Paramount via Everett Collection
Most folks would sooner call Will Forte “the guy from MacGruber” than they would “the guy from Nebraska.” Although his comedic chops as the Saturday Night Live action hero are awe-inspiring, Forte’s work in Alexander Payne’s Oscar nominated father-son story shows off a special talent for the dramatic. According to Forte, there’s not a great deal of difference between the two kinds of acting — in chatting about the Blu-ray release of Nebraska (which you can purchase now), Forte blurred the lines of comedic and dramatic performance and clued us into his favorite scene in movie history.
I think a lot about when I first heard you were going to be in Nebraska. When a comedic actor takes a dramatic role, people always ask, “Are they moving to drama?” as if it’s a diametric shift. But I was wondering, since you balance comedy and drama in this movie, if you think that the different types of acting coexist, or if you do view them as separate?
Well, coming into the process, I was nervous because I looked at them as two very separate things. After going through it, I realized there are a lot more similarities than I thought. In fact, at the end I just realized, “Oh my god, it’s the exact same thing!” Bruce Dern would always say during this process — he would give me this advice, because I was really intimidated and nervous in the beginning — he’d say, “Don’t worry. Relax. Just listen and find the truth of the scene. Listen and be in the moment.”
At first, I thought it was all just drama school mumbo jumbo, but then it really, really started to make sense the further we got in. I just realized that it was exactly right. If you’re really listening and trying to be real in every moment… that’s all anything is. That’s all you’re doing in comedy, too. The situations may be a little more absurd, but you’re still just trying to find whatever the truth is in that scene and then commit to it a hundred percent. And lock in.
After a while, it was like I was inside the Matrix. [Laughs] I’m not fully there yet! I have a ton of work to do, by the way.
I think you’re known best for your deadpan style. Do you think specifically being a deadpan comedian lent to this kind of role in a movie that balances comedy and drama so adeptly?
That’s so funny you say that — and I’m happy to hear you say that! Because I remember when I was first starting at the Groundlings, I loved doing deadpan stuff. But then the further I went through, I would think a lot of people would think of me as this loud, obnoxious person who does crazy, crazy stuff. So I love to hear that you think of me as deadpan, because that’s something I’ve always loved doing.
And absolutely. I think the best way to answer that — and I don’t know if it’s an answer at all — when I was starting out in comedy at the Groundlings, everyone would write and act in their own stuff. So you would write your stuff on your own, you would be the crazy person, and you’d have your friend as the straight man for you. And then you would do them that favor in their stuff. I guess had some experience being the straight man from that.
And you know, you learn little bits along the way as you’re going. I’ve learned so much through Saturday Night Live. You’re doing so many different sketches each week that you’re really getting some kind of training in all this without even knowing it. It was so much fun to get a chance to do a role like this. I would always think, “God, I wonder if I could ever do something like that,” when I was watching a more dramatic movie. But I never thought I’d get a chance to see if I could. So this was such a wonderful, rewarding experience for so many different reasons. But it was also fun to have this challenge to see if I could do something like this.
Paramount via Everett Collection
Thinking about this movie, and Bruce Dern’s Oscar nomination, he’s obviously the showy role. When a lot of people think of the best roles in cinema, they think of Raging Bull and Streetcar Named Desire. I think that’s the kind of role that Bruce Dern is doing here. But I think there is something so mathematical about what you’re doing in this movie — takes that you do, the way you look at Bruce when he says something heartbreaking. I was wondering if you had a specific reverence for downplayed dramatic performances, and if there are any particular ones that you hold close to your heart?
Oh man. That is such a tough question. One thing I will say … getting to watch Bruce deliver this performance with my own two eyes is something I will never forget. It felt so special while we were making this — his performance — and then when I got to see it on the big screen for the first time after Alexander had finished putting it all together, it was every bit as special as I remembered. What a gift to be able to able to experience that from that proximity.
As for appreciating [downplayed roles]… Man, it’s the old thing where you — well, record stores don’t really exist anymore — but I’d go into a record store, and for months and months I’d think about all these records that I’d be wanting to get, and then you find yourself in the record store and you can’t remember a single one. So you just invited me into the record store and I can’t think of the records I want to get.
What are your favorites and I’ll tell you if I like them!
I always think of Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer. He goes a little nuts, but he’s a little bit more tempered than those other characters.
Oh yeah! Wow. Yes. I remember seeing that movie in the theaters with my parents. My God, was that ’78, ’79, something like that?
God, yes. Well, anything he does is amazing. I don’t know if this even qualifies, but my favorite scene of any movie of all time is the scene in Dr. Strangelove when Peter Sellers is calling Dmitri — right? It’s Dmitri, right? — Peter Sellers is the President of the United States calling him to apologize for having all the bombs sent over.
Yes! “It’s great to be fine.”
I know that’s not the answer to your question, but that’s all I could think of.