Will Forte finds a sense of security in ‘Nebraska’

Will Forte at the Cinefamily theater.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Will Forte is the kind of person who’s going to find something to be anxious about no matter the circumstances.

So when the former “Saturday Night Live” cast member found himself unexpectedly cast in Alexander Payne’s new seriocomic road-trip movie, “Nebraska,” he felt all the natural emotions — excitement, gratitude, disbelief. But there was also a voice in his brain telling him, “This is nice, but somebody’s going to talk some sense into Alexander, so don’t get too happy.”

“I tend to drive myself crazy like that, overthinking things,” Forte said during an anxiety-free interview. “Even when I arrived in Nebraska to start the movie, I still felt like, How did I get this job? They went crazy and should have picked somebody else.”


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Months after “Nebraska” premiered at Cannes, where it won rapturous reviews, including strong notices for Forte, the 43-year-old comedy veteran is (mostly) over his insecurities.

“Nebraska” is about many things, but primarily it concerns middle-aged David (Forte) giving his father, Woody (Bruce Dern), a last stab at dignity. That opportunity comes via a car trip that the two take from Billings, Mont., to Omaha, where Woody believes a $1-million sweepstakes payout awaits. David remains profoundly skeptical but sees the journey as an opportunity to understand his old man, distant and often drunk during his upbringing.

“Nebraska,” like all of Payne’s movies (“The Descendants,” “Sideways” among them), blends many comic moments with scenes of acute yearning and regret. With eight years of broad comedy on “Saturday Night Live,” most notably his “MacGyver” parody, “MacGruber,” Forte wasn’t even necessarily in his element when it came to the movie’s low-key, character-based humor. But Payne saw something in Forte’s three-scene audition tape — a sweetness, a sincerity, a “sense of damage,” but mostly, simply, he “believed him,” as the director has said.

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“I felt I knew who this guy was,” Forte said. “My grandfather was a man of very few words, like Woody. Communicating with somebody like that felt familiar to me, as did the idea that people you love with all your heart can really drive you crazy sometimes.”


That personal connection made Forte feel even more vulnerable, like he was giving away a piece of himself while acting. It was a radical change from the comic demands of “MacGruber,” which, in one scene, required Forte to run around naked with a piece of celery lodged between his hindquarters.

“People think that kind of embarrassing situation takes a lot of nerve,” Forte said. “But that’s a piece of cake compared to letting people see the way you might act in your more private moments. That’s scary. Thrilling too.”