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Tribeca 2013: Will Forte Gets Serious – And That Scares Him

For the former "Saturday Night Live" cast member, comedy is easy but drama is terrifying

For the 15 years he’s been in show business, Will Forte has done one thing: comedy. As a member of the Groundlings improv comedy troupe, as a writer for David Letterman, as a member of the "Saturday Night Live" cast for eight years and as an actor in films and TV shows like "That’s My Boy," "30 Rock" and the "SNL" spinoff "MacGruber," his stock-in-trade has been an earnest, clean-cut weirdness, with not a hint of serious acting on his resume.

That changed at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, where Forte showed up with "Run and Jump," a small indie in which Forte plays an American researcher who moves in with an Irish family to document the effects of a stroke on the family’s husband. A quiet, intimate drama that focuses on the growing bond between Forte’s character and the played by Irish actress Maxine Peake, the film won Forte positive notices at Tribeca – and in a month, it will be followed by the Cannes debut of Alexander Payne‘s hotly-awaited "Nebraska," in which Forte makes another dramatic turn as Bruce Dern‘s son.

Getty ImagesTheWrap spoke to an exhilarated but slightly baffled Forte at the Hilton Fashion District in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood during Tribeca.

I hope it doesn’t come across as an insult to say that I didn’t know you had it in you.
No, I appreciate that. I didn’t, either. I thought it was a beautiful script and wanted to be a part of it, but Steph [Green] the director really had to talk me into it. I obviously have a comedic background, and this was so different than what I was used to. I was just nervous that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off.

Had you been looking for serious roles? At a certain point, did you tell your agent to find you dramas?
No, no. This was not a conscious decision. I love doing comedies. I grew up loving “Saturday Night Live,” loving Letterman, Steve Martin, Peter Sellers.

So when you got the script for “Run and Jump,” did you think, I’ve got to develop some new acting muscles?
It was really scary. I just am not used to dramatic acting. I didn’t go to drama school or take acting classes. I learned through the Groundlings, which is such a different thing.

I’m used to doing bigger, crazier characters. Steph was just go good at pointing me in the right direction and helping to fine tune me. When you’re used to doing things that are so big, it’s hard to  have the internal mechanism to tell you what level you should do everything at.

It’s also a very quiet movie, and your character is a guy who holds everything in and never really shows his emotions.
Yeah, yeah. It was very interesting: There were a lot of times where I was just staring out a window, and I’d find myself thinking, Oh, I should be looking over here or looking over here or doing all these things. No, you should just be looking out the window. That sounds like such a stupid little things to understand, but I’m an over-thinker in every aspect of my life.

Basically, you’re just trying to act like a normal person would act. But when you’re doing it, you forget how a normal person acts, and your mind plays tricks on you. That’s the trickiest thing, learning how to get out of your head, which I have a hard enough time doing off camera.

Will Forte and Maxine PeakeDid it take a while on the set to figure that out?
Oh, yeah. I remember after the first week I was sending emails to my friends back home: “What have I gotten myself into? I am horrible in this, I think the director thinks I’m doing a terrible job…” It ended up being a great experience, but it did start with some major fear and shaky confidence, that’s for sure.

But you eventually got comfortable?
I definitely felt much more comfortable toward the end. I’m a neurotic person, so I will always second guess myself and find something to question. But definitely toward the end, my relationship with Steph and the other actors grew so much stronger, which really helped me feel better about the work I was going. Ultimately I look back and I’m really proud of the movie. Are there things I would fix in my performance? Yeah, I wish I could go back and do it all over again. But it was just such an amazing learning experience.

I imagine that when you go from that to co-starring with Bruce Dern in an Alexander Payne movie, you know you’ve got to bring your A game.
Oh, that was very intimidating. Very intimidating. But Alexander has such a calming presence, and Bruce was wonderful also. Certainly it got into my head several times, but what should have been a very scary, intimidating experience was just a magical time.

I talked to Dern a couple of years ago, and what was supposed to be a 20- minute phone interviewer turned into an hour and a half of him telling amazing stories.
That was my life for about two months. He tells the best stories. It’s this father and son road trip, so we were together for 12 hours a day, or longer. I was usually right next to him, and he was telling the best stories. It’s such a wonderful experience, I still can’t believe I got the opportunity to do that.