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Paramount Pictures

State of transition

Profile image for By Boo Allen / Film Critic
By Boo Allen / Film Critic

Forte makes strong foray from comedy to drama in ‘Nebraska’

In the brilliant new father-son character study Nebraska, actor Will Forte takes the part of the bedeviled offspring.

Forte has forged a career around comedy roles, having been a Saturday Night Live cast member for almost a decade and having appeared in many television comedies, including Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock. But with Nebraska, Forte makes an impressive move into dramatics.

In a recent North Texas stop to promote the film, Forte (pronounced “for-tay”) says taking a serious role was “not a conscious decision.”

“I love comedy, and Saturday Night Live was a dream job,” he said. “But after that, of course, you want to have new experiences. But I was always thankful for SNL.”

He described his first exposure to Nebraska, which opened Friday at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas.

“My agent sent me the script, and I read it,” Forte said. “I knew Alexander Payne was directing it, and I never thought I would get the part. I sent in an audition tape and then heard nothing for four and a half months. Then, out of the blue, I was asked to come in and read for Alexander in person. I went in and then found out a month later I got the part. It was the most exciting phone call I ever got.”

Forte said he initially felt anxious about handling the drama. He wasn’t sure if he was effective and persuasive.

“In comedy, you can tell better how to gauge it. The reactions are immediate,” he said. “Here, not many people looked at the monitors because they knew what they had.”

But Payne and his crew made him comfortable.

“Alexander’s crews have worked with him all along,” Forte said. “They’re like a family and make you feel part of that family.”

Forte had never worked with any of the principal actors in the film, who are an impressive roster of veterans — all older than he is. Although he didn’t know Bruce Dern, who plays the father to Forte’s character, Forte soon became better acquainted with the actor.

“Sitting in cars in between takes for eight hours at a time, we got to know each other really well. I loved listening to his stories,” Forte said. “By the end of filming, we had a wonderful relationship, almost like it was in the film.”

At one point in Nebraska, Forte has a scene slugging iconic actor Stacy Keach.

A fight expert trained Forte — who says he’s someone who “has never hit anyone in my life.”

He would have to come close enough with a punch to make it look like he had decked Keach. But he was so scared of actually landing a punch that he missed — by a lot.

“I kept missing by two and three feet, and he had to keep falling on the bar and then hitting the floor,” Forte said. “He’s like a five-tool baseball player. He can do anything.”

Forte said it was hard to adopt the mentality needed to even look like he had hit the husky Keach.

“This whole experience was finding the reality of the situation. I’m used to comedy, so doing this was new — that is, trying to do it normally. Alexander had to push me a few times to put more energy into it,” Forte said.

The actor made clear his admiration for June Squibb, who plays his mother in the film.

“The role she’s playing is so different from what she is in life. It was fun watching her transform herself everyday into her character. I would never have imagined her as the woman she played in About Schmidt,” he said. Squibb played the mostly silent wife to Jack Nicholson’s Schmidt in Payne’s 2002 film.

For his interview with a group of journalists, Forte shared lunch, talked at length about the movie, and then posed for photos. The actor did not leave until he felt he had answered every question. He then shook hands with everyone and, before leaving, hugged everyone.

“I’m a hugger,” he said.