Comic Will Forte takes a dramatic turn in Nebraska

“It’s been the best experience of my life,” said former “SNL” star Will Forte about his venture into dramatic acting in the film Nebraska. Image: Courtesy of Virginia Film Festival “It’s been the best experience of my life,” said former “SNL” star Will Forte about his venture into dramatic acting in the film Nebraska. Image: Courtesy of Virginia Film Festival

The last word that most people would use to describe former “Saturday Night Live” regular Will Forte’s acting style is “restrained.”

“Relentless assault” would be more accurate. As the inept special operative MacGruber, he wreaked mass destruction while trying to prevent it, one accidental explosion at a time. On “SNL,” he French-kissed actor James Franco furiously while playing his grandson. Forte’s role as a mattress salesman on the cult comedy “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” climaxed with him shrieking and eating human flesh.

Restrained? Not quite. Until now.

After years spent almost exclusively doing over-the-top comedy, Forte’s performance in director Alexander Payne’s (Sideways, About Schmidt) dark new comedy-drama Nebraska is a breakthrough. Forte will host a screening of the film, as well as his 2010 comedy MacGruber, at this year’s Virginia Film Festival.

Those expecting Forte’s usual hysterics in Nebraska are in for something more jolting than any of his comic mayhem.

“I would say, if anything, I might have pulled back too much [during filming],” Forte said. “Thinking I didn’t want to dare be sketchy or anything. So I might have underplayed it too much, and then would get the note to inject a little more energy in it.”

But, Forte adds, “Alexander is so good, if you’re going off-track,” he would “just [keep] nudging you back on the right track.”

In Nebraska, the broken-down, elderly Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) goes on a misguided quest to redeem a million-dollar marketing prize, joined by his estranged son, David (Forte). The film has been roundly praised and Dern’s bravura performance won him the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival.

When he first got the script, Forte said, “I just decided, ‘Ah, what the heck. I’ll just put myself on tape. Who knows? Maybe everyone will go crazy and somehow I’ll get the part.’ And everyone did go crazy. Everyone lost their senses somehow and I was able to sneak in there and get the part. It really was the most unexpected thing of all time.”

Forte’s enthusiasm for the project is boundless. “Everything appealed to me—the beautiful script, Alexander Payne was directing it—the only thing that didn’t appeal to me was that I was sure that I wouldn’t be able to get the part,” he said.

Even while reading the screenplay initially, Forte said, “The character just seemed. . . familiar to me for some reason. It seemed like I understood what he was going for, and that’s not always the case when you read something.”

Forte was somewhat in awe of being cast opposite elder statesmen of the cinema like Dern and Stacy Keach. “They are amazing to watch work because they are just so good at what they do,” Forte said. “There’s a part in the movie where Stacy Keach takes a punch from somebody and he had to keep falling on this barstool over and over and over again. And each time, he was perfect at it. And the same goes with Bruce—it was just constantly this master class in acting. I learned so much from these guys. From the very start, they put me right at ease and made me feel like I was part of the club.”

Forte said that Payne turned what could’ve been scary into an inspiring experience.

“It’s really exciting because it’s scary,” he said. “It’s kind of fun to go into work and try something new. It would always bug me when you would hear somebody say, ‘well, I wanted to stretch and do this and do that.’ I never felt the need to stretch.” He’s so content with comedy work that he “could make MacGruber every day for the rest of my life.”

MacGruber, a parody of the ludicrous ’80s action series “MacGyver,” was created by “SNL” contributor Jorma Taccone. Taccone pushed the character on his fellow writers until they finally caved in and used him.

“At first we were just trying to shut him up,” Forte said. “But then we were so happy that he was persistent.”

Forte’s MacGruber skits on “SNL” grew into a feature film in 2010, with a much grander script than its approximately $10 million budget would allow.

Heavy editing ensued, Forte recalled, “So we kept having to come up with different, lower-costing versions of things. And I think, a lot of times, it really helped us out.”

The cost-cutting involved condensing one elaborate sequence into a shtick where MacGruber puts a “cup of water above a person’s head and ties a string to it,” which Forte found much more satisfying.

Forte starred in another drama this year, Run and Jump, which was well-received at the Tribeca Film Festival. But he is far from finished with farce.

He co-starred in the upcoming comedy Squirrels to the Nuts directed by Peter Bogdanovich (a Virginia Film Festival guest in 2010). “It’s all about this play that Owen Wilson is directing,” Forte said. “It’s delightfully crazy. I love it.” 

“If somebody had told me I would be working with Alexander Payne and Peter Bogdanovich, I would have told them that they were crazy. It has been so much fun.” —Justin Humphreys

Will Forte and producer Ron Yerxa will host a discussion at the screening of Nebraska at The Paramount Theater on November 7, and director Jorma Taccone will join him for the screening of MacGruber at the Newcomb Hall Theater on November 8.

 Five reasons to see MacGruber at VFF 

As the film festival approaches, cinephiles find themselves clamoring for seats to some of the most intriguing flicks on the indie circuit, complete with director/producer/actor Q&As and “I saw it when…” bragging rights. Though, with the line-up announcement comes the proverbial cocked eyebrow and head-shake at some of the more obscure and seemingly questionable screening material (last year’s opening night feature of the hip-hop/martial arts amalgam The Man with the Iron Fists comes to mind.)

This year’s odd duck is the little-seen, oft-maligned “SNL” parody film MacGruber. The film prompts two major questions: How was Paramount able to not only greenlight, but promote a feature-length film based on a 90-second repeat sketch, the punchline of which usually arrives in the form of the opening theme song? And why is this particular film included alongside the ranks of lauded feature films and documentaries at a regional festival?

  • Q&A potential: Not only will star Will Forte be in town (accompanying his role in Alexander Payne’s new film, the festival opener Nebraska) but writer/director (and The Lonely Island member) Jorma Taccone will also be in tow to answer for the team’s questionable taste in the name of comedy.
  • Fat Val Kilmer: While also noted for being just this side of Tom Cruise-crazy and as hard to work with, Top Gun’s Ice Man (now probably closer to Ice Cream Man) takes on the largest role he’s had since the part of Gay Perry in 2005’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Proof positive that fat equals funny.
  • The ever-so-versatile Kristen Wiig: Let’s face it, there hasn’t really been a notable “SNL” cast member that demands your televised attention week after week since the days of Meyers, Farley, and Sandler (pre-Mr. Deeds Sandler, anyway…). While MacGruber was sandwiched into the early days of Wiig’s cinematic tour de force (including films like the alien comedy Paul, roller-derby dramedy Whip It, and her own screenwriting debut, Bridesmaids), some 75 percent of the film’s funny moments are generated by her patented perpetual-motion-laugh-machine.
  • It’s actually pretty funny throughout: Now, back in 1992, I’m sure you (or your parents?) were all wondering how they planned to expand a sketch about two ambiguously aged, musically outdated rock ‘n’ roll fans, transmitting a cable access show out of their mother’s basement into a full-length movie. Well, they did it. And they managed to do it again with MacGruber, this time with half the source material, which is impressive enough on its own. (Just don’t apply this logic to films like Superstar or Night at the Roxbury. I’m trying to make a point here…)
  • That one joke right near the end: There are a good amount of chuckles throughout, but there was one scene that killed me. It’s a subtle joke collapsed into a larger bit. If you catch it, you can thank me later.


William Smith


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