Acting wasn’t Will Forte’s first dream.
After graduating from UCLA, he was all set to become a financial “Master of the Universe,” following in the footsteps of his namesake father (Forte was born Orville Willis Forte IV). He managed to land a cushy gig as a financial broker at Smith Barney Shearson in Beverly Hills, where he’d make his fortune. But things didn’t go exactly as planned.
“I hated it. Hated it,” he says. “Everyone was very nice there, but it really showed me that it wasn’t for me. And once I started up with The Groundlings, I knew immediately that this made me really happy, and even if I didn’t get any level of success out of it, it’s what I wanted to do.”
His stint as a member of the famed Los Angeles improv comedy troupe The Groundlings laid the groundwork for his eight-year stint on Saturday Night Live—one that included memorable impressions of George W. Bush and Lorne Michaels, as well as original wacky characters like Andy (the “Ohhhhhhh, Nooooooo!” guy), a former businessman-cum-grizzled hermit known as The Falconer, and MacGruber, an incompetent bomb disposal “expert” who parodied MacGyver. The latter sketch was adapted into a 2010 action-comedy film, MacGruber, starring Forte as the throat-ripping bomb technician with a penchant for celery-in-ass diversions, and Kristen Wiig as his sidekick/lover. Despite poor box office receipts, it later became a cult favorite.
But out of nowhere, the 42-year-old funnyman has emerged as an in-demand dramatic leading man.
The opening salvo is Run and Jump, which made its premiere at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. Directed by Steph Green, the film stars Forte as Ted, an American cognitive neuropsychologist who moves in with a family in Ireland to track how they adjust to life with a father (Edward MacLiam) who suffered significant brain damage from a stroke. Professional lines get blurry when the family’s fetching, courageous mother, played by Maxine Peake, begins to fall for him. And after Tribeca, Forte will head to the Cannes Film Festival for the premiere of Nebraska, writer-director Alexander Payne’s follow-up to The Descendants that also features Forte in the lead. He also just wrapped filming on an untitled comedy-thriller based on a novel by Elmore Leonard, where he’ll star alongside Jennifer Aniston, Tim Robbins, Isla Fisher, John Hawkes, and Mos Def.
While many comedic actors—Jim Carrey, Tom Hanks, and others—have seamlessly transitioned from comedy to drama, Forte says it wasn’t something he was looking for, and certainly wasn’t easy.
“It was tough for me… OK it was terrifying!” he says with a laugh. “I never had this moment of, ‘I’m going to try doing drama movies now.’ I had never ruled it out but it wasn’t some conscious career choice. Steph for some reason had me in mind for this role, and I loved the script and thought it would be a fun thing to try. She was way more confident in me than I was in myself, and I’m thankful she pushed me to do it. I’m not sure I could have done it without her pushing me.”
In order to prepare for the role, Forte combed through a book filled with cognitive neuropsychology cases given to him by Green—he can’t remember the title—and, like Jason Bateman’s recent dramatic turn in Disconnect, made Forte grow a beard which, he says, “made me more comfortable and was something to hide behind, psychologically” even if he “got a lot of crumbs in the beard, constantly.”
The shoot for Run and Jump lasted about six weeks, and while filming occurred primarily in Dublin, Forte stayed in the remote seaside town of Dún Laoghaire, about twelve kilometers from downtown Dublin. He was fairly isolated there. His phone didn’t work, he had no friends around, and he even had a Jameson-soaked birthday there at a bar he says was named “Cops and Nurses, or something,” since it was frequented by them. In addition to getting into character, the isolation, he says, helped in his life-long battle with obsessive-compulsion disorder.
“It comes in waves,” he says. “It definitely affects my everyday life. Mine is a lot of checking locks in patterns, checking stoves that I rarely use to see if the gas is on, or sinks. I don’t want to burn my house down or flood my house. But oddly, the experience in Ireland really had a major effect on my OCD. I had so much time alone and so much time to think about stuff that I realized, ‘Why am I letting this OCD rule my life the way that it does? We’re all gonna die at some point, so what if all my possessions burned down in a fire, or my house gets flooded? What am I scared of losing?’”
Forte’s always been a bit of a late-bloomer. He didn’t really have any comedy experience while at UCLA, aside from being a general “weirdo and crazy with friends.” After The Groundlings, he started his professional comedy career with a writing gig on MTV’s The Jenny McCarthy Show—a sketch comedy series that lasted one season.
“The sketches were so weird,” Forte recalls. “We had one that was called ‘The Island Where Cats Are Poisonous,’ and it was this stupid sketch about this TV show of an island of poisonous cats.” He laughs. “Not much happens but people would just pick up the cats, they’d breathe on them, and then die.”
After that, he wrote for the Late Show with David Letterman, and then spent about a year writing for the NBC sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun. When that show ended in 2001, he moved over to Fox to become a writer and producer for That 70’s Show. That same year, Forte auditioned to become a player on SNL and was accepted, but turned down the opportunity in favor of That 70’s Show.
“I liked the show and all the people I was working with, and they had just gotten picked up for two years and it was a job security that was rare,” he says, “so I was just so nervous about taking the SNL job for financial reasons, and since it was a dream I’d had for so long, I was just scared and afraid that I would fail at it.”
The next year, he managed to get out of his contract and accepted the SNL offer. He started out as a “featured player” in 2002, and after just one year was promoted to the regular cast (it usually takes two years). After enjoying a nice eight-year stint on the show—his favorite sketch was playing a motivational coach alongside Peyton Manning—Forte decided to leave in 2010.
“It was way more of a personal decision than a professional one,” says Forte. “It’s always going to be a crapshoot when you leave there in terms of getting work, but it just felt like the right thing to do. I had been there for eight years, just turned 40, and my sister was having kids and they’re all on the West Coast, so I wanted to be closer to them.” He pauses. “But I loved that job. I’m so thrilled I got to be a part of that show; it was like my family. But it just felt like it was the right time.”
Forte landed the part in Nebraska by sending filmmaker Alexander Payne an audition tape. It took him nearly four months to hear back, but he learned that he landed the lead as he was on his way to Ireland to shoot Run and Jump. In the film, Forte plays David Grant, the estranged son of an aging, alcoholic father, Woody (Bruce Dern), who accompanies his dad on a road trip from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to redeem a million dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize. The film will premiere at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival in the South of France.
“I still can’t believe I was given the opportunity to do it,” he says earnestly. “I gotta get a whole group of people to help me [for Cannes]. I’m the least fashion-conscious person. I’m all about the button-snap cowboy shirts, but I don’t think those are acceptable!”
After the aforementioned Elmore Leonard crime-thriller, in which Forte plays “a witness to a kidnapping,” he’s keen to get going on the sequel to MacGruber, saying, “There is a kernel of truth to the rumors that it’s happening. We’d love to make a second one, and Kristen [Wiig] is in.” But in the meantime, he’s basking in the glow of this exciting left turn his career’s taken.
“This stuff all just kind of happened!” he says. “Whatever seems really cool, I’ll just try to be a part of it. Sometimes I’m allowed to be a part of it, and sometimes I won’t, but I’m just so thankful. Never in a million years did I think I’d get to be a part of some of the stuff I’ve been a part of in the past year.”