Will Forte is one of the funniest people in Hollywood today. His years on SNL, his recurring character on 30 Rock, and creation of MacGruber prove that. But, it’s rare for comedians to get a chance to really show their dramatic chops, which is why it helps to get cast in an Alexander Payne movie. In Nebraska, Forte plays a goodhearted but directionless stereo salesman who takes it upon himself to drive his aged, alcoholic father, played by the great Bruce Dern, from Montana to Lincoln, NE, so he can cash in what he thinks is a winning $1,000,000 sweepstakes prize. Like most road trips, it’s about the journey, not the destination. We spoke to Forte about his dramatic turn, spending time in Middle America, and winning the movie-role jackpot.
NERDIST: Nebraska is not the kind of movie you’ve normally gotten to be in; how did you become involved in the project?
WILL FORTE: I got the script sent to me by my agent, and I read it and I loved it and I never thought that I would be able to be a part of it, but I just loved it so much; I felt like, “What the heck, why not go for it?” In the same way that I buy Mega Millions tickets and don’t expect to win, but somebody’s got to win. I just put myself on tape, and sent it in, and didn’t hear anything for four and a half months. I wasn’t waiting around to hear anything because, even when I sent it in, I just didn’t assume that it would go any further than that. When I heard that Alexander had seen the tape and liked it enough to call me in to do it in person, it was just awesome.
N: You must have been over the moon, especially not thinking you’d even get that far.
WF: I was so excited just to even hear that, it would have been fine if that was as far as it went. Then, I went in and read in person and that was a really fun experience. I still thought that there was no shot that I would get the part, yet somehow a month later, I got a call from Alexander that I got the role. Even after that, I still kept thinking that somebody was going to talk him out of it at some point, so I never was able to fully celebrate. Then by the time I got to Nebraska, I was like, “Oh, they can’t take it away now; I’m in Nebraska.”
N: You haven’t really gotten to do much in the way of dramatic work; was going for this movie a conscious step toward that, or was it just a script and director you liked and genre was secondary?
WF: Oh, man. This was not a planned move into drama. This just kind of happened. If I had a chance to be a part of something else like this … It was such a wonderful experience. Yeah, I would love to, but this is something that I realize is a very rare experience, to get to be a part of something like this, so I’m just happy to get the chance to do it once. If any other experiences open up like this, I am a lucky, lucky person.
N: Alexander Payne, as a director, is really good at mixing both the dramatic and the comedic, and giving more comedy actors a chance to do dramatic stuff. How was he to work with as a director?
WF: He’s awesome. I’ve always had so much respect for him because I think his movies are so funny. It’s so hard to categorize his movies. They’ve got a little bit of everything in them, but the comedy that’s usually in his movies comes from such a grounded place. He’s just got such a unique take on stuff and such a unique tone. I’ve always really respected it. The kind of stuff that I usually do is so unlike that, that I just … I’ve always been really impressed. So, to get a chance to be a part of it was just a really exciting thing.
WF: So awesome. I’ve always loved him. He’s just such an interesting actor. In the movies that I had watched him in, he’s just so memorable and he’s got something that’s so unique. I had never met him in person, so I was really intimidated coming in. I just know how much experience he has, how many legendary projects he’s been a part of, and the people he’s worked with. I couldn’t help but be intimidated. It was really wonderful to finally get to meet him, and almost immediately, these fears just went away. He was very sweet, and he’s just so good to me. He was like a teacher and a friend at the same time, and just made me feel so comfortable. It was just the best experience. We got to be really, really close over the course of making the movie. I didn’t expect that. I didn’t not expect that, I just didn’t know what to expect. We spent so much time together, and really the relationship that you see forming between the two characters in the movie is kind of the transformation we made just as friends.
N: Part of what I think makes the movie really great is that all the characters really feel like they’re real people, like you would actually go to Nebraska and see people like that. Had you spent much time in Nebraska, or Montana, or any of that part of the Unites States beforehand in your life? Did you know what to expect when you were going in?
WF: I had never spent a day in Nebraska. I had never spent a day in Wyoming. I had spent about seven hours in South Dakota, and then drove from North Dakota down to Denver, just for the express purpose of seeing Mt. Rushmore. I had been up in Bismarck, North Dakota for some reason, to visit a friend and just thought, “What are the chances? I’ve got to take advantage of how close I am to Mt. Rushmore and go check it off the list.” Of course, I drove down there, and it was snowing, so I could barely see it. I had no idea, at that point, that I would be up there a year and a half later [for this movie]. It was crystal clear that day.
So no, just that little period… As a kid, we used to go to Montana, and go to this dude ranch. Probably went up there five or six times, just for a week during the summer with my cousins, but it had been a long time since I’d been there. Yeah, so it was very new to me. I’ve pretty much been exclusively in large population centers. I grew up outside of San Francisco, moved down to L.A. to go to UCLA, and stayed here ever since. For SNL, I went to New York, so it was really just a completely different experience to spend such a large chunk of time in such a different environment.
N: Do you feel like you got to know the kind of people who actually live there and the kind of lifestyle they have, and did that inform your performance?
WF: Oh, yeah. It couldn’t help but inform it. The script was written by a guy, Bob Nelson, who is from Seattle, but he has a lot of relatives from Nebraska. He just did such a wonderful job of bringing these characters to life on the page, that they made a lot of sense to me. Most of my mom’s side of my family is from California, but her mom came from Kansas, so I feel like we’ve always had an element of the Midwest in the way we were brought up and raised. It didn’t feel completely unfamiliar to me when I got there. By just being immersed in it like that, it really helped also. God, everyone’s so nice there. It really is a wonderfully sweet and welcoming bunch of people. I’m sure there must be some jerks there, too, but I did not meet any of them.
N: There must be someone like Stacy Keach’s character in the bunch somewhere.
WF: Yeah. Every place has their jerks; every state’s got a few.
You can see Will Forte’s star turn opposite Bruce Dern, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk, and many others in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska when it comes to theaters this Friday, November 15th.