“Nebraska” has the distinction of showcasing both a veteran actor’s finest work and a sketch comic’s unexpectedly triumphant foray into serious filmmaking.
Famed character actor Bruce Dern stars as aging alcoholic Woody Grant, an ornery Midwesterner convinced he’s won a junk mail contest, and sets out to claim the million-dollar grand prize. When the license-less Woody stubbornly attempts to make the trip from Montana to Nebraska by foot, his son David (Will Forte) grudgingly resolves to drive him.
Directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne (“The Descendants”), “Nebraska” walks the line between comedy and drama with a colorful cast of characters that emerge when Woody and David stop at the patriarch’s dusty home town, where his good fortune is greeted with both enthusiasm and ire. The black-and-white film co-stars June Squibb as Woody’s biting wife and Stacy Keach as his bitter ex-friend.
Forte departed “Saturday Night Live” in 2010 after eight years of memorable characters, including his famously distracted special agent, MacGruber. The 43-year-old writer and actor has appeared in several high-profile comedies since leaving New York, but his straight-man performance in “Nebraska” is earning him critical praise.
I sat down with Will at the 22nd Philadelphia Film Festival to talk about his fear of auditioning, his memories of the Midwest and an RV road trip story so unusual, I thought it was a joke.
David Onda: First off, I have to tell you that I really enjoyed “Nebraska.”
Will Forte: Thank you. When I first read the script, I was really blown away by it and just loved the character of David and felt this connection to it, but I never would have thought that I could have gotten the role.
Onda: It’s funny you say that, because I’ve read that you’re legitimately scared of auditions.
Forte: Oh, it terrifies me. I started as a writer. I was at the Groundlings sketch, improv, comedy theater in Los Angeles. The writing stuff started to take off and I hadn’t really done any acting, didn’t have an acting agent, didn’t ever really audition, so I had only gone on a few random auditions before getting the “SNL” job. I never developed that auditioning skin, the thick skin that people get, so I would still get really nervous in those situations. The one thing that helped with the “Nebraska” audition was that the first time I did the part, I put it on tape, so I was able to control my performance and not be nervous because I’m just in my own house with a friend taping it. By the time I had to go in person, I at least had that confidence that [Payne] liked, generally, the area I was going in. I have the ability to overthink every single thing in my life. I was still terrified going in there.
Onda: Has it been harder, as hard or less hard post-“SNL” than you thought it would be?
Forte: That’s an interesting question. I guess I didn’t have any preconceived notions of what life would be like after “SNL.” I certainly never thought, ‘Oh, there is a movie career out there waiting for me.’ I didn’t feel owed anything. I had a chance to do my dream job at “SNL,” so anything after that would be gravy. And I didn’t leave the show to pursue a movie career, a TV career or anything like that. I left more just because it seemed like the right time to go. My family is on the West Coast, so it’s nice to get back to them. It’s a grueling schedule. It is the best experience I’ve ever had in my life. I left just thinking, ‘Whatever happens, I’m fine with. If the acting stuff dries up, then I’ll just go back to writing.’
Onda: “Nebraska” was actually filmed in Montana and Nebraska, wasn’t it?
Forte: Yeah! Every location is geographically true to the script. It’s beautiful. It’s way prettier than I imagined it was gonna be. I thought it was gonna be very monotonous, the landscape. We were only in Montana for a week and a half. We were in Nebraska for seven weeks and it was just a delightful place. Everyone was so welcoming, and it was really nice to feel that kind of warmth. It was a wonderful experience.
Onda: Many of the supporting actors are real Nebraskans with no acting experience, which gives the film extra authenticity. Did that help you be more authentic in your performance?
Forte: Absolutely. As I said, I have not had a ton of experience with this type of acting, so you get in your head about certain things. And seeing these people who had zero acting experience come in and do their parts, it reminds you, “Oh, don’t try to do too much with it.” The script already does so much of the work for you – it’s such a well-written script, it just reminded me not to act too much. [laughs] If that makes sense.
Onda: How did you approach David’s character arc? Where is he emotionally, and what does he gain from this road trip with his father?
Forte: I think there’s my own personal stuff, where I’m kind of stuck in my life. I think most of the story is about my relationship with my dad – which could even be the reason I’m stuck, partially – and just getting to know him better, hearing about his life, because he doesn’t say much about his life. So, getting a chance to hear from other people, some clues about the kind of person he is and how he got to be that way. Some good, some bad, but just everything completes the puzzle of Woody a little more. I think that’s the evolution, just coming to terms with who my father is.
Onda: I’m not sure if this was a joke, but you’ve said that, to get the countryside footage, Alexander bought the RV from his movie “About Schmidt,” and you all drove the road trip route filming.
Forte: Yeah. Did you really think that was a joke?
Onda: Yeah! I’d say that sounds a bit suspicious.
Forte: It was the big RV, this huge RV. It was such a wonderful way to end the movie, because we had done all the scenes with dialogue and then we started in Billings, Montana. There was this contraption fitted to the front of the RV, where they could put the camera right on the front of the RV, and they would follow the Subaru that we were driving as we drove from Billings to Lincoln. We didn’t go all the way to Lincoln, but we went back to Norfolk, which was our hub while we were shooting in Nebraska. You had gotten to know everyone so well during the shoot, and then all the pressure was off because you didn’t have to learn lines anymore and you could hang out with these wonderful people for another week.
Onda: And Bruce was with you in the car?
Forte: Yeah. Bruce and I drove the whole way. Sometimes they would put the camera in the car and we would do shots in there, but for the most part, it was just Bruce and I driving for four or five days as the RV followed us.
Onda: Did you get some good Bruce Dern stories during that drive?
Forte: Oh my god. There are only good Bruce Dern stories. He never tells a clunker. He’s such a character. I love the guy so much. It’s a real testament to his acting. He’s such a vibrant talkative person in his life, and then to switch over to this role that he plays in the movie, Woody, who hardly says a word and is very gruff – it’s just amazing to see him turn on a dime. The camera starts rolling and he just goes from this super-talkive, gabby, wonderful guy, to being this laconic, gruff, a-hole.
“Nebraska” is now open in select theaters. Click here to check times and buy tickets through Fandango.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.