NEW YORK--Will Forte takes a breath and measures his words carefully, as Will Forte is generally wont to do, when asked how a man known for comedy suddenly finds himself in some finely wrought prestige dramas.
"It wasn't a conscious decision to start doing this," the actor said in an interview here earlier this week. "It just kind of happened."
The "Saturday Night Live" veteran is speaking just as his new film, the Ireland-set "Run & Jump," is world-premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival. It's the first of what will be two unexpectedly dramatic turns for the 42-year-old actor. He will again be under the press lights for "Nebraska," Alexander Payne's father-son road trip dramedy, when it premieres at the Cannes Film Festival next month.
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Forte has departed into the indie world before, starring in the ensemble comedy "A Good Old-Fashioned Orgy" a few years back. But the former "Groundlings" member, probably best known to multiplex audiences (well, scattered ones anyway) for his turn in the MacGyver parody "MacGruber," has never gone full-on dramatic before.
He unquestionably does so here. The feature debut of the young American director Steph Green (known for her Oscar-nominated, Ireland-set short "New Boy," based on a Roddy Doyle story), "Run & Jump" tells a character-driven tale of loss and love.
When carpenter Conor is felled by a debilitating stroke, his wife Vanetia (Maxine Peake) enlists repressed American psychiatrist Ted Fielding (Forte) to live with the couple and their children, studying Conor's behavior, in a small Irish town. A romance between Venetia and Ted—not salacious but hardly ethical—blooms, as Fielding learns to accepts some long-suppressed parts of himself.
If it sounds like it has the kind of small-town tweeness and doctor-heal-thyself tropes of many an indie movie, well, it should. But the film is distinguished by Green's careful direction and Forte's highly calibrated performance.
"What I liked about this is that the situation between Ted and Venetia is really not black and white, just like so much of life isn't black and white," Forte said, adding that the character of the outsider doctor suited him in other ways. "I'm a really good advice-giver to friends, but when I find myself in the same situation I can't seem to take my own advice," he said.
If "Run & Jump" is a bit of a switch for Forte, his performance also shows just how thin the line between comedy and drama can be. The uptight oddball that he's played before (most notably as Paul L'Astname in his recurring "30 Rock" role) turns out to lend itself surprisingly well to dramatic vehicles too.
In an interview, Green said she chose Forte in part because he bore some resemblances to the character. "When Will speaks it's always very slowly and carefully, which is exactly what Ted does," said the director, whose movie is seeking U.S. distribution. "I was looking for a certain innocence and intelligent depth, which is pure Paul."
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As for "Nebraska," Forte landed the part somewhat fortuitously. He'd gotten ahold of the script from his agent and, on a bit of a lark, sent in a tape to Payne. When he didn't hear back for four months, he thought his shot was over. "I went for it even though I didn't really think I could get it," said Forte, who described himself, seemingly only half-joking, as "a worst-case scenario kind of person." Then he got a call to come in for a reading, and soon after landed the role.
Forte acknowledged Cannes was not a place he imagined himself ending up. (He's never been to the festival and seemed eager to learn about the rites of the glitzy springtime circus.)
What "Nebraska" itself looks like remains to be seen. Payne's movie, which he has long wanted to make, is said to contain autobiographical overtones--the director grew up in the state--but beyond the road trip (shades of "Sideways"), the father-son relationship and a plot point involving a potential lottery win, much about the film remains in the shadows.
Forte wouldn't offer much about the film but allowed that, for all the serious themes, "Nebraska" will have its mix of Payne-like human comedy "I think audiences are going to laugh," he said, calling it a movie that's "dramatic and beautiful--there are a lot of things going on."
As for Forte's own juggle, he said he's slowly coming to terms with it. "I'm used to doing things that are big and dumb. In a lovable way, of course." he said after pausing for a minute to contemplate the issue. He took another breath. "This is all really new."
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