The last time most of us saw Will Forte on the big screen he had a stalk of celery up his butt as the title hero of “MacGruber” (2010), the ill-fated movie adaptation of his recurring character on “Saturday Night Live.” Now his name is being bruited about for a best actor nomination in Alexander Payne’s bittersweet melodrama, “Nebraska,” which opened earlier this week.
It’s been a remarkable journey. But it almost ended years before it even started, when Forte was offered his first opportunity to pursue his dream . . . and hesitated.
His situation parallels the premise of the movie. In it, he plays David Grant, a guy satisfied working in an electronics store in Billings, Mont. But this complacency is challenged when his alcohol-addled father Woody (Bruce Dern) insists on traveling to Lincoln, Neb., to collect what he thinks is a million dollar sweepstakes prize.
Back in the ’90s, Forte was in the position of both characters, sort of. He was pursuing a safe, humdrum career, but he really wanted to be a comedy writer. Rather than be like Woody, giving up everything for a seemingly impossible dream, should he be like David, and remain at a safe job that didn’t inspire him?
“I could have ended up like David had I not pushed myself at key moments to do what I had to do in order to get what I really wanted,” admitted Forte, 43, who was in town a couple of weeks ago, promoting the film.
“I was working as a broker and doing OK,” he recalled. “But I sent a script to this agent I knew. I didn’t have any expectations, so I was surprised that he liked it and he got me an opportunity to write comedy. But I wasn’t sure. Luckily, the guy I was working for was nice and put me in the position where I had to decide to move up in the company or move on. Plus he said that if it didn’t work out writing comedy I could always get my old job back.”
Forte took the leap in 1997 and in the following years he wrote for various programs, including a short stint on the staff of his idol, David Letterman. But he had another ambition that wouldn’t go away — being a performer. So he joined the Groundlings, the LA comedy troupe that has spawned such “SNL” veterans as Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig.
One night when he was on stage he heard that legendary “SNL” producer Lorne Michaels was in the audience. Forte assumed a position of Zen calm. “I felt I didn’t really need to impress him,” he said, “because I had a job already. So I didn’t feel the pressure.”
But Michaels was impressed. He asked Forte to audition for the show; he did so and was accepted. But once again, Forte hesitated. He had a secure job as a writer, so he decided to wait a year. Then he auditioned again, was accepted again, and in 2002 began an eight-year run on the show.
With these successes behind him, Forte was not so hesitant when the opportunity arose to make a feature film based on his character MacGruber, a parody of the ’80s-’90s TV series “MacGyver.” This did not go so well. “MacGruber” fared poorly with most critics and at the box office. Forte, however, stands by the film.
“I would have been more disappointed if we had to compromise what we were doing to satisfy other people,” he said. “But the producers gave us a free hand. So we had the satisfaction of knowing that we made it exactly the way we wanted to.”
Shortly after “MacGruber” was released, Forte quit “SNL,” citing his desire to spend more time with his family. He appeared in some undistinguished comedies and had his first dramatic role in the small Irish film “Run & Jump” (2013), which has yet to be distributed in the United States. Then destiny challenged him again, when Payne asked him to send an audition tape for the role in “Nebraska.”
“I didn’t have any expectations,” said Forte. “But Alexander called me in for an audition. I was terrified. Yet there was something he saw in me, and, to my surprise, he cast me.
“I think he saw me as kind of like David, that guy working in the electronics store, wondering if there was something more he could do with his life, but not ready to take the steps to do so.”
But Forte was ready. And unlike Woody with his sweepstakes ticket, his winning streak could be just beginning.