Emmy Contender Will Forte on Writing, Acting in ‘Last Man on Earth': ‘Fascinating, Terrifying and Exhilarating’

“Everything has been a real eye-opener,” Forte tells TheWrap of the workload

This interview was conducted for the Comedy/Drama Series issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine. 

Will Forte‘s character is not, actually, the last man on earth in the Fox sitcom “Last Man on Earth” – he started the show’s first season as the seeming sole survivor of a humanity-killing virus, but over the course of 13 episodes he met enough fellow survivors to complicate his life enormously.

Forte created the show with Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“The Lego Movie”), with initial plans to sell it to a cable channel and leave the acting to others. But Fox bought the series and Forte ended up finding it irresistible to play the title character, whose rampaging libido continually puts him on the outs with the rest of the survivors.

TheWrap: Where did the idea for “Last Man on Earth” come from?
Will Forte: Chris Miller and Phil Lord and I had been friends for almost 20 years. My first acting job was doing the voice of Abe Lincoln for their show called “High.” I was writing for “Third Rock From the Sun” at the time, and we just became friends.
I didn’t really do that much stuff with them, but I did a little voice for “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” and I played Abe Lincoln in “The Lego Movie.” We were just buddies more than anything. So they got this deal at 20th and asked me if I wanted to write something with them. I thought it was a really fun idea.

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Did you envision creating and writing the show with them and also acting in it?
Going in, I thought it was going to be a writing project. Certainly, the goal was not to create something I would act in. It was to have fun, spend some time together and write. But as I started mapping out the seasons with those guys and writing up the pilot and sinking into the future of the show, I got to be really attached to the character, and couldn’t give it up.

Why not?
Not only did it seem like a fun character, and there were lots of fun scenarios you could put the character in, but there were so many little personality quirks of my own that went into the character. It seemed like it would be weird to have somebody else playing a character who was turning into me. So I said, “You gotta let me try and do this, please.”

It’s interesting that you say the character was turning into you, because he’s not an easy guy to like. Every time you start to feel sympathy for him, he does something despicable. Is it hard to figure out how far you can push that and still have the audience invested in him?
You never know. There’s some excitement in that, but also some real terror, I guess. I’m sure there are some people that we will never be able to win back. Everything we did in the first season seemed like the appropriate thing to do, and we got this whole team of awesome writers. So when we make a decision, we go for it. We stand behind our decisions, but we are also are OK if people have had enough of my character.

Will Forte in Last Man on Earth

Fox

Did you realize the workload you were facing as both a showrunner and a lead actor?
I don’t think I really knew until I jumped into it. Before I went to “Saturday Night Live” I was a sitcom writer, so you would think that I would kinda know what was lying ahead. But I was one of the lower-level writers, so everything has been a real eye opener. As far as the amount of work, I just never knew what went into a show. It’s fascinating, terrifying and exhilarating in equal parts.

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Do you ever think, it’d be nice to not act in this, or it’d be nice to just be an actor?
More times I’ve thought it’d be nice to just be an actor. Every element of it on its own is fun, it’s just that there’s so much. So much. And once it got to that point in the season where the acting and the writing was still going on and the editing was in full swing, that got to be really brutal. You think you’re safe, but oh no, there’s a spotting session for an hour here. And then you’ve got to look at fonts. Fonts, dude? Who knew that fonts would take up a bunch of time? There’s not a font department that takes care of it? It was overwhelming.

Was it a challenge to figure out how long you could maintain the conceit that he really was the last man on earth, before you had to bring in additional cast members?
When we pitched the show, our intention was to have other people come in every couple episodes and fill out the population a little bit. We had to figure out in the writers’ room how long to space out the character introductions.

In the beginning, we were enjoying how it was going with just one character, and then when it’s just two characters. Looking back, I wish we knew that people would be as interested in that part of the show as it seems like they were. Because you can never go back to that again.

I didn’t know how much patience people would have with just watching one person. You look back now and think, oh they would have had more patience. I would have taken a teeny bit more time.

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Is much of the dialogue improvised on the set?
We try to get the writing to the point where you don’t need to improvise. But of course, when you’ve got somebody like Kristen Schaal, who’s a master of improv, we definitely let her do her thing. But the goal is to get the scripts to the point where improvising is only going to hurt it.

The end of the last season teased viewers with the sight of your brother, played by Jason Sudeikis, as an astronaut orbiting the Earth. But bringing the two brothers together doesn’t seem like the easiest thing.
We’re thinking about that right now. It’s been really exciting. We have these really fun ideas that are going to be perfectly in the tone of the show, but different. Fun, big ideas, good cliffhangery stuff. We’ve been finding fun things.

When I was thinking forward to writing the second season, I was like, “What the hell are we going to do?” But it’s nice to hear lots of ideas.

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