'SNL' star's fear: Serious acting not his Forte

Forte says that Alexander Payne, the director of "Nebraska," which stars Bruce Dern (left), didn't know his work from "SNL," but hired him on the basis of an audition tape.
Forte says that Alexander Payne, the director of "Nebraska," which stars Bruce Dern (left), didn't know his work from "SNL," but hired him on the basis of an audition tape.
Posted: November 21, 2013

FIRST SIGN that converted "SNL" comic Will Forte is now a serious actor: He totally doesn't get my MacGruber joke.

I walk in complaining that my briefcase is heavy because it contains my portable car stereo (hey, I didn't say my MacGruber joke was funny).

Forte gives me a blank stare, which is probably what that reference deserved, but it develops that he's also been popping Ambien as he makes a time-zone-hopping press tour to talk about his dramatic role in Alexander Payne's "Nebraska," which, like all of Payne's movies ("The Descendants," "Sideways"), is an Oscar contender.

So, now he's on a multicity PR blitz for the movie, mumbling nice things about Philadelphia, talking about going to the Pearl Jam concert, when the Ambien haze lifts and the "joke" kicks in.

"Oh my God. MacGruber. I didn't even connect it," said the affable Forte, who brightens at the chance to get off script and talk about something silly, like his starring role in the glorious-or-notorious movie "MacGruber," based on his "SNL" character of the inverted '80s action hero, always doomed to fail.

"You know, we had such a concern about that joke," he said. "We're thinking that our target audience will have no idea what a pull-out car stereo actually is."

No, but it's like the five-pound cellphone, I offer. People get that it's somehow an artifact of the Paleolithic 1980s.

Relics, strange links to the past - they are a subject of "Nebraska," a black-and-white-and-bleak comedy starring Forte as a Montana man who agrees to take his delusional father (played by Bruce Dern) on a trip to Nebraska to collect on a sweepstakes ticket, although the ticket is an obvious promotional hoax.

For Forte's character, it's a chance to spend time with a father he's never known, certainly not in emotional terms. For Forte himself, the role was a sudden and frightening catapult into the world of mega-serious acting.

"It was so wonderful to hear that I got the part, I just couldn't believe it. It was truly something that I never imagined would happen. And I wanted that part, the part about feeling wonderful, not to come to an end. Which meant that part of me didn't want to go and actually do it," he said, laughing.

"I got very stressed. I didn't want to ruin Alexander Payne's new masterpiece. I didn't want to bring the guy who brought 'Nebraska' down."

A little strange to hear, coming from Forte, who's taken great leaps before.

In the late '90s he quit his job as a stockbroker and decided to take a stab at comedy, taking a job in Los Angeles with the Groundlings improvisational troupe. He developed a reputation as a good writer (he later wrote for several TV comedies), but the acid test was the stage.

I asked Forte if there was a moment, a bit, when he knew that he could do it.

"My favorite skit, which I got to do later on "SNL," was the spelling-bee character. He has to spell this word - business - and the attempt gets drawn out for several minutes, and he's clearly spelling it wrong, with all consonants, and it's really like endurance comedy. You're almost forcing the audience to listen, to buy in, and there's that really scary moment where you don't know if it's going to work. I like to work in that space. Experimental, almost. Sometimes it doesn't go well, and then that goes horribly unwell, but that's what I love doing the most."

Was Payne a fan of his edgy work?

"Alexander Payne had no idea who I was," Forte said. "I think he knew me mostly from my audition tape."

And Payne didn't want Forte doing too much experimenting. Nor did Forte need to, working under the guidance of Payne and Hollywood icon Dern, and also actors like Stacy Keach.

"The script was so wonderfully written, it's a pretty good template as to what's expected of you, in terms of your character," said Forte. "The trick is actually doing what you're supposed to do. I'm not used to realistic acting enough to know how I'm coming across."

He was continually amazed at how gracious everybody else was - Dern, Keach, as well as June Squibb, a Payne regular, giving him help and encouragement at every turn.

"Alexander was so good about getting me out of my own head," Forte said. "He basically said that I could give him 80 percent of what he needed just being myself, and we could work on the other 20 percent."

In "Nebraska," it's Forte's character who does most of the growing - lacking self-confidence and a bit needy at the outset, gaining in confidence as he inches closer to knowing and understanding his dad. By journey's end, you could say that the roles have reversed. The son has become the responsible father, the caretaker. The aura of substance looks good on Forte.

Other directors must think so, too. He's already made two movies since, one for Peter Bogdanovich, whose "Last Picture Show" inspired the look of "Nebraska."

"If you had told me two years ago that I'd be making movies for Alexander Payne and Peter Bogdanovich, I'd say you were high."

Or, at the very least, popping too much Ambien.

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