NEW YORK -- Putting celery in one's butt is not the traditional pathway to coveted dramatic roles.
But three years after the Saturday Night Live spinoff MacGruber -- and that infamous moment of vegetable prop comedy -- Will Forte finds himself starring in an Irish drama playing at the Tribeca Film Festival (Run & Jump) ahead of his starring role in Alexander Payne's Nebraska, an entry to this year's Cannes Film Festival.
"I have no idea how I found myself in this position," says a bewildered Forte.
Though known for ridiculously over-the-top characters on SNL (a hermit falcon-owner, a potato-chip-obsessed NASA scientist), the 42-year-old comedian is more earnest than you'd expect. In a recent interview, a wide-eyed Forte peppered nearly every answer by adding how thankful he is for his good fortune.
In Run & Jump, Steph Green's feature debut, Forte plays an American psychologist who moves in with an Irish family to study and document how they adjust to living with a father (Edward MacLiam) brain damaged from a stroke.
"It was interesting to not hide behind these big, bold characters and just kind of act like a normal person," he says. "You feel very vulnerable.... I'm surprisingly kind of a private person, but that's coming from a person who put celery in their butt."
Forte, a California native, came up as an improv performer with the Groundlings before finding success as a comedy writer, notably for David Letterman's Late Show. He arrived at SNL relatively late, at 32, but stayed for eight years, performing wide-ranging, bug-eyed lunatics.
Tina Fey admired his boldness not just on SNL, but in his memorable cross-dressing cameos on 30 Rock.
"Will is so deceptively all-American handsome, but his taste in comedy is so wonderfully weird and unafraid to be arbitrary, dark or occasionally even filthy," Fey said in an email.
The MacGyver parody MacGruber helped Forte transition away from SNL. While a box-office disappointment, earning just $8.5 million, the absurdist comedy has its cult adherents.
Green says she thought of Forte early on for her drama, having glimpsed from press interviews that he was "a thoughtful, in some ways shy, self-deprecating, deep individual."
Green urged Forte to grow out his beard (the classic calling card of a "serious" performance for a comedian). Forte took some convincing to play the role.
"It took me a while to get out of my own head," he says. "I didn't go to acting school. I took a drama class with Mr. Eggerson in high school."
Forte found out he had landed the part in Nebraska on his way to Ireland to shoot Run & Jump. He had sent an audition tape to Payne, but didn't get called back to meet with the director for four months. "I just assumed that they hated it," he says.
Forte also recently finished shooting a starring role in an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's The Switch, with a cast including Tim Robbins.
"I somehow was able to get this opportunity to do these movies that never in a million years would I think I'd get a chance to do," says Forte.
But he also still hopes to make a sequel to MacGruber, and says he and director Jorma Taccone have planned a rough story line. "I don't think any more celery will go in my butt," says Forte. "I feel like I've put my family through enough celery. Asparagus?"
-- The Associated Press