Actor Will Forte

The SNL alum and Emmy-nominated actor-writer talks about making his dramatic acting debut in the Oscar-nominated film, Nebraska.

For eight seasons, Will Forte made people laugh as a cast member of SNL. He's since been busy with film and TV projects—both comedic and dramatic—and as a voice artist. His movie credits include roles in one of 2013's most acclaimed films, Nebraska, and in Run & Jump, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival. On the small screen, he's guest-starred in several comedies, including an Emmy-nominated turn in 30 Rock. After graduating from UCLA, Forte worked briefly at a brokerage house before deciding to try his hand at comedy and eventually joined the world-famous Groundlings. He also has experience behind the camera, as a producer, story editor and a writer.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: In what might very well be called “starting at the top,” Will Forte is making his dramatic acting debut one of the season’s most celebrated films, “Nebraska,” which was just nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture.

Previously best known for comedy turns on “SNL” and for his Emmy-nominated role in “30 Rock,” in “Nebraska,” Will plays the son of Bruce Dern, who uses a road trip to get to know his father a little better. Let’s take a look at a clip from “Nebraska.”

[Clip]

Tavis: (Laughter) So I mentioned a moment ago this is a good example, I think, of starting at the top where dramatic roles are concerned. Does it feel that way for you?

Will Forte: I cannot believe that I got to be in this movie.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Forte: Yeah, it’s just, with – I’m proud of the stuff I’ve gotten to be a part of in my life, but I had no business being in this movie, and to have gotten the opportunity to do this, I still am just so thankful.

Tavis: So for a guy who says, in his own words, that he probably shouldn’t have been in it, you obviously, you killed it. You did an amazing job.

Forte: Thank you.

Tavis: How did it happen? How did you end up in the project?

Forte: I put myself on tape, sent it in. My agent had told me about the script, and -

Tavis: So you auditioned for this.

Forte: Oh yeah, absolutely. I loved the script. I’m a huge fan of Alexander Payne’s. I thought there’s no chance that I could ever get this part, but what the heck, you know? I just was playing video games and stuff, so I just said, (laughter) well.

It was hard to – I’m a little OCD, so it was hard to wrench myself away from the video games. Then I put myself on tape and sent it in, and didn’t really think anything about it, because I just thought, well, there’s very little chance of anything coming from it.

About four and a half months later, got a call from somebody saying that Alexander had seen the tape and liked it enough to call me in in person. So I went in and read the scenes with him and his casting director, John Jackson, did it once, and then about a month later found out I got the job. It was amazing.

Tavis: Given, Will, your comedic back story, what was it about the script that so compelled you?

Forte: Oh, it just – it’s so hard to classify his movies, because they’re dramatic, very dramatic in ways, very comedic at the same time. You can’t really call it a comedy; you can’t really call it a drama. It’s just a little bit of everything, so it’s -

Tavis: A dramedy.

Forte: Yeah, but even calling it a dramedy seems weird. I don’t know, I’ve always had so much respect for his movies, because the stuff – I was brought up in this comedy system and went through the Groundlings in Los Angeles.

Went to “SNL” and have done comedy all my life. But the type of comedy that he does is so different than the stuff that I do. It’s so grounded and based in reality. I’ve always had so much respect for it, so that’s something I obviously was really interested in.

And just the dramatic parts of it also were very interesting, because I’ve never really gotten a chance to do something like that.

Tavis: Yeah. I read in a conversation you had with someone not long ago where you said that you had to learn, when you got this role you had to learn on the set how not to be afraid to be vulnerable.

Forte: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: What’d you mean by that?

Forte: Well, just you – like in comedy stuff, in “MacGruber,” for example, I do a lot of really embarrassing, disgusting things, (laughter), and -

Tavis: I can see you’re troubled by that.

Forte: Yeah, oh, no, no, no. (Laughter) My family is troubled by it. I am okay with it. But for some reason, that stuff’s not that hard. But then in “Nebraska,” you’re acting, you’re just acting like a real person, and a lot of times you’re reading lines in a way that you only ever say things like this in very personal moments.

So it feels very revealing, and it’s way harder to kind of be yourself and to be a real person than to be some crazy naked character.

Tavis: Yeah. In some ways, you’ve been at this for a while, but in some ways you’re really just getting started, and this is the first kind of dramatic role that you’ve played.

Forte: Yeah, oh, yeah.

Tavis: You’ve established that in this conversation. But the interesting irony for me is that you’re in a film with at least two persons who – my grandmother didn’t like the word “old,” but she preferred “chronologically gifted.” (Laughter)

So there are at least two members of this cast who are chronologically gifted who are really getting the love that they deserve.

Forte: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: Getting the respect they deserve. What do you make of being in a film with both of them?

Forte: Well, it was an amazing learning experience. They were so good to share all their wisdom with me, and it was intimidating going in because I knew how much experience they had and I knew all these amazing people they had worked with.

I thought, I just wanted to make sure that I, having not done this kind of thing before, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t the, I didn’t ruin their movie. (Laughter) But they were so good to me and treated me with respect and patience.

It just became this very comfortable experience, and all the wisdom that they had was just, they passed on to me.

Tavis: I would assume that you get a chance to work with veterans like this, there must be some things that you take away from the project beyond the joy of having to work with them.

You put me in a room with a bunch of iconic people, I’m trying to learn something, I want a takeaway, some sort of way. You had some takeaways in working with these veterans?

Forte: Oh, man. Do you mean personally or professionally?

Tavis: However you’re comfortable.

Forte: Everything about it. On the professional side it was getting little tidbits of advice. I spent hours and hours in a car with Bruce Dern every day, and he would just tell me all these stories. He would directly and indirectly teach me tons of things that helped me out.

Just listening to him it was like a history of film class at the same time. Then on the personal side, the relationship that we had pretty much mirrored the relationship – the relationship that we had in the movie mirrored the relationship that was going on off-camera too.

Like, we got to be very, very close, and that, as much as I will remember getting to be in this movie and getting to watch him do this amazing performance, I will remember just getting to know him as a person.

Like, he’s a very special person to me now, and this, just everything about this experience is something I’ll never forget.

Tavis: I would assume the director was cool with that, obviously. You guys, when you get the part, you guys have to spend as much time as you can together -

Forte: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: – to make that look authentic on camera.

Forte: Oh, he totally encouraged it. That was what – we went in, before we started filming, we went in for about a week of rehearsal time, and I thought oh, we’ll be running through the scenes and doing this and that.

But all we did was just drive around Nebraska and look at the geography of it, and Alexander Payne, the director, took us to different places where we’d be shooting, and that was it. We just got to know each other as people so we’d be comfortable working with each other.

Then really the first time that we worked on anything was the day we started shooting.

Tavis: Wow.

Forte: We read through the script once, but just sitting around a table, and that was it.

Tavis: So it’s one thing to learn how not to be afraid to be vulnerable. Was there a point at which you were ever intimidated by these all-stars you were working alongside?

Forte: Oh, all the time, all the time. (Laughter) I’m kind of a crazy person, a little bit. I’ll always find something to worry about. They made me feel very comfortable from the get-go, but there would still be little things here and there that I would worry about. With Stacy Keach, I have to punch him at a certain point – spoiler alert -

Tavis: No, I – he was on the show already and we talked about that.

Forte: Okay, good, so he’s -

Tavis: It was a heck of a punch. It was, we talked – it was a heck of a punch. (Laughter)

Forte: Well, but the terrifying thing is thinking that I’m going to actually connect with him. Because I’m a peaceful person, I don’t like to – (laughter) I don’t think I’ve ever – I’ve played football, and that was the extent of my physical experience.

I’ve never punched anybody. I guess I punched my sister in the arm as a youngster. I would never as a grown man punch my sister. But there’s this stunt man who’s teaching us how to do, how to make it look like I’m actually throwing a punch.

They want to – they block it in such a way that if the camera’s behind you, they want to show you where to throw it so it looks like it’s connecting. They blocked it out from about four feet away, and then when it came time to do it for the cameras we were about two feet away.

So I was scared that my arm (laughter) was going to remember the four-feet distance and I was going to, like, connect with his face. But looking back, it would have done way more damage to my hand than to his face. (Laughter) He’s a – that is a – he is a man.

Tavis: He’s a stud, yeah. He’s a big guy.

Forte: Yeah.

Tavis: So finally here, what has the experience done for you in terms of your future as a thespian? The comedy chops were there -

Forte: Thank you.

Tavis: You’re welcome.

Forte: Debatable. (Laughter)

Tavis: Did the dramatic bug, has it officially bitten you now?

Forte: Oh, what an experience to get to have. I don’t know what will – I would obviously love to do more stuff like this. To be a part of a project like this, I just never dreamt I would have gotten to. If something came down the pike, I would jump at it.

But I also realize not a lot of people get an opportunity to even be in one movie like this, so I am so appreciative, and if I don’t get an opportunity like this again, I am totally satisfied with having this be the one opportunity I got to do something like that.

Tavis: Well I’m sure it will happen again, but it is nice, I suspect, at this point in your career to know that you are in something that’s going to be, I think, viewed as a classic years from now.

Forte: Oh, that’s so -

Tavis: That you were in it is high cotton, as they say.

Forte: Thank you. God, I’m really proud to be in this movie.

Tavis: And you should be. Will Forte is in “Nebraska,” with just a wonderful cast we’ve been talking about tonight. I’ve been honored to have a couple of them on the program through the course of this award season, and now glad to have Mr. Forte on our set.

So run out and see “Nebraska” before the big night. If you haven’t, I can assure you you will enjoy it. Will, good to have you on, man. All the best to you.

Forte: Thank you very much.

Tavis: Take care, my friend.

Forte: Great to talk to you.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: February 19, 2014 at 2:54 pm