Will Forte is known for zany comedic characters, so what the hell is he doing playing the straight man to a slew of big midwestern characters in a black-and-white dramedy? Oh, just killing it. The 43-year-old Saturday Night Live alum (2002–2010) never expected he would beat out formidable competition like Bryan Cranston, Paul Rudd, and Casey Affleck to land a lead role in Nebraska, but esteemed director Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants) saw the innocence, weariness, and sadness Forte can carry in his eyes and knew he was right for the role.
Forte plays David Grant, a life-slumping stereo salesman in Billings, Mont., who humors his ornery and increasingly senile father, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), by driving him to Lincoln, Neb., so he can claim the nonexistent million-dollar prize he thinks he's won from a magazine subscription service. Along the way, they stop to visit quirky family and friends in Woody's Nebraskan hometown, where news of his "riches" leaks. In spending time with his dad and speaking to people who knew him as a younger man, David realizes how Woody became a brusque alcoholic curmudgeon and that even now there is more to him than that.
It's odd to see Forte laying back in a role but his quiet and reserved approach perfectly complements the film's more overt comedic moments (see: June Squib, as David's mom, giving an unfiltered account of the deceased in a cemetery) and brings sincerity to tender ones. Forte, who's sure to get a few awards nominations, spoke to Complex about midwesterners he met while filming in Nebraska, playing it straight, and why frying bull testicles doesn't make eating them any less gross.
Did you have any distinctly midwestern experiences while you were filming on location?
I’m from northern California and I spent very little time in the midwest. My grandma and grandpa moved out from Kansas. Even though they live in California, they still have this midwest attitude to them, so when I got out there it just felt familiar to me. I ate some Rocky Mountain oysters. I don’t think it gets more midwest than that. I will not do it again, but I figured I had to do it once.
It was a real pleasure to experience the area for so long because we got to see it in a way we wouldn’t have had we only been there for a couple of days on a trip. The people of Nebraska are so nice! All the people that I met were so nice and welcoming that they make you feel local for a while. They were not nice enough to talk me out of Rocky Mountain oysters, though. That’s the one negative. That’s the one grudge that I’ll hold against them.
Describe your experience eating bull testicles.
It was short. I had one bite of one bull testicle. The taste was...not for me, but I don’t know if my mind made it taste worse than it actually was because I knew what it was. If somebody had just said, "Try this. Tell me what you think," I’d probably say, "Oh, it’s pretty good." It's different when somebody says, "Hey, I have a plate of Rocky Mountain oysters. They’re mashed up and fried bull testicles." "OK, well, I don’t know if I want to try those." "You gotta give it a try." "OK, I will." [Laughs.]
At least they were mashed up and a little less recognizable.
That is true, but people say you can fry anything and it’ll taste great. This puts that to the test. [Laughs.] I’m joking. I’m happy to have had the experience, and it was not that gross.
The movie is full of colorful midwestern characters, from super-nice townspeople to David's one-word uncles and beefy criminal cousins. Did you meet anybody who was anything like these characters?
A lot of the people who are in Nebraska are not actors.
Were they locals?
Yeah, retired farmers and such. These wonderful people who had never acted before were all really, really good. It was a fun experience. Actually the people who had very little acting experience taught me a lot of lessons. When I watched them and saw them delivering these honest and realistic portrayals of the characters, it taught me not to act too much and just be in the moment. I tend to over-think things.
Was there anything of your own personal family experience that you brought to the father/son relationship with Bruce?
My grandfather, on my mother’s side, was a man of few words and he was a version of Bruce's character. He was a wonderful man. I just didn’t know that much about him because we wouldn’t talk that much. But he was very loving and created a loving family environment. He was great. I loved him very much, but you could also get frustrated at times when he wouldn’t talk, so that relationship made a lot of sense to me.
David's brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and his mom seem to have hit a breaking point with Woody where they don’t want anything to do with him. He’s an annoyance and a reminder of neglectful parenting. Why do you think that David still feels something for his father?
That’s a tough one to answer. It made sense in my head. I’m an optimist by nature. I will stay at a basketball game when it’s way out of reach, just thinking, "What if they came back? Then I would be seeing the best comeback of all time! Who knows?" And then it won’t happen, but I’ll still stay until the end of the next one. That kind of extends through every part of my life, and sometimes that’s a positive and sometimes it’s a negative. I feel like the character of David, that I play, is possibly the same way, just holding out hope that somehow this relationship can be salvaged. I don’t know how to explain it. [Long pause.] Yeah. [Laughs.] I did talk a lot about basketball. I don’t know if that answered the question at all, but now you know I am a basketball fan of the L.A. Clippers. The game against Memphis two seasons ago, when they were down by 30-something points at the end of the third quarter, I was the guy still watching that game.
How did Alexander Payne, Bob Odenkirk, and Bruce Dern inform your portrayal of David?
Bob Nelson's script is so well-written. All the characters were laid out so clearly that it really did a lot of the work for you. Alexander is such an amazing director, so if you veered off a little bit, he knows exactly what he wants. He has this wonderful way of nudging you back on the right path.
Bruce and June and Bob and Stacy [Keach], they’re such good actors that know exactly what they’re doing and they bring these characters to life in such a realistic way that you can’t help but react in a similar fashion. It made it so much easier to be in the moment and be in the scene. Every element made it so much easier than it could’ve been. I went in very intimidated by the process and then you just keep forgetting, "Oh, you’re surrounded by these wonderful people who are all so good at what they do." It makes you feel really comfortable and confident and protected.
The comedy in Nebraska is nothing like what you normally do. How did your approach to the material change because of that?
I’m so used to doing big broad stuff and wacky absurd characters. The comedy in this is so much more grounded than that. It was fun because I’ve always had so much respect for Alexander’s stuff. The tone of all his movies is so unique, so to get to be a part of it was a huge thrill, and in the movie I’m the straight man, so it was a new experience in every way. But then when you actually get down to start to do it you realize there are a lot of similarities. The tone of it is completely different, but how you approach it is very similar.
Bruce’s advice to me was always, "Find the truth of the scene," and as an untrained actor it sounded just like a bunch of hooey to me. [Laughs.] It resonated with me the further in we got. It was like, "Oh my god. I know exactly what he’s talking about." To get to work with him was such an honor, and to get to be so close with him was really special. We went into it not knowing each other at all and we came out of it like a family, so in a lot of ways the journey that we take as characters in the movie, the same journey that was happening off screen.
With your wacky comedic background, did you ever feel like busting out with some absurdity while playing the straight man?
I had no desire at all to bust out. The script was so well-written that if I had done something like that it would’ve hurt the movie. It was so different from what I’m used to, so the challenge of trying to portray this character as was written and to bring this character to life as the writer and director intended was exciting, and that was my only goal.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)