NEBRASKA

You’ve never seen Will Forte as you’ll see him in Nebraska, directed by Alexander Payne. The actor has cemented himself as a favorite comic talent who can play surprisingly intense guys with a vulnerable core, but he has never been at the center of a dramatic movie, much less something like this laconic black and white road movie.

Forte plays David Grant, a bit of a sad-sack, and the child of Woody Grant, played by Bruce Dern. When Woody insists on making the trip from Montana to Nebraska to claim sweepstakes winnings that David (and the rest of their family) know to be bogus, the younger man agrees to drive his father, both to guide him, and to strengthen the weak bond between the two men.

The film is quiet and meditative as it touches on family and the deep roots of individual characters, but also often gently comic, and occasionally uproariously funny. The funniest bits, however, are delivered by actors other than Forte, who spends much of the film as the straight man to Dern. He’s quite good at it, too. In fact, the shy but determined caregiver that emerges through Forte’s performance is something of a revelation from the actor.

I spoke to Forte in Los Angeles, and our conversation naturally ran towards the new territory in which the role placed him. But we also touched on his own obsessive and nervous tendencies, the pleasure of working with a seasoned pros like Dern and Stacy Keach, and briefly about the long-tail appeal of MacGruber.

Did you have to audition for this movie?

Oh god, yes. I put myself on tape and sent it in with absolutely zero expectations. I didn’t hear anything for about four and a half months, then got a call out of the blue that Alexander wanted to see me in person and run through the scenes, which was so exciting. You know, when I sent in the tape I just thought there was never any realistic shot of getting to be in this movie, but I just loved the script so much and felt a connection to the character, so I thought “What the heck, I’ll try it out.” So to even have just gotten that feedback that he wanted to meet me in person was the most exciting thing. Then I went in, ran through the scenes with him. It seemed to go fine, but it was just such a new type of thing for me. I didn’t know really how to… I’m used to auditioning for comedies where you go in, you audition, people are either laughing or their not and you feel like you know… I guess you never really know. Any way, I had no idea…

The cues indicating “success” were different.

They were very nice and we talked for a while. They said some very nice things, but I didn’t know if they were just making me feel bad and you leave the room and they’d say “Oh, that was awful.” So I left still having no expectations that I would ever have any shot to be in the movie. Alexander called about a month later and said he wanted me to be in the movie, and it was just nuts. My mom was staying with me at the time and I came down screaming “Aaahhh! Mom!” It was so exciting. It was fun to get to share it with her too, then we had a celebratory sushi lunch. Sugar fish. It was so exciting. There was still this nervousness though. I kept thinking somebody was going to…

When does that nervousness stop? Or did it stop? Do you still have it?

It was very, very exciting to get that call. Then the nervousness set in, like “Now I have to actually do it! What if I just pulled one over on them in the audition process and I’m not good at it?” I was just really nervous.

It actually kind of felt similar to when I got the SNL job for the first time. I never wanted that period between getting the job and the job starting to end. It was such a great feeling, like “Oh, I got this part and it felt so good,” but then I didn’t want to actually do it. I was like “What if I blow it?”

So I just worked up this… I overthought everything and then thank god we got there about a week early and they were just so wonderful to me that very quickly you realize… The fear of the unknown, as everything becomes known, it just becomes like “Oh, this is going to be really fun getting to work with all of these people who are now friends.” It was comfortable in a way that I was hoping it would be, but I just wasn’t sure, because I didn’t know any of them too well.

You’re basically playing the straight man to Bruce Dern, which is an interesting situation.

That’s exactly how I always described it to friends when they asked. I would say “Yeah, I’m the straight man in the movie.” I’m like the comedy straight man and the drama straight man. It just felt very much like that from the beginning and I mean that’s a very general way to put it. There are so many more little elements to it than that, but I feel like that’s a very fair assessment of the character.

I’ve overheard people wondering if this is a movie with much improv, but it doesn’t seem like one.

There was no improv. I mean there might be like four or five words that were not in the script removed or added in, if that. It was just such a well written script there’s no need to improvise.

Is that a good support structure, to know that whatever you do, the material is there on the page?

Honestly, it really did so much of the work for you. It was… It just really was such a well written script that you couldn’t really get that far off track to be honest. Then when you add in the fact that you’re acting in these scenes with a person with so much experience who so fully embodied his character, it can’t help but suck you into embodying yours. And then the rest of the cast is so wonderful. The person who is overseeing everything is as talented as it gets as a director. I mean I never would have thought in a million years I’d get a chance to work with Alexander Payne. It was so unexpected and so wonderful, so you couldn’t help but feel incredibly safe and protected.

I get the sense that his directing style and his presence is fairly low-key. Bruce Dern said he just nudges here and there. Do you take well to that sort of directing?

I’m okay with line readings and anything like that. I guess I can get in my head and overthink things, so at times we’d be done with a scene and I would say, just kind of early on, I would say “Was that all right? Are we moving on just because we don’t have enough time to do the next scene?” Alexander would say, “I’m never going to move on from something unless I’ve gotten what I want.” At first I was thinking “He’s just saying that. He just had to move on.” But then I realized that’s definitely the truth. He knows exactly what he wants and he knows when he gets it too.

There were several times where we would do… There were times we would do twenty takes of a scene. I remember the very first day we did twenty takes of this scene when I’m in the record store… It’s all one shot, so there were a lot of moving pieces. The first shot was for everyone, so everyone’s getting into the rhythm and we finally after like twenty takes we finish it. This wonderful woman, Anna, who’s worked with Alexander for years, came up and said “Hey, nice job. Twenty takes, I’ve never seen him do that many takes.” It was so not what you want to hear on your first day. (Laughs)

But then there would be times when… There was a very pivotal scene I remember we did one take and he said, “All right, I got it” and it was the most exciting thing. He just knows exactly what he wants and you can not help but start to feel confident when there’s a person with that much confidence at the helm. He’s just so relaxed and you feel like you’re in the best hands and it was just awesome. I think pretty much anybody who has been in this business knows that feeling of being very excited about something and then getting let down. This was just one of those experiences where, from the beginning with this awesome, wonderful script, it grew better and better and every step of the way. It’s such a pleasure to get to be a part of something that you can be really proud of. I had really high hopes for this and my hopes were exceeded. I am just so excited to be a part of this. It’s a very… I just realized what a rare opportunity it is to get to do something like this.

You mentioned overthinking your lines and exhaustively approaching the project, at the beginning at least. Would that be the case doing comedy as well?

It is not just a work thing, it’s an every moment of my life thing. I had some OCD stuff going on, and it’s not as bad as it can get, but it definitely… I have always been an overthinker. I need closure on everything.

It takes me a million years to leave a party, because I will make sure I have a perfect goodbye for each person. It’s like “Okay, I’ve said goodbye to Dave. Where’s John? Okay, I’ve got to remember to call John tomorrow and say it was good to see him last night.” It’s like that is happening in the most non-pressure areas. That’s at a Christmas party, so imagine a work situation where you’re a little more stressed out. It really builds up.

Now I’m picturing a short film where you’re trying to leave a party and someone who knows this about you is evading you the whole time, running away cackling, “Nope, not going to let him say goodbye.

If you have known me for a couple of weeks, you already know about my… I’ve gotten better about leaving parties. I put myself in other people’s positions and I’ll think like “Oh, that person didn’t say goodbye to me when they left the party and I’m fine with it. I still like them. They’re still a good person.” So then I try to think “Okay, see if you can do that.” I still say bye to everybody.

***

The following subject is arguably a spoiler for Nebraska, as it touches on something from the movie’s final act.

Highlight the end of the question below to get the full inquiry.

***

Tell me about punching Stacy Keach.

It was really scary, because you have a stunt coordinator who teaches you how to throw a punch. I’ve never thrown a punch. I’m a peaceful person. I talk my way out of situations. I could throw a punch at somebody who did something to my family, but haven’t been at that point. So this person is teaching you how to make it look like you’re throwing a punch, the spacing, where you want to be in relation to the camera, and it all worked out. It seemed like maybe we were three feet away from each other. That was the mark that we were practicing with.

Then once we actually got into the situation and I’m standing across from Stacy, it was about a foot and a half, so my arm was so trained to go this specific route that I was so scared that my muscle memory would make me connect with his face. So it took a couple of times, because I was very tentative and I didn’t want to punch him.

He is so great. He made everything look wonderful, because he just took this punch and kept… It was just amazing to see him take this punch every time. So finally we got one that looked like I was connecting. It was always just a matter of me throwing the punch in the right place. Everything he did on his end was perfect. It was terrifying. I did not want to punch him, although if my hand connected with his face, my hand would probably shatter into a million pieces and he wouldn’t feel a thing. He is just a…

He still looks like he is made out of stone.

Yeah, he is awesome and very impressive and such a sweet person, but very… I think that guy could take care of business. So that was another real treat. Another legend…

***

You’re out of spoiler territory from here on.

***

I’m not going to make you talk about MacGruber 2, but I loved seeing it blow up and seeing the fandom continuing to grow for that movie. I hope for the best.

I appreciate you saying that, because we are hoping to get to do a second one. We are so proud of that movie and it’s hard for us to gauge if people liked it at all, because all you can tell are from the various box office numbers and stuff like that. So it’s nice to hear when somebody says that they liked it, because it’s hard for us to gauge if it has had any impact at all. Thank you.

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