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.
Jack Nicholson termed the phrase “Dernsie.” Did Bruce get to do any “Dernsies” here?
Well, I think he describes a “Dernsie” as extra dialogue stuff. I’ve gotten to see the movie so many times now and I’m constantly finding new little things that he does. Everything he does amazes me. His performance is so great. Especially if you get to know him as a person and know that he’s this talkative, vibrant person. And then to see him play this man of few words, who is very gruff, it’s about as opposite as you can get in real life. And the same with June Squibb; she is such a delightful woman and if you see her in this movie you cannot believe she is the same person. And she was in “About Schmidt” playing Jack Nicholson‘s wife and her performance in that is the exact opposite also. She’s so great. Being surrounded with actors like that—Stacey Keach is amazing, Bob Odenkirk is great—I can’t believe I got to be around these people and got a shot to work at this.
Was working with the non-actors just as edifying?
Oh yeah! It was really impressive to see these people come in with little to no acting experience and how real a performance they could give. It really taught me stuff that I’ve used in my own performance, even.
You know, just remembering not to try and do too much with something. Not having experience with this type of acting, I wanted to make sure I was as real as everybody else. Everybody else set such a wonderful tone, it made it much easier to fit in and reach the same tone.
Was it jarring switching back and forth between the naturalism of “Nebraska” and things like your appearances on “Conan” and “30 Rock?”
You know, once we got out there, I was mainly on this. I had one weekend when I went into New York to do “30 Rock,” my final “30 Rock” appearance and that was so sad. It was such a great experience working on that too. And there was one time I did a voice over for “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2.” They were wonderful enough to come out to Omaha and we recorded there. So for the most part I was able to focus on “Nebraska” and able to hunker down.
Did that help your performance?
Absolutely. The script was so wonderful and it was a very clear template, as far as showing you what you’re supposed to do. Then to be out in Nebraska, really psychologically sets the stage for you. Every part of the experience was so authentic and every part of it helped to get into the character.
Now that you’ve done “Nebraska” do you want to continue with dramatic roles?
You know, I have no idea. I had such a great experience on this, if there was another script that came around that was a drama that I liked that somehow would let me be a part of it, I would be more than willing to try it. This wasn’t some big orchestrated plan to do drama. This just kind of happened. And I am so appreciative of being given this opportunity because I never thought, in a million years, that I would get to do this.
On the complete opposite side of things—what’s going on with “MacGruber 2?”
All of us have been so busy that we haven’t gotten a chance to get together and write it. We definitely plan on writing it. From there it’s out of our hands, we’ve got to see if somebody will let us make it. But we’re going to write it and look for somebody who wants to do what we write. We love the first one so much that we don’t want to disgrace it by getting in there and mucking up the second one.
“Nebraska” opens in limited release on Friday and expands in the coming weeks.