Will Forte had a lot of things to be worried about heading into Nebraska. As one of the lead actors in an Alexander Payne film, he’s walking in shoes once worn by Jack Nicholson, Paul Giamatti, and George Clooney. He’s also acting next to some of the form’s greatest living treasures, among them ’70s legends Bruce Dern and Stacy Keach. The comedian, who made his bones on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, also had to fill the most reserved role in the film. His Arthur Grant is the meek modern counterpart to Dern’s quietly assertive Woody: The elder Grant went to war in Korea and exudes gruff masculinity with every step, while the latter has spent most of his existence selling stereo equipment and seems in a state of permanent anxiousness. Woody is trekking, insatiably and with determination, toward a payday he believes is waiting for him in the titular state, while Arthur can’t even manage a commitment to his significant other. Forte, stripped of his outlandish personas and afforded none of the narrative zaniness that defined films like MacGruber, is left with nothing to lean on but his naturalistic acting ability. Coming off more like the understated Arthur than any of his go-for-broke sketch-comedy personas, he spoke to us about the terrifying prospect of working on Payne’s latest.
So what’s it like having to physically confront Stacy Keach?
Well, he’s a very nice man!
I’m terrified of him. I’ve seen The Dion Brothers and Fat City.
He is a physical specimen. He’s a rock, you know? I at least felt like if I accidently connected with his face, during the punching scene, then nothing would happen to his face. My hand would just shatter into a million pieces, like a crystal. He just makes that whole [scene]. And he had to do it over and over again, because of course I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just throwing these punches willy-nilly all over the place. Finally, one connected. Each time though, he was perfect. He’s such an amazing actor. You get this stuff that normally a stuntman would do, and he’s perfect, amazing to watch. Being connected, physically, to certain things is tricky for me. I would, for sure, not be as good at taking a punch as he was.
It seems like, with Keach, with Dern, with the old-school Paramount logo that opens the film, Alexander Payne is making a concentrated effort to call us back to the American cinema of the late ’60s and early ’70s. What’s your relationship to that era of filmmaking and how do you connect to it?
Well, it’s interesting. I was born in 1970, so I watched some of those movies with my parents, but I was a kid. So I took out different things than an adult would. Then the AFI came out with their top 100 list. I looked at the list, and I realized I’d only seen 25 or so of them. So I ended up watching that entire list, except Lawrence of Arabia, which I’m waiting to see on the big screen. And I rewatched the things I had seen before. So I got to see these wonderful movies. And you know, somehow Paper Moon isn’t on that list? I just watched it…God, what a great movie.
I was actually just thinking last night about how there are distinct similarities—narrative structure, shot compositions—shared between Nebraska and Paper Moon.
Interestingly, I’m going back to L.A. later this week with Bob Odenkirk to introduce a double feature of Nebraska and Paper Moon. And I just got to work with Peter Bogdanovich! That was why I’d watched the film. Somehow I’d never seen it, and everyone said I had to.
Bogdanovich has made another movie?
Yeah, it’s called Squirrel to the Nuts. It was a really fun experience. That guy, he’s the ultimate cool dude. Just super mellow. He knows exactly what he wants, and he’s an amazing director, but he’s just so relaxed, and unflappable.
Well, all these guys, these influences, come from a prior generation, of men, and of filmmakers. Do you feel this film is speaking about a generational divide, or is the animosity between your character and Bruce Dern’s character specific to that family?
Well, obviously, you know, every generation has their different qualities. And this is a relationship that felt very familiar to me. My grandfather was very much the way that Bruce is in the movie. A sweeter version of that, as I got along with him very well, but he was a man of very few words. And so I felt I understood that relationship. Years ago, I didn’t think about why that was. He was just Grandpa. I’m sure there’s a lot of what you mentioned in the film though. It’s an aspect of it. But I didn’t have to think about that too much. The script is so well-written, it’s a template.
How did you feel about that script, on first read?
Well, it was beautiful, but a little heartbreaking. I loved it, and I felt a connection to this character, but I felt there was no way I would be able to be in this movie. I knew Alexander Payne was doing it. And it was such a bummer, I’m thinking, “It would be so fun to play this part, but there’s no way [I could get the job].” Somehow, you know, from George Clooney in Hawaii to Will Forte in Nebraska? It was just the most unexpected thing to get this role, and it’s just been so exciting the whole way through. I never thought I’d get a chance to do something like this in my lifetime. I’d already got to do my dream job. SNL was my goal when I was starting up in comedy. I was one of the rare people that got to do their dream job. So to get a chance to do something like this, too, it’s unbelievably cool, and I’m so excited.
“Something like this” meaning dramatic acting under such a respected filmmaker?
Yeah, I never felt like, “Oh, I have to go into drama.” Because I think my footing is very uneven in comedy territory. It’s not like I’m some go-to guy in the comedy world. I’m very proud of what I’ve done, but I know my place.