There are a number of surprises nestled within Alexander Payne's warmly homespun "Nebraska." Like all of Payne's films, it dangles on the precipice between drama and comedy, this time following an elderly man (a revelatory Bruce Dern) as he travels to Nebraska to collect his winnings from a phony sweepstakes mailer he's received. Accompanying him on the journey is his son, played by Will Forte, who is both humoring him and looking for a way to connect with his emotionally distant father. And it's Forte's performance that might be the biggest, most delightful surprise in "Nebraska." This is, after all, an actor who, just a couple of years ago, waddled around on screen with a stalk of celery sticking out of his butthole. Talk about range.
Forte has always been a talented performer, and oftentimes his most memorable creations, like his oafish version of Ted Turner that he trots out on "Conan," are infused with at least some bittersweet sadness. But he's never attempted anything like this. As Dern's put upon son, he's just suffered a breakup, works in a humiliatingly low rent job, and desperately seeks the approval of his father (who seems to be losing his mental faculties). It's an incredibly nuanced piece of work, and one that shouldn't go overlooked, despite being next to Dern's arguably all-time best performance.
We got the chance to chat with Forte about the challenges of accepting such a dramatic piece of work, what it was like working alongside Payne and Dern (and a whole bunch of non-actors), and, of course, what's going on with "MacGruber 2."
Payne has admitted that you were not at the top of his list for this role. How did you win him over?
God … I just submitted a tape. I had read the script, my agent had sent it to me. I loved the script, I loved the part, but I didn't think I had any shot at it. I don't blame him for not thinking I did either. I figured, What the heck? The script was so wonderful and I felt this connection to the character and hey, I play the lottery too.
Had you been working on more dramatic material or had you been looking to go in that direction when you read the script?
No, not at all. I love comedy with all my heart. It's been my life and still is and I would watch dramatic movies and from time to time, I would go, Huh, I wonder if I could ever do that. And most of the time the answer in my head would be, Nah, probably not. I certainly never thought anyone would give me a chance to do it. And then to not only get a chance to be in a movie like this but to be in a movie like this with one of your favorite directors? It was the most unexpected and wonderfully exciting thing of all time.
Can you talk about what it was like working with Alexander and what that whole experience was like?
It was great. I will say, going in, all of the tough stuff was before working with Alexander. The run-up was really nerve-wracking. I was a little intimidated. And once I got there he put me right at ease. He's so confident and knows exactly what he wants and he fills you up with that confidence too. Right away he made me feel like I was his choice and made me feel like part of the club. It turned from what could have been a really uncomfortable experience to the experience of a lifetime.
What was it like working with Bruce Dern?
It was so incredible. He's a legend. I've got to say, I was intimidated going into the process with him too. I'd never met him and didn't know what he would be like as a person. It turned out he was the most delightful human being. You got the best stories you've ever heard, a seemingly endless number of stories. We were trapped in these cars together for weeks so I would hear all of these amazing stories about Hitchcock and John Wayne and so many fascinating people. And the other side of it, when we would actually be working, he was just so patient with me and so nurturing. He was a great teacher on every side of it. He filled me up with confidence also. And all the other people working in the movie were wonderful, too. It was just a great experience.