Will Forte surprised to land 'Nebraska' role

If Will Forte had never made it to "Nebraska," the movie, that would have been fine. After all, he was thrilled just to audition for Alexander Payne, the director of such outstanding movies as "Sideways" and "The Descendants."

"People think that this was all some plan to move into drama," the former "Saturday Night Live" and "MacGruber" funnyman said recently by phone.

"I was not searching for a drama to do. My agent sent me this script and I read it and thought it was awesome and felt this connection to the character," he said, but never imagined he would land the gig. "It was the most unexpected and exciting situation to find myself in; I am so thankful to Alexander for letting me be a part of this."

Mr. Forte put himself on tape and then, after 41/2 months, heard that Mr. Payne wanted to meet him. "That was just a thrill right there. Even if that was where it ended, that was so exciting because I was such a huge fan of his. So to hear that he had appreciated it enough to not just throw the tape in the garbage can was enough for me."

After all, Mr. Forte said of himself: "I don't know that I'd call me box office poison but I'm also not box office candy." For moviegoers, however, Mr. Payne took a sweet and rewarding risk by casting him as Bruce Dern's son in "Nebraska," opening today at the Manor Theater in Squirrel Hill.

Mr. Dern plays Woody Grant, a Billings, Mont., retiree who receives a notice saying he has won $1 million but he cannot or will not read between the lines to realize it's a sweepstakes tease sent to millions of Americans. Woody's tart-tongued wife, June Squibb, thinks he's a fool but son David (Mr. Forte) reluctantly agrees to drive his alcoholic dad to Nebraska to claim the nonexistent fortune.

Mr. Forte first met Mr. Dern ("he tells the best stories") at a steakhouse dinner with the director and, a month later, headed to Nebraska for a week of what could be called rehearsal time.

"We didn't really rehearse, we just hung around -- Bruce and June and I, with Alexander. He would take us around to the different locations. We just got to know Nebraska, and we got to know each other but we didn't really put any scenes up on their feet. We read through the script one time and that was it. It was really more about getting comfortable with each other as people."

For Mr. Forte, that was dandy. "By the time we started working, I felt like I was working with friends, rather than people who were judging me."

After all, in addition to Mr. Dern and Ms. Squibb, the cast includes Stacy Keach as Woody's long-ago business partner, Bob Odenkirk as David's more successful brother and Rance Howard as an uncle.

Mr. Forte, 43, a California native, had never been to the state of Nebraska before the production. "We shot a little bit in Montana and I used to go to a dude ranch with my family up in Montana as a kid, and I went to Mount Rushmore once. So I was in the state of South Dakota for a day. Never in Nebraska.

"My mom's side of the family lived in Kansas. So my grandma came over from Kansas so I feel like I'm familiar with the Midwest code of values and ethics but had not spent a ton of time there -- just a little bit of time in Kansas City and I had a girlfriend in Iowa, so I visited there a little bit.

"This was my first time in Nebraska. I love it!"

Since the movie's world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival almost seven months ago, Mr. Forte has heard from strangers who confide their relatives fell for scams or schemes that sound too good to be true -- because they are.

"It's so interesting. My family is nothing like the family in 'Nebraska' the movie, and yet there were still so many elements that seemed so relatable, I don't even know where it came from. I feel like most people who see this movie can relate to the relationships they see in this movie."

Mr. Dern was named best actor at Cannes and by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and earned one of the movie's six Independent Spirit Awards for best male lead. He also is a best actor nominee for the Golden Globes and for the Screen Actors Guild awards. Mr. Forte and Ms. Squibb are up for best supporting male and female for the Screen Actors Guild, and "Nebraska" earned the guild's nods for best feature, director and first screenplay. "Nebraska's" five Golden Globe nominations include best comedy film, best director and best supporting actress.

The onetime "SNL" player said Mr. Dern's performance felt "super special" even as they were filming. "I had the best seat in the house watching this legendary actor give the performance of a lifetime. The thing I didn't know was just what a wonderful friend and teacher he would be to me during the process. He was so good to me -- patient and encouraging. ...

"The relationship between us that you see in the movie is very similar to what was happening in real life, so it's been just a really fun experience getting to know him and now we're still in each other's lives."

The movie also drove home a joyous reminder for Mr. Forte: "It made me realize that I have wonderful relationship with my family but I get busy and I don't get to see them all the time. It made me realize, make time, because who knows when it's all going to be over?

"And take advantage of these really awesome people in your life and, thankfully, I don't need to repair any relationships with family but that doesn't mean that I'm the perfect son and as good as my relationship is with my parents, it could always be better."

"Nebraska" may have helped open other doors for Mr. Forte, hired for a big-screen adaptation of Elmore Leonard's "The Switch" called "Life of Crime," and by Peter Bogdanovich for "Squirrels to the Nuts."

He still watches "SNL" live or by DVR and went to New York for the mid-October episode hosted by Bruce Willis. "It's a family there," he said, "so going back there, it's just like you're going home for Thanksgiving."

Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.

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