel lived in?
Will Forte: Well — just by hanging out. We wouldn’t rehearse scenes together but it wasn’t like we were hanging around Nebraska alone. Alexander would get us together. We would drive to different locations and check them out so we were getting familiar with the landscape and getting to know each other as people. We’d be spending a lot of time together just not in character. Also hanging out with the crew – that’s so important too. Alexander has a lot of the same people who work on all his productions. They’re so good at what they do and they’re just such nice people. So there’s already this family who welcome you with open arms. You’re not feeling like there are eighty sets of eyes judging you, potentially being disappointed. All these wonderful nice people are all hoping I succeed and supporting me.
I have to quickly ask about MacGruber 2. I’m a huge fan of the first one. I know that you had said in June, Jorma and John and you were going to write it…
Will Forte: The tricky thing is just finding the time to get together in a room. Jorma [Taccone] is so busy, and John Solomon, the other writer, works at SNL – so he’s obviously swamped with SNL production stuff. We work so much better when we’re all in a room together. As soon as we can all figure out a time to actually be together, we’re going to continue writing it. We did start it though. And once we write the script, we’ll see if anyone will let us make it. But it’s a really special thing to us and we really hope to make a second one – but only if we can write a script that we would be as proud of as the first one. We’re so proud of the first one – we wouldn’t want to do anything that would bum us out.
How far along did you guys get into writing the sequel?
Will Forte: We’re still kind of in the outline phase. There are things we didn’t put in the first one for different timing issues that we loved that we’re going to put in the second one… but only if it makes sense.
Nebraska is currently open in select theaters in LA and NY.