Will Forte Gets Serious In 'Nebraska'

Nov 21, 2013
Originally published on November 21, 2013 3:41 pm

Actor Will Forte is known for his offbeat, sometimes outrageous characters.

For example, MacGruber, the special ops agent with a penchant for blowing up things. Forte created the character during his years on Saturday Night Live and later played him a 2010 feature film.

But in Alexander Payne’s new film “Nebraska,” Forte plays a much more subdued and straightforward role: a son, trying to cope with an aging father who believes he has won a million dollars.

Here & Now producer Emiko Tamagawa spoke with Forte at a recent screening of the film in Boston. He told her that he was very nervous about auditioning for the role, and he was sure he would not be cast. But months later he got a call.

“I heard I got the job and it was such a surprise, and that’s when the terror settled in.” Forte said, laughing.

Although the characters Forte has played on SNL were different than his character, David, in “Nebraska,” Forte says acting is about revealing the truth of a character.

“This is just a more realistic truth you’re looking for,” Forte said. “For me it’s always this wacky character and you can hide behind the character. And this, in a way, was easier because the character was way more like me in my real life, but harder because you feel like you’re revealing all your personal moments and secrets, and it made you feel really vulnerable.”


  • Will Forte, actor and comedian, most recently in the film “Nebraska.” He tweets @OrvilleIV.
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.




WILL FORTE: (as David Grant) Dad. Dad.

BRUCE DERN: (as Woody Grant) Leave me alone.

CHAKRABARTI: That's a scene from "Nebraska," the new movie from Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne. The film tells the story of a washed-up old man named Woody, played by actor Bruce Dern, who wants to go to Nebraska to claim a fortune he believes is his. Woody's son David reluctantly joins the quest. And Dern's performance in the bittersweet comedy is generating a lot of Oscar buzz.

But "Nebraska" is also bringing attention to Will Forte, the actor who plays Woody's son. The former "Saturday Night Live" cast member is stepping out of his comedic comfort zone in the film and delivers a surprisingly subtle performance. HERE AND NOW producer Emiko Tamagawa brings us his story.

EMIKO TAMAGAWA, BYLINE: Actor and comedian Will Forte is known for his offbeat, sometimes downright wacky characters. The "Twilight"-obsessed fan on "Parks and Recreation," a cross-dressing boyfriend on "30 Rock," and then there's MacGruber, the special ops agent Will Forte created on "Saturday Night Live" and later brought to the big screen in a 2010 film. MacGruber is known for his blond mullet, his tendency to get sidetracked by personal issues, and an unfortunate habit of blowing up members of his team. Take this scene, where MacGruber turns down a possible recruit for a mission.


FORTE: (as MacGruber) Oh, I would love to. But the van's pretty full. You see, it's filled with American heroes, with over a hundred years of combined combat experience and a whole lot of brotherhood. And, no, you can't ride in the trunk, bud. Because the trunk is filled with over 75 pounds of homemade C4 explosive that I personally packed in there with my own two...

TAMAGAWA: Having lost his team of American heroes, as well as his truck, MacGruber eventually ends up working with the recruit that he previously spurned. We see a very different Will Forte in his new film, "Nebraska." He plays David, a bit of sad sack who sells stereo equipment in Billings, Montana. David's father, Woody, played by Bruce Dern, is determined to go to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim a million dollar sweepstakes prize, even if that means he has to walk there.


DERN: (as Woody Grant) I'm going to Lincoln if it's the last thing I do. I don't care what you people think.

FORTE: (as David Grant) Listen to me. You didn't win anything. It's a complete scam. So you got to stop this, OK?

DERN: (as Woody Grant) I'm running out of time.

FORTE: (as David Grant) You don't have a suitcase.

DERN: (as Woody Grant) I'm not staying there.

FORTE: (as David Grant) Dad. I can't let you go.

DERN: (as Woody Grant) It's none of your business.

FORTE: (as David Grant) Yes, it is. I'm your son.

DERN: (as Woody Grant) Well, then, why don't you take me?

TAMAGAWA: Despite his doubts, David does decide to drive him to Nebraska. He wants to connect with his aging and often cantankerous father. As Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr says, it's a surprisingly understated performance.

TY BURR: It is a quiet performance. It's an observant performance. It's the performance of all of us kids who look at our parents in old age and try and put the pieces together of who they are and who we are. It's a really sympathetic job of acting. And I don't think many of us thought Will Forte had it in him. But of course he did. You know, there's so many comic actors out there that when they get a chance to really dig into a role, can do it beautifully and with respect to the character and to the ideas behind the writing.

TAMAGAWA: Will Forte didn't think he'd get the chance to dig into the role of David. For one thing, he had to audition for the part, something he hadn't had to do much during his years at "SNL."

FORTE: It's a process I'm very new to and very uncomfortable with still. I still get nervous. You would think, oh, you perform in front of live audiences all the time, but there's something about being in this room with just a couple people. It's really nerve-wracking, and I'm still getting used to it.

So, yeah, to audition for "Nebraska" was scary because it was so different already than what I'm used to doing. I guess the one thing that did make it a little easier was that I didn't go and audition in a room. I put myself on tape.

TAMAGAWA: After he sent that audition tape, Will Forte promptly forgot all about "Nebraska." Until four and a half months later. He got a call saying that Director Alexander Payne liked the tape and wanted him to audition in person for the part, which he did.

FORTE: A month later, I heard I got the job. And it was such a surprise. And that's when the terror...


FORTE: ...settled in.

TAMAGAWA: Extreme anxiety is a familiar companion for Will Forte. He describes himself as having borderline OCD, or obsessive compulsive disorder, which can manifest itself in the need to perform certain actions over and over again.

FORTE: I have been a door lock checker, faucet checker, stove checker for a long time. I still do it. Yesterday, I flew out to Boston from L.A. and I - like, it took a while to get out of the house yesterday. But it's - I'm much better than I used to be.

TAMAGAWA: Will Forte says that his OCD both hurts and helps him as an actor.

FORTE: It really helps because I need closure on stuff, I need completion. And in some ways it creates a real hyper focus, but in other ways I overthink things so I can really stress out about stuff and blow things out of proportion and worry a lot. But more than anything, I think it's - hey, you know, it's who I am as a person. In a lot of ways I don't know that I would have gotten to do some of the things that I got to do if it wasn't for exactly the way my brain has driven me crazy.

TAMAGAWA: One of the things that Will Forte got to do: act opposite Bruce Dern, the Oscar-nominated star who plays his father in "Nebraska."

FORTE: To get to watch at such close range as this guy delivers the performance of a lifetime, it's just - was amazing to watch. And to get to actually be a part of that and watching it with my own two eyes is something I'll never forget.


FORTE: (as David Grant) How did you and Mom end up getting married?

DERN: (as Woody Grant) She wanted to.

FORTE: (as David Grant) You didn't?

DERN: (as Woody Grant) I figured what the hell.

FORTE: (as David Grant) You ever sorry you married her?

DERN: (as Woody Grant) All the time. Could have been worse.

FORTE: (as David Grant) Well, you must have been in love, at least at first.

DERN: (as Woody Grant) Never came up.

TAMAGAWA: Rolling Stone says Will Forte's performance in the film is revelatory, nailing every nuance in a complex role. Entertainment Weekly referenced his "SNL" role in their praise, saying that MacGruber proves he's a great actor in "Nebraska." For Will Forte, both roles called on him to find the truth of the character he was playing.

FORTE: This is just a more realistic truth you're looking for. So that was scary, because I'm not used to revealing that much, you know, having a realistic truth. For me it's always like this wacky character and you can kind of hide behind the character. And this, in a way, was easier because the character is way more like me in my real life but harder because you feel like you're revealing all your personal moments and secrets and it made you feel really vulnerable.

TAMAGAWA: For HERE AND NOW, this is Emiko Tamagawa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.