Will Forte is a “Saturday Night Live” stalwart and has done some big-screen comedy, but he takes on a very different role in Alexander Payne’s elegiac “Nebraska,” a father-and-son road movie in which he plays David, who drives his aged, infirm dad Woody (Bruce Dern) from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska, where the old man believes that there’s a million-dollar sweepstakes prize awaiting him, though everyone else knows it’s all a Publishers Central-style promotional scam. Forte sat down for lunch with a group of Dallas journalists recently to talk about making the film.
Asked how he got involved in the film, Forte explained, “My agent sent me the script. I read it and thought it was wonderful. I knew that Alexander Payne was directing it, and I felt a connection to the role, but never thought that I’d have any chance to get the part. But I still thought that I feel I know this guy…so I put myself on tape. Had a friend tape me doing, I think it was four scenes. Sent them in, didn’t hear anything for like four-and-a-half months, and just assumed that I was right all along and that I didn’t have a shot at getting the role.
“But then out of the blue I heard from Alexander that he had liked it enough to have me come in and do an audition. Just that was so exciting, to know that someone like him—I’ve always been a huge fan of his—that he appreciated it to any extent. I went in, met him in person. It seemed to go alright, but my gauge is off with that kind of stuff. With comedy, you can tell how you do, a little bit more, because people are laughing or not laughing. With this, I just didn’t know how to gauge it. So he said some very nice things after we’d run through the scene, but [I wondered whether] that was just something he said to everybody when they came through—I would probably be really nice to everybody! I found out a month later that I’d gotten the part. It was the most exciting phone call I’ve ever gotten. He called me personally from Omaha, and it was just the most unexpected and exciting thing ever.”
Was Forte specifically looking to branch out with a dramatic role? “It was not a conscious decision,” he said. “I had in the past read dramatic scripts that my agent would send and either think, ‘Oh I wouldn’t be right for this or that role,’ or think ‘Oh, this would be a good one,’ and then they wouldn’t want me to be a part of it. I love comedy, and have already gotten a chance to do my dream job—to do ‘Saturday Night Live’ was what my goal was when I first went into comedy. So after doing that, of course you want to have different new experiences, but I was just so happy and thankful for what I’d already gotten to do that I guess I’d just never really thought about it. And then it just came out of nowhere. It just wasn’t something I’d given much thought to. I guess every once in a while I’d see a dramatic movie and would think, ‘Oh, I wonder if I could do something like that.’ But I never actually had a plan to go in that direction—it just kind of happened.”
When asked about the atmosphere during the shoot, Forte said, “We were hanging together on the set for the most part. We would just stay in the car between takes, or sit in the house, in the family room, when they were getting ready in the kitchen. We all got to know each other really well. We were all away from our friends and families, so we would hang out together on set, and then after we’d go home, if we got home early enough, we’d meet up for dinner at times. It was really just a great experience, because everyone was very nice. And the crew—Alexander’s worked with a lot of the same people from the very beginning, so they all knew one another well. They’re all so good at what they do, but they’re all really nice people. They invite you into their group, and it’s a big, tight family unit.
“A lot of stuff that people do, directors and actors crowd around monitors at the end of a take to see what they’ve done and go out and do it again,” Forte continued. “I think there might have been a monitor there somewhere, but Alexander never really looked at the monitors. He would be out there right next to the camera, watching you with his own eyes, and it was the DP’s responsibility to check in. But Alexander would just be really paying attention to the performances. It was different from what I’m used to. It was interesting to have that level of intimacy, I guess you would say. You felt his presence, and it was really nice.”
He remembered that one time they used the monitor was when he had to punch the character of his father’s old business partner, played by Stacy Keach, and they had to check whether it looked as if he’d connected. “There’s a stunt coordinator who teaches you how to throw a punch. I’ve never punched anybody in my life—I’m a peace-loving man. This guy is teaching you how to make it look like the punch is landing. There’s this distance that you practice the punches, it must have been four feet apart, three feet apart. And then when it came to actually shooting it, we were actually only two feet apart. The distance was halved, and I really was scared that I was accidentally going to punch Stacy Keach. I took a couple times to get the new distance down, and he had to keep reacting to this punch, falling onto the bar and then onto the bar stool and to the floor, and he made it look perfect every time, I kept being too high or too low with my punch, so he had to keep doing it over and over and over again. He was perfect every time. Like a five-tool baseball player.”
When complimented for wincing over the pain in his hand after that punch, Forte said, “That was [one time] definitely I remember [Alexander] telling me [what to do].” Then he jokingly added, “But leave out that part of this response, and let people think it was my choice as an actor. Unless you thought it didn’t ring true, in which case Alexander Payne told me to do it.”
After the laughs subsided, Forte continued, “That was like the whole experience—finding the reality of every situation. I’m not used to doing that. The sketchy version of that stuff, the comedy, is to play everything big. So it was really so new to try to do everything normally. At first I would, I think, go so far the other way that I would underplay it too much, because I wanted to make sure I wasn’t even close to sketchiness. At lot of time Alexander would push me back and have been do things with a little more energy, because I was tending to go so far the other way that it was maybe too subtle.”
Forte’s character spends most of the running-time of “Nebraska” interacting with the legendary Dern, who won the best actor prize at Cannes for his performance, and was asked whether there was a lot of rehearsal time with him. “We did not get a chance spend much time together beforehand,” he replied. “When we both found out we’d gotten the parts, we met up with Alexander for a steak dinner in Los Angeles. It was a really fun dinner, we just heard a bunch of Bruce stories—he tells the best stories. But even at that dinner I was nervous. Here was this actor I had so much respect for and this director I have so much respect for. I was like, I hope I get to a point where I’m comfortable with these guys and can actually talk to them, too, because I was mostly listening. They have so much in common, and Alexander knows so much about film, and Bruce would tell these stories about obscure actors from the fifties and sixties, people that Alexander had heard of, and they could talk about scenes from movies that both remembered, and it was a foreign language almost. They were already on the same wavelength and they communicated in a really fun way, and I was just nervous—what if I can never communicate with these guys?
“That was the only time I saw them before we went out to Nebraska. Alexander had us go out a week early. It was a rehearsal period, but we really didn’t rehearse at all. We were just hanging out—Alexander would drive us out to the different locations that we were going to be filming the various scenes at—excuse me, to the various locations at which we were going to be filming the various scenes,” he added as a genial correction. “It was just getting comfortable with each other and getting to know each other. And already by the time we actually started filming, Bruce and I had started bonding, June [Squibb, who plays Woody’s sharp-tongued, brassy wife] and I had started bonding, Alexander and I were much more comfortable with each other. I felt very intimated going into the process, but by the time we actually started making the movie, I felt comfortable enough, just as a starting point, and then got more and more comfortable as we filmed. And Bruce and I over the course of two months spent so much time together—in these car seats for eight, ten hours a day—and between takes we’d just sit there and talk, and he’d tell me a lot of stories, and soon it became a fun dialogue. And by the end of the shoot it was just a really wonderful relationship, very similar to the relationship you see our characters in the movie [develop]. That transformation happened to us just as people. It was just an awesome experience.”
Forte also marveled over Squibb’s crowd-pleasing performance. “It is a testament to her acting that she is nothing like the role she is playing in the movie,” he said. “It’s so different from who she is as a person—she’s such a sweet, wonderful woman. It’s fun to see her do that transformation from off camera to on camera. Before I met her,… all I knew about her [was as Jack Nicholson’s wife in another Payne film, ‘About Schmidt’], and I could never have imagined that the woman who played that role could play the mother’s role in this movie, because they’re two such different characters. She’s such an amazing actress.”
As Forte’s nuanced performance in “Nebraska” demonstrates, he’s quite a remarkable actor as well.