Not even a serious drama can keep Will Forte from making a joke or two.
At the New York Film Festival, during a question and answer session following a screening of their new film Nebraska, Forte's co-star Bruce Dern praised director Alexander Payne for his ability to work with the many unprofessional bit players in the movie.
Half a beat later, Forte quipped, "I'm tired of people calling me a non-actor!"
The audience of journalists and industry members laughed at the interjection, a flash of the improv skills and wit that Forte is famous for, thanks to his eight years on Saturday Night Live. And yet, while the joke was seemingly preposterous, especially with the nuanced and affecting lead performance that Forte gives as the beleaguered son to Dern's borderline-delusional old boozehound still fresh in the spectators' memories, like all good humor, there was an element of lingering truth to it.
Really, the fact that Forte has an acting career in any genre at all is sort of a happy accident.
His career began as a writer for Late Show With David Letterman, a gig that lasted a year, from 1997-98, and allowed him a few on-air cameos. He moved to LA and joined the famed Groundlings comedy troupe (other alumni include Phil Hartman, Lisa Kudrow, Will Ferrell, and Melissa McCarthy, to name a few), but it was his writing, not performing, that piqued the interests of producers. He wrote a pilot that got him a development deal and several sitcom staff jobs, starting with 3rd Rock From The Sun in 2000.
"I had just kind of settled in at a certain point, giving up my hopes of being a performer, and because I loved writing and was fine with it," Forte says. "And then when the SNL job came around, I got a chance to perform when I had kind of given up on it. Not given up — I was really just very happy with the writing. I was at That 70's Show at the time. I had a great job."
In 2002, Forte joined the cast of the legendary NBC sketch series and stayed for eight years, portraying plenty of memorable characters, including George W. Bush after Ferrell left the show. During Forte's SNL run, he made plenty of other TV cameos and was featured in several films, keeping busy in between the show's grueling seasons.
Since finishing what would ultimately become a 157 episode stint on SNL in 2010, Forte has worked non-stop, first with his spoofy, cult favorite spinoff movie MacGruber, and then with a whole heap of guest arcs in television comedies. He played Jenna Maroney's (Jane Krakowski) cross-dressing lover on 30 Rock, dropped in on other network comedies like Parks and Recreation, provided voices for animated projects such as Gravity Falls and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, and had fun with his fellow comedian friends in films like That's My Boy and The Watch.
"I don't have any real formal acting training. All my stuff is comedy," Forte acknowledges. "The Groundlings system is a wonderful, wonderful system, but it's more improv. A lot of these things are more important, but I never took drama in high school. It just wasn't something I was super comfortable with."
It's rare for an SNL alum to veer toward the dramatic in any meaningful way. Bill Murray made the shift over a decade after leaving the TV mainstay and Adam Sandler has been well-received in several serious parts, while Will Ferrell has dipped into dramedy. But Forte is largely spending 2013 in untouched waters, reigning in the slapstick and satire for more quiet roles in more dramatic works.
First up this year was the small Irish-American indie Run and Jump, a Tribeca Film Festival selection that featured Forte as a depressed doctor tending to a man with a brain injury. Staring off into the abyss of regret, Forte's normally elastic face falls into a default sadness as his character struggles with his own past and irrepressible feelings for his patient's wife. It is a quiet, pained performance played in negative spaces, and it proved to New Yorkers who saw it that Forte was capable of selling character with his eyes and adding weight to every word he speaks.
Still, the performance in Run and Jump had nothing to do with his casting in Nebraska — the timing of its production and release precluded that — and it seemed unlikely, from Forte's point of view, that Payne would ever offer him the part. When Forte's agent passed him the script, though, he just felt like he had to try, even if it was destined to end up as "an acting exercise," he says.
"I don't know how to phrase it; it just felt like I knew this guy," he says, speaking of both his own character and that of the film's patriarch. "My grandpa was a man of very few words, like the Bruce Dern character in the movie, and I loved my grandpa very much, but I was used to that kind of interaction with somebody who doesn't talk that much, and the frustration you can have at times, even while loving the person."
So Forte sent in an audition tape, and then heard nothing but radio silence for four months. At that point, he mostly gave up hope, figuring Payne was going with someone with actual dramatic experience. Then the call came. The director asked for a meeting, which Forte says was mostly the two men "chit chatting about our lives." He had no idea how many other actors Payne had auditioned or met with, and he was sort of stunned when he got the part a few months later.
"I don't blame people for thinking Alexander was crazy for casting me," Forte says with a laugh. "I thought he was crazy for casting me. I was intimidated going in."
He has got nothing but praise for the way Payne works with actors and for the way he was able to help him get comfortable in a strange situation. "I really get in my head with a lot of stuff, and he was really helpful in getting me out of my head," Forte says.
As David in Nebraska, Forte leads his crotchety, misguided father on a road trip doomed to fail, taking him to the office of a scam marketing company that sent him a misleading flyer claiming he won $1 million. Everyone but Dern's Woody knows that he's been bamboozled, but the journey is far from a last ditch attempt to assuage a deluded old alcoholic; they roll through the deserted streets of his old hometown, rediscovering family history and the man his dad was before time and booze sent him into semi-ruin.
Nebraska is clearly being positioned as an awards season contender, but it's likely that Paramount will push hardest for Payne and Dern, who won the Best Actor prize at Cannes. Forte's work, however, is the quiet glue of the film — it's told through his eyes — even if he remains very humble about his approach and talent.
"I'm such a fan of [Payne's] movies and his kind of realistic approach, so I kind of just said the words," Forte says, chuckling. "It's becoming very clear now to you that I don't have any acting training, because I would probably know a little better how to explain the process."
Despite the dramatic turn, though, Forte says he has no intention of leaving comedy behind. He's still hard at work, writing when he can, though he jokes he'd have "just made the Nebraska script worse" if he had contributed.