Good Will Hunting: Talking ‘Nebraska’ With Will Forte, Who Might Be the Nicest Guy in Hollywood
Since leaving ‘SNL‘ a few years ago, Will Forte has guest-starred on several TV shows (including a memorable turn as a drag queen on ‘30 Rock‘) and had roles in several comedies, including ‘MacGruber’ — the movie based on his ‘SNL’ character, which has cultivated a cult following since its release in 2010. This Friday, audiences will get to see a very different side of the comedic actor in Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska,’ a father-son road trip dramedy co-starring the legendary Bruce Dern. In the film, Forte plays David, an aimless stereo salesman who agrees to take his father, Woody, to Nebraska when the latter believes he’s won prize money in a sweepstakes.
We had a chance to sit down with Forte to discuss the opportunity to work with Payne and Dern, reuniting with his ‘Brothers Solomon’ director Bob Odenkirk, and what’s next for the ‘MacGruber’ star.
I loved ‘Nebraska.’
Great! Thank you so much!
We’re really big fans of yours. ‘MacGruber,’ ‘The Brothers Solomon’ — which has the greatest opening credits of all time.
That was all Bob Odenkirk! That’s the crazy thing — Bob Odenkirk directed that movie, and unless I’m crazy, I believe he was the one who came up with the idea for those opening credits, which I love, too. It was such a fun thing, then, to get to act with him in this movie ['Nebraska'] and be brothers. He’s awesome. I don’t think a lot of people understand just how much he has done in the comedy world. Like, obviously he’s [done] ‘Mr. Show’ and now ‘Breaking Bad,’ but he’s written for so many shows. He wrote for ‘SNL’ forever and came up with all these … some of the most well-known and wonderful sketches. You know, the one I’ll bring up is the Matt Foley motivational speaker with Chris Farley. And then he discovered Tim and Eric, and there are these new guys …
‘The Birthday Boys’! Which I haven’t gotten to see yet, but with Bob I will trust any direction he sends me in. He’s really excited about them.
They’re really funny. I watched the premiere episode last week and it was great. Exactly what you’d expect from Bob Odenkirk.
It was Bob’s birthday the other day, so I got to meet a couple of the Birthday Boys. How many are there?
I think there’s like, seven or eight of them.
I think I only met three Birthday Boys.
So obviously everyone was wondering what you were going to do after ‘SNL’ …
Did you feel as though you were putting a lot of pressure on yourself in choosing what to do next?
No. I left ‘SNL’ …. it felt like it was time. I didn’t leave thinking there was a big movie career waiting for me or anything like that. I just thought, I want to get closer to my family who are all out on the west coast, and my sister was having babies. It just seemed like it was time, and my whole philosophy, I guess, was just, go out, try to see if there’s any acting work I can get, and if not, I’ll just go back to writing, which made me so happy. I was a writer before I went to ‘SNL,’ and I love writing, so I thought if I can’t get any acting work, I’ll just write, and that’s wonderful. After a while it seemed like that might be what happened.
I didn’t really do anything for a while, and then I got to do this Adam Sandler movie, which was so much fun — ‘That’s My Boy.’ And then I got to do this part in ‘The Watch,’ and it was really fun to work with all these friends because, you know, Andy Samberg was in the Sandler movie and I didn’t really know Adam too well before that, but God, he was so wonderful to let me be a part of that because he’s such a loyal person. He’s wonderful. He’s always looking out for everybody, and so I can’t thank him enough because that came during a time when I was like, well I don’t know if anybody has any interest in me as an actor. That really kind of lifted my spirits and that was really nice.
But then when this came around, it was just so unexpected. It wasn’t like I was looking to do a drama.
Were you offered the part?
My agent called me and said that there was this script that I should read, and I should think about putting myself on tape for it. I read the script and it was beautiful. So funny and tender, just like a … you can’t really describe Alexander Payne movies. They’re a mixture of everything. But it just was this wonderful story, and the character I felt this connection to, even though it was something very different from anything I’d ever done. I just felt this connection to it, and that doesn’t always happen when you read scripts, so I thought, man, I know there is no way I will ever get this part, but what the heck, I’ll just put myself on tape and send it in. So I did that and sent it in, and then didn’t hear anything for four and a half months and thought, this is, as I expected, not happening.
It’s sort of like waiting for someone you went on a date with to call you back.
Yeah! And then the date eventually breaks up with her boyfriend that you didn’t know she had, and then you get this call, months later. And it was so exciting. The call was just to say, “Oh, Alexander liked your tape enough to call you in and read with you in person,” and that, to me, the coolest thing I had ever heard. I still thought, oh there’s no shot to be in this movie, but to just get that kind of positive feedback was so exciting.
And you’re a big Alexander Payne fan, I take it?
Huge Alexander Payne fan! The first movie of his I saw was ‘Election,’ and I just loved that movie, and then loved everything since. The only one I hadn’t seen was ‘Citizen Ruth.’ I finally saw it when I got the job, and loved that, too. Huge fan of his, so when I finally got to go in and meet him in person I was really, really nervous, but he was so cool and John Jackson, his casting director, who is so wonderful at what he does, is equally as cool and welcoming. We read through the scenes, they were really nice, and I didn’t know how to interpret that. I didn’t know if they were just nice to everybody. A month later, Alexander called me from Omaha and said I got the part. It was just the most exciting phone call to get. So — I always use the word “unexpected.” I can’t stop using that word ’cause that is just the perfect way to describe it. And even then I thought, something’s going to happen, somebody is going to not let him use me in the movie. I just kept waiting for something to happen and them to say, “Oh, we’re gonna use somebody else,” but that day never came, and I got to do this thing that I never would have dreamt I’d get to do. It’s been so exciting, and it’s just a real honor to be in this movie.
Are you a big Bruce Dern fan as well?
I am. I’ve always loved Bruce Dern because he’s obviously just such a gifted actor, but then there’s a real quirkiness to him that I’ve always really appreciated as someone who kind of likes quirkiness. He just always was somebody I was drawn to as a performer because of that, and I really intimidated because of how much respect I had for him as an actor, and also just the people he has worked with in his lifetime. Same with Alexander. When I looked at the people they had worked with, it just really terrified me because I was like, oh, I do not want to let them down. It was really scary. I got in my head in the run-up to the production of the movie, but then we met up, all of us, about a week before the shooting started, and they were so good at just getting me out of my head and getting me comfortable. By the time we started shooting the movie, I was almost fully comfortable. You know, I’d still find something to be nervous about at all times. It is my resting state. That gradually went away and I felt nothing but pure comfort and enjoyment of this experience, and it really is something I will never forget.
Did you spend a lot of time with Bruce Dern before shooting to prepare for your roles as father and son?
We had one little date — me and him and Alexander at a steak house in Los Angeles, and he just regaled us with these wonderful stories, these old Hollywood stories about Elia Kazan. I guess I had heard … he kept calling him “Gadge,” and I finally figured out, oh, that’s right “Gadge” is Elia Kazan. It took me a while to connect all the dots, and [he told] other stories about John Wayne and Alfred Hitchcock, and he always uses their voices. He tells the best stories! I was still nervous ’cause I loved hearing these stories, but also at that point I was a little, uh, how do I describe it …
They were communicating very well — Alexander and Bruce — but I was just nervous around them. I was like, I hope this goes away and I find a way to communicate with them ’cause they’re really fun people. I was just intimidated by them because I’m such a fan of theirs. That was the last time we saw each other before we went to Nebraska, and we had like, a week before the filming actually started where we all got to hang around together. It was a rehearsal period, but we didn’t really do any rehearsal. We read through the script one time around a table, just me and Bruce and June [Squibb] and Alexander. The rest of the time was just hanging out, all of us just hanging out together, driving to the different locations where we were gonna be shooting, and just getting to know each other as people. By the time we started working, I was able to communicate with them and I felt like we were all friends, and that comfort level just grew the more I got to know them. And by the end of it, Bruce and I got to a real special place. He feels like family now.
I read an interview with his daughter, Laura Dern, about a month ago where she says that he’s never had coffee, cigarettes, or alcohol in his entire life, which is fascinating because here he plays an alcoholic and his performance is perfect.
That is true. He has never had those things. Alcohol, cigarettes … what did you say?
Coffee. Never smoked pot, no cocaine …
And he was friends with Jack Nicholson and all those guys in the 60s and 70s, when that stuff was everywhere.
Yeah, he’s an interesting person. There is nobody like Bruce Dern.
But let’s talk about you and your character, David. How did you personally connect with David?
So much of the connection comes from the script. It’s just a really well-written, well-structured script, and I had a relationship with my grandfather on my mother’s side. He was very similar to the character that Bruce plays. This was a guy that I loved with all my heart, but he did not communicate well, he was a man of few words. I could be frustrated at times with just that lack of communication, so I kind of understood that relationship that I had with Bruce in the script just by thinking about the way it was being with my grandpa, which, once again, I don’t want you to think I’m talkin’ smack ’cause I loved him. He was wonderful.
You can love him and he can still be flawed.
That’s one of the great things about family is you feel that freedom to get frustrated to the tippy-top of your head with them and can still just love them to death.
It’s different than a relationship with a boyfriend or girlfriend or a friend. With family you’ll forgive them for just about everything.
I feel like we keep talking about Bruce Dern, but you’re so great in this movie. You do a lot of subtle work, particularly with your facial expressions. We can understand what David is feeling without him saying it. Did you get a lot of direction from Alexander Payne, or did he give you some freedom?
I will go back to the fact that the script is so well-written that it really informs you … you know exactly what you’re supposed to do. I didn’t know if I was actually conveying what I was supposed to do, but I knew in my head what I was supposed to do the whole time. The other thing is that you have these amazing actors who have so much experience that you’re working with, and you can’t help but get swept in what they’re doing, and it just helps you to be in the moment and act with these people who are bringing these characters alive in such an incredible way. It makes your job so much easier. And, if you’re off the mark, you’ve got the best director around, nudging you this way or that way. So it was, with all those three elements in place, it was really hard to get that far off track.
After ‘Nebraska,’ do you feel drawn to play more dramatic parts?
I realize that this is a very rare opportunity. I would love more experiences like this if they came around, but I also realize that I am so fortunate to have gotten a chance to experience this once, so if it were to happen again, I’d be very excited to get a chance to do something like this. I am so proud to be in this movie and to get this chance, even once.
I heard that you have a series you’re working on at Fox with Phil Lord and Chris Miller [directors of '21 Jump Street' and 'The Lego Movie'] …
Yes! It’s called ‘The Last Man on Earth.’ It’s about a guy who … a virus has wiped out the population of the earth, and this one person is immune to the virus, and eventually he finds out that there is a woman who is still alive, but they just hate each other. So they are these two people who are forced to repopulate the earth, but they don’t get along at all. That’s how it starts. They find out there are more people who are still alive, but that’s just the beginning of the story. I’m really excited to write it. It’s been hard to find time because we’ve been traveling around and trying to get the word out on this movie, but I’m excited to sit down and write when I get a chance.
Speaking of your writing … Had Alexander Payne seen ‘MacGruber’?
No! He hadn’t! In fact, I don’t think he had ever seen anything I was in, and then when I got cast in this … I know a friend of his, and at some point she had said that he was watching ’30 Rock,’ and she said, “Oh, that’s Will!” I guess he watches ’30 Rock,’ or at least he watched a couple, and he said, “Oh yeah, I had seen him before!” He just didn’t know because I was dressed as a woman. I think that was the only thing he’s ever seen me in.
You made such an amazing drag queen!
That show was so much fun to do because the writing on that show is so impeccable, and the acting is so good, and the hair and make-up and wardrobe … it was so fun because they would put me in just the easiest position of all time. All the hard work is done for you already, I just had to say the words, basically. That’s kind of what I felt like with ‘Nebraska.’ I don’t know how I got to be in this movie. I am still just so thankful, so appreciative. It was just an experience I will never forget.
You should give yourself more credit. It’s a beautiful movie and you’re perfect in it.
Thank you very much.
And it’s nice to see you playing a straight guy for once.
This character is very close to who I am in real life. The good and the bad of it. So it was a scary thing to do. It felt very revealing. I felt vulnerable in a way I never felt before. When you’re playing these absurd characters, you do a lot of crazy stuff, and I would be nude from time to time. But it’s not me being nude, it’s MacGruber being nude. And I guess that, you know, in this movie I’m playing a character still, but it just felt so much closer to home. It felt like you’re giving people these little secrets about what I’m like in my day to day life.
Since you mentioned it … Are you guys still hoping to make ‘MacGruber 2′?
We are fully intending on doing that. It’s been really hard because we are all really busy right now, and it works best when we’re all in the same room together. Me and Jorma [Taccone] and John Solomon.
I think Jorma Taccone just directed a recent episode of ‘Parks and Recreation.’
Oh, yeah. He is so, so talented at so many different things. And John Solomon is working at ‘SNL’ right now and they’re going again. So it’s tricky to find a time when we can all get together. We’ve already started writing it, and then the trick is, once we finish it, finding someone crazy enough who will actually let us make it.
My editor and I actually talked about a Kickstarter for the sequel because people would definitely pay for you guys to make it.
That is really cool to hear. If it comes to that, we will absolutely think about Kickstarter, but we gotta write the script first and then we’ll deal with all the funding once we know what we’re funding. We’re absolutely … there is 100% … we are going to write the script. I would even say it’s 100% that we’re going to make it. We just want to make it so badly. If we have to put it on our credit cards, we’ll make like a $50,000 version of ‘MacGruber.’ I’m hoping we get to make a slightly larger budget version, but you know, we’ll figure that out. We’re definitely going to do it somehow.
I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you.
Thank you! I’ll keep my fingers crossed for me, too!