JOHN SHEARER/INVISION/AP Enlarge
Like many Saturday Night Live veterans, Will Forte came up through improv group the Groundlings, where his classmates included Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig. But his initial gigs were on the writing side — first as a staffer on the short-lived Jenny McCarthy Show and then on the Late Show With David Letterman and That ’70s Show. And those experiences formed his acting.
“If I were doing somebody else’s sketch, in my head I’d be thinking about if they were happy with this. I would be very tentative,” Forte recalled.
One of those characters was MacGruber, a send-up of MacGyver and ’80s nostalgia. When Forte left SNL in 2010, it was on the heels of a MacGruber movie spinoff written with SNL friends John Solomon and Jorma Taccone and co-starring Rudolph and Wiig. “We made exactly the movie we wanted to make,” Forte said. This made the critical and commercial failure of it harder to process despite the slow crawl it’s making towards cult status. “We’re going to write a sequel at some point, but I don’t know if anyone will let us make it.”
Forte, 43, has a disarming humbleness about him. When asked about his recent turn to dramatic roles, he offered: “It’s hard enough getting comedy acting jobs — it’s not like I’m the go-to guy for comedy roles — so I didn’t think it was anywhere in the realm of possibility.”
That realm opened up when Oscar-nominated short-film director Steph Green approached him about appearing in her feature debut, Run and Jump, which received its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last year and is available on video on demand.
He remembers calling friends during filming to voice suspicions that he was out of his depth. “I was very self-conscious about how I was doing. ...”
Those who remember Forte parading on screen in MacGruber naked — while “holding” a strategically placed stick of celery — might find it hard to believe the actor could be susceptible to shyness.
“You do things in comedy that seem like they would be embarrassing, but it’s nowhere near as trying to seem realistically emotionally open in front of a camera,” he said. “It’s really terrifying.”
He was eager to jump back in when Alexander Payne was looking for a lead for Nebraska.
“It’s hard to put a label on it because it has really funny parts, but I wouldn’t call it a comedy,” Forte said of the film.
Indeed, there is a melancholic cloud that hangs over the film’s wide-stretching landscapes but also space for what has to be the funniest moment involving an air compressor that’s ever been captured on film.
Forte’s next project brings him back to writing, but it’s walking the same fine line between comedy and drama.
He’s developing a series, The Last Man on Earth, for Fox that imagines a virus that has wiped out the world, leaving just one man, who discovers that a woman’s survived too.