Will Forte can’t believe he’s in ‘Nebraska’

December 4, 2013

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Will Forte didn’t worry about getting the role in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” because he assumed he didn’t have a chance.

Then Payne cast him as half of what is partly a two-man road movie – opposite notorious scene-stealer Bruce Dern.

“It was the most surprising wonderful moment,” Forte says. “Then the fear set in.”

Fear? Here’s Forte who, having achieved his career goal by joining the cast of “Saturday Night Live” in 2002, left the show with no real careers aims or goals – and zero aspirations as an “actor.” No experience either, for that matter.

Forte never acted in high school or college, though when he went to work at a brokerage after college at UCLA, it was mostly because that’s what his father did.

“I think I knew I would love to go into comedy,” Forte says, though he’d never done it before.

Similarly, though he’d never played a role like the one in “Nebraska,” he got his agent to submit a tape of him doing a couple of scenes. Four months later, he was called in to read in for Payne himself.

“I sent the tape in and immediately forgot about it,” he says. “Then he called me in. And just getting the chance to read for him would have been a huge career highlight, if it ended right there.”

Payne called a month later to tell Forte he had the role. Now there he was, getting real with Dern (who worked with everyone from Alfred Hitchcock and Elia Kazan to Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson to Quentin Tarantino) in a film by the Oscar-winning Payne.

“That was really a fear-making combo,” Forte, 43, says. “Here was this wonderful script and I was going to be working with Alexander Payne. And Bruce Dern is this legend. Plus there were all these unknowns just about acting. So I tend to go to the worst-case-scenario in my mind and work myself up from there. Then, a week before production, all the unknowns became known and they were very pleasant.

“Alexander is so good at relaxing you. He has the most relaxed personality. And Bruce was wonderful to me. That first week we read through the script but, mostly we just drove around looking at the locations and getting to know each other. It was this big supportive group, so it was easier for me to get out of my head. Although I still found things to worry about on a daily basis.”

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In “Nebraska,” Forte plays David Grant, whose aging father Woody (Dern) becomes convinced that a magazine sweepstakes pitch says he actually won $1 million – and fixates on walking to Lincoln, Neb., where the outfit has its office. David decides to drive him there as a chance to spend some time with the taciturn and fading old man.

But where Woody (a role which won Dern the best-actor award at Cannes) is an at-times silent character, Dern is notoriously loquacious, a chatterbox with a trove of stories collected in more than a half-century in Hollywood.

“I love his Hitchcock stories,” Forte says. “All his stories are great. To get to see him do this part with my own two eyes is an experience I’ll never forget. I see the way Alexander put it together up on the screen and feel it turned out as special as it felt while we were doing it.

“Bruce is like family now. I’m touched by how well he’s being received. But when we were stuck in a car together for all that time, I thought we would either come out of this and never talk to each other again – or we’d be friends for life.”

Forte had gone from performing with the Groundlings in Los Angeles to writing for everything from “That 70s Show” to David Letterman. But he was spotted performing with the Groundlings during a semi-annual foray back on to its stage and wound up at “SNL” from 2002-10.

“I got to have my ultimate dream fulfilled,” he says. “Then it was time to go. I know you can’t stay there forever, though I would love to have kept doing it. I thought, well, let’s see what’s out there. I figure that, if there’s nothing, I can go back to writing; that gave me a measure of security.

“This movie came out of nowhere. I never thought I was going to be part of something like this.”

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