Like many “Saturday Night Live” veterans, Will Forte came up through improv group the Groundlings, where his classmates included Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig. But his initial gigs were on the writing side — first as a staffer on the short-lived “Jenny McCarthy Show” and then on the “Late Show With David Letterman” and “That ’70s Show.” And those experiences inform Forte’s acting.
“If I were doing somebody else’s sketch, in my head I’d be thinking about if they were happy with this. I would be very tentative,” Forte recalls. He admits that “SNL” executive producer Lorne Michaels noticed this reservation and almost didn’t bring him back to the cast after his second season. “The stuff I would write on my own, I would always do 100 percent, but he knew I was tentative with the other stuff.”
One of those characters was MacGruber, an outsized send-up of MacGyver and ’80s nostalgia. When Forte left “SNL” in 2010, it was on the heels of a “MacGruber” movie spinoff written with “SNL” friends John Solomon and Jorma Taccone and co-starring Rudolph and Wiig. “We made exactly the movie we wanted to make,” Forte says. This made the critical and commercial failure of it harder to process despite the slow crawl it’s now making towards cult status. “We’re going to write a sequel at some point, but I don’t know if anyone will let us make it.”
Forte, 43, has a disarming humbleness about him. When asked about his recent turn to dramatic roles, he offered: “It’s hard enough getting comedy acting jobs — it’s not like I’m the go-to guy for comedy roles — so I didn’t think it was anywhere in the realm of possibility.”
That realm opened up when Oscar-nominated short-film director Steph Green approached him about appearing in her feature debut, “Run and Jump,” which received its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last year and is available on video on demand. “I don’t know why Steph Green thought of me for it, but we have the same agent. It’s a small-budget movie, and I guess she just had an inkling that I’d be right for the role. I thought the script was really cool and what the heck, I get to go to Ireland. It seemed like an interesting thing to try. I thought if I suck at this, it’ll just stay over there in Ireland.”
He remembers calling friends during the first week of filming to voice mounting regrets and suspicions that he was out of his depth. “I was very self-conscious about how I was doing and hadn’t any of my major scenes yet, but I was so nervous.” Once they started to film those scenes, he began to get used to the vulnerability.
“Like with ‘Nebraska,’ it’s much closer to who I am in real life,” Forte explains of his character, Ted Fielding, a brilliant American doctor who moves in with a family to observe the young husband, who has just suffered a rare stroke that has drastically altered his personality. Despite his sensitivity, Fielding is quite clueless in identifying his own emotions.
“Everyone seems to be like this,” Forte relates. “You’re so good at giving advice when somebody goes through a breakup. You have all the answers. But when you go through your own breakup, you can’t take any of your own advice. It’s so much easier to look from the outside in.”
Those who remember Forte parading on screen in “MacGruber” completely naked — while “holding” a strategically placed stick of celery — might find it hard to believe the actor could be susceptible to shyness.
“You do things in comedy that seem like they would be embarrassing, but it’s nowhere near as trying to seem realistically emotionally open in front of a camera,” he says. “It’s really terrifying.”
Once he got over those reservations, he was eager to jump back in when Alexander Payne (one of Forte’s favorite directors) was looking for a lead for “Nebraska.” “I was always such a fan of his because the stuff I would do in comedy was big and absurd most of the time and watching his stuff, it all comes from such a grounded place. I always had a real intense respect for that.” He wasn’t expecting to get the part, but he did.
“Alexander Payne is the master. It was such a great experience. I will never forget it,” he gushes while remembering his initial fear about never even having taken an acting class when his co-star was Hollywood icon Bruce Dern. “Here’s this legend who’s worked with these amazing people: John Wayne, Jack Nicholson, et cetera. I just thought: Is he going to be comparing me with these guys?”
Dern and Forte spent a lot of time in the pickup truck in which their father and son characters drive to Nebraska to claim a fake sweepstakes prize that the father has pinned his hopes to — not just to buy a new truck, as he often claims, but to regain the respect of his son who has his own reasons for wanting an excuse to leave town.
Dern’s character of Woody reminds Forte of his own grandfather, whom he describes as “lovably gruff.” “He was a very loving guy, but a man of few words. That’s exactly how my grandpa would have reacted to Mount Rushmore had we had a chance to go to it together,” Forte comments on Woody’s bemused indifference on seeing the national landmark with his son.
“It’s hard to put a label on it because it has really funny parts, but I wouldn’t call it a comedy,” Forte says of “Nebraska.” Indeed, there is a melancholic cloud that hangs over the film’s wide-stretching landscapes but also space for what has to be the funniest moment involving an air compressor that’s ever been captured on film.
“He would always say, ‘Find the truth of the scene, and be in the moment,’ ” Forte recalls of Dern’s advice to him. “I’d never taken acting classes, so it just seemed like words, but after awhile, I got what he was saying. I realized that that is all comedy is, too. Just trying to be in the moment of each scene and find the truth of it. Commit to that situation. Comedy is just a different situation.”
Forte’s next project brings him back to writing, but it’s walking the same fine line between comedy and drama. He’s developing a series, “The Last Man on Earth,” for Fox that imagines a virus that has wiped out the entire world, leaving just one man, who discovers miraculously that a woman’s survived, too. “The answer to his prayers, another person. They can restart the population, but the only problem is they hate each other. They don’t get along, so they’re forced to try to figure that out,” Forte says with a sly smile.
Available for download on iTunes. Unrated. 102 minutes.
At area theaters. Rated R for some profanity. 115 minutes.