Will Forte is a busy man. Upon leaving SNL in 2010, he starred in MacGruber, a film that received mixed reviews but is nonetheless considered a cult classic in many circles. He has also played recurring roles in numerous shows, among them the buffalo-straddling Ted Turner on Conan, the cross-dressing Paul L'Astnamé on 30 Rock (for which he was nominated for an Emmy), and voicing various characters on The Cleveland Show. His most recent project has been Nebraska, a celebrated indie comedy directed by Alexander Payne, in which he plays David Grant, a man who escorts his elderly father (played by Bruce Dern) on a road trip to claim a bogus sweepstakes prize. Forte took some time to chat with us about the film, which has been nominated for numerous Golden Globe and SAG awards and is gaining Oscar buzz. He also gave us the latest updates on a rumored MacGruber sequel, shared with us some memories from his SNL days, and offered a preview for the upcoming Late Night with Seth Meyers.
Congratulations on Nebraska piling on all of these Golden Globes nominations! Did you expect going into it that it would get this kind of reaction?
Oh, it was really exciting to hear. I've learned to not have any expectations with that stuff, so that you can only be pleasantly surprised. This has felt like a really special movie to be a part of, so it was really exciting to get the news of all the different nominations yesterday for the movie. It’s been so exciting to be a part of this movie.
What drew you to the project?
I read the script and loved the script from the moment I read it, and, obviously, it’s Alexander Payne. I mean, this guy is one of my directing heroes, so to get a chance to be in this movie was the most unexpected surprise of all time. I contend that I have no shot at getting to do this again, and I’m so excited that I somehow wormed my way in here.
The role of David is a bit of a shift for you. I would say you’re known for playing more oblivious characters who are kind of at the center of their own world, but here you’re very much like a sensitive, grounded straight man. What was that like?
Well, it was intimidating. The role I’m playing is a lot closer to who I am in real life, so it’s scary because you feel really vulnerable. At the same time, you’re just kind of being a version of yourself so you know what to do, but it is tricky getting to a place where you’re comfortable feeling vulnerable. That can take a while to get used to, and I’m not used to that. It seems like all the experiences I’ve had in that past are playing characters and as characters, you just kind of blame whatever on the character. Here, it was just a different experience and one that I’m so excited I got a chance to have. I never thought I would have had an experience like this. I never thought that somebody would give me that chance, let alone somebody like Alexander Payne.
We’ve watched you for years on SNL play all different kinds of characters, small characters and really big crazy characters. I think we forget that people who come from SNL are able to have such diversity in the way they play. Was it satisfying to be able to play something that’s small for a change of pace?
Oh, it was a thrill. It was so thrilling. It just was the experience of a lifetime. It was just so different, I never thought – I guess I already said this but it really is the truth – I just never thought that I would get a chance to do something like this. You kind of go through life and you think you know the direction life is taking you in, and this just came out of nowhere. I didn’t think that this was an experience I’d get to have. I’m very happy with the things I’ve gotten to do in my career, I mean I got to do my dream job, SNL. That was my goal when I went into sketch comedy — to be on SNL — so to have gotten to do my dream job, not a lot of people can say that, so I’m so fortunate already. And the Nebraska experience is something that I wouldn’t even have put on a list of dream scenarios. It’s just something I would have never expected; it’s that far out there. So to have gotten the chance to do it, is the most exciting thing in the world.
I was reminded while watching Nebraska of The Descendants and The Way, Way Back, these Jim Rash and Nat Faxon projects, and it might have been the Alexander Payne connection, but a lot of it, I think, was watching these guys who I knew as having Groundlings experience playing big characters, reign in that big character instinct and produce these small, really sincere stories that are very heartfelt.
Yeah. Oh yeah. Nat and Jim are wonderful, and I’ve known them for close to 20 years now. Jim used to be my next door neighbor, and when he’d go on trips, I would walk his dog Otter and take care of him. I’ve known these guys forever, so it’s not a surprise to see that they can access that side of them because it’s that side of them that I’ve known forever. I think people out there a lot of times forget that people who do sketch comedy, you don’t necessarily only have sketch comedy abilities, that they can do other stuff too. Like Kristen Wiig. God, she’s one of the best actresses I know! And that’s why she’s such a good sketch comedian, because she’s an impeccable actress with great timing. So it’s so exciting to see those guys get chances to – sorry, there’s like a Blue Angels-type thing flying by outside my hotel. Okay, sorry. [Laughs.] Minor Blue Angels break, but I’m back. But it’s just been amazing to watch and it’s something that doesn’t surprise me as a friend of theirs because there’s nothing those guys can’t do, so it’s really exciting to see them getting these chances to showcase all these different talents that they have.
Alexander Payne has said in interviews that it was important for him to cast people that we could see as plausibly related, both in terms of their appearance and their personality, so how important was that chemistry between you and Bruce Dern and June Squibb and Bob Odenkirk? How did you guys develop it?
In terms of chemistry, family bonding type stuff?
Well, there’s a specific scene where you and Bob, who plays your brother, are stealing a piece of machinery that you thought was stolen from your father, and there’s just a very interesting family dynamic happening in that scene where people are covering for each other and then kind of abandon you. There’s just a real honesty to the way that came across on screen. I’m curious about how you guys were able to achieve that.
Bob and I have known each other for years now. He directed The Brothers Solomon, so I’ve known him for a long time. As for Bruce and June, we got over to Nebraska about a week before shooting started for rehearsal period. Bob hadn’t come yet, but it was just Bruce and June and I hanging around with Alexander and we didn’t really rehearse anything. All we did was hang around as buddies really, and get to know each other as people. So by the time we started filming, this bond had already developed. Of course, the bond only grew as we started actually making the movie. You get to know people pretty quickly because you’re spending all your time with them, especially when you’re away on location making something. Because all of us were away from our support systems – our family and friends back at home – so we would hang out with each other when we’d get off work. They’re wonderful people too, so it was really fun to hang out with them, and we just got to be very close very quickly, and I think that really helped us on screen too.
So I have to ask you, are there any updates on a MacGruber sequel? I don’t think the Splitsider filters will post the article if I don’t ask at least.
[Laughs.] I would be upset if you didn’t ask. Thank you. No. There is no update, I guess the one thing I will say is, we really are gonna make it a priority to write this script. Jorma [Taccone] has been incredibly busy, John Solomon writes at SNL still, so they’re in the middle of the season, and I’ve been busy with Nebraska press stuff. So once we have some time, we’re gonna write the script. It’s a tricky situation because we are really proud of the first one. We didn’t want to make a second one just to make it, we want to make it if it’s good. So the first step is writing a script that we really are proud of, and if we can’t get a script that we’re proud of, then we wouldn’t make it. If we do get a script we’re proud of, then we’ve gotta get somebody who will let us make it. And we want to find a situation where they don’t make us change stuff, and that’s a hard thing – we’re asking for a lot. So we’re only gonna – I mean, we’re not crazy, we’d listen to notes from people but you know, we are looking for a situation which we know is hard to find. It’s a lot to ask, but that’s what we’re hoping for. That’s our ideal. That’s what we’re shooting for. And we’re gonna start that process, and there are many ways that this thing could never get made but there a couple ways that it could. It's a project that is something we are really excited about trying to get into motion, but we’ll see.
I want to ask about SNL, I think it’s interesting now that SNL sketches are all online, a lot of your lesser-known sketch characters from your time on the show have a rich afterlife. Personally, I really love the NASA potato chip sketch. Do you have any favorite sketches that never made it to air?
There are a couple different ones. There was one final “Falconer” that we did at dress rehearsal, Rainn Wilson was the host. And we didn’t do it. The Falconer has this dream – the Falconer sees that he’s actually just a character on Saturday Night Live. We see this pretape of him going and seeing my face on the wall of SNL cast members, and a bunch of things like going into the sound effects room and seeing somebody press a Falconer screech button and hearing his voice, like all of this stuff. It was so long ago that I can’t remember all the pieces, but it was just this real meta “Falconer” that for some reason we didn’t air. It made it to dress rehearsal, but didn’t – oh, I know what it was! It was supposed to go onto the live show but we ran out of time. And we never brought it back. So that’s one.
Then there’s this one with Eva Longoria that was crazy called “Interesting Date Sketch” that never made it. And then there’s one I put up at the table read a million times called “Jenjamin Franklin.” It’s this woman who is the spitting image of Benjamin Franklin, and this guy gets set up on this date with this woman and she’s like this real sexual creature but looks exactly like Benjamin Franklin, so we never got to do that, but Seth and I always talk about it. When Seth does his [Late Night] show, we have a plan where we’re going to actually tell the story because it was something that I would always bring up and it would drive these guys crazy, but I wanted to do this sketch so badly and never got a chance to. When I left the show, we’ll still always talk about “Jenjamin Franklin,” so I think if I ever go on as a guest to Seth’s show, we’re going to talk about “Jenjamin Franklin,” and then we’re actually going to do a segment where we perform “Jenjamin Franklin” for the first time. So finally after years of these arguments of “We should’ve gotten ‘Jenjamin Franklin!’” we are obviously very close friends, but we get into a fun, heated argument about the merits of “Jenjamin Franklin.” And it’s really fun. I’m so excited for his show, it’s going to be really fun!
I think so too.
I think he’s going to be so good.
Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs improv at the iO West Theater.