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That '70s guy

Will Forte revisits the past for dramatic step forward

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If the average Joe is asked to picture Will Forte, the portrait that likely comes to mind is MacGruber, the faux can-do action hero he introduced during his eight-year stint on Saturday Night Live. In the role, Forte channelled the style of the 1980s with his funky utility vest and cool mullet.

But Forte himself is very much a child of the '70s: he was born at the dawn of the decade, June 17, 1970. Prior to being cast on SNL in 2002, he was a writer on That '70s Show.

His newest role is in the Alexander Payne comedy-drama Nebraska. While contemporary in its Midwest setting, it very much has the feel of a '70s movie, a melancholy-laced, incisive character study reminiscent of Five Easy Pieces or The Last Picture Show, which, like Nebraska, was shot in a gloriously evocative black and white. (Coincidentally, Forte's next movie, the comedy-drama She's Funny That Way, is actually directed by Last Picture Show's '70s auteur Peter Bogdanovich.)

"I'm a huge fan of '70s movies," Forte says, adding the experience of making Nebraska put him on the set for hours at a time with Bruce Dern, the actor whose career peaked in the '70s, working alongside the likes of Jack Nicholson, Jane Fonda and John Wayne.

"It was really amazing going from this experience -- Bruce Dern telling these wonderful stories for hours and hours each day -- and then getting to work with Bogdanovich and hearing these other amazing stories about different people."

The Nebraska experience was unexpected for Forte, given that his own forte has been so rooted in comedy. His character, David Grant, is the estranged son to Dern's alcoholic father, obliged to accompany the old man on a quixotic journey to Lincoln, Neb., to collect a dubious million-dollar prize offered by a mail-order company.

Given that Nebraska director Alexander Payne can generally have his pick of lead actors -- such as George Clooney (The Descendants) and Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt) -- Forte was surprised and honoured to land the role.

"I didn't even know really why my agent sent me the script because I was like: This is a beautiful script, and I love this character, but there is no way I would ever get this role.

"When I read the script, I definitely felt a connection with the character," he says. "I'm a very confident person, but definitely sometimes that confidence is covered in layers of insecurity and so there was a part of me that was like, 'Oh God, I know who this character is and I think I can do this,' but I just thought I'd never get the chance."

A potentially different dynamic for Forte was in his role as straight man to Dern and June Squibb, the octogenarian actress who plays his mom (and who gets many of the film's funniest lines). This wasn't as difficult as you might think.

"I came up through the Groundling system, and everyone plays straight man for someone else through the system," he says, referring the Los Angeles improv comedy company that spawned the likes of Amy Poehler, Will Ferrell and Melissa McCarthy. "You'll play straight man for someone in their scene and they'll play straight man for you in your scene.

"It's certainly a different type of straight man in this movie, but at least the concept of the straight man is not something I'm completely unfamiliar with. I'm somewhat comfortable to be in that role."

Forte is hopeful the role may lead to other opportunities in drama.

"If doing this movie helps me to have other experiences like this, God, that would be the best thing ever, but I am also very aware of how lucky I am to get this experience even once."

Nebraska opens at the Globe Theatre Friday, Dec. 20.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 19, 2013 C6


Updated on Thursday, December 19, 2013 at 8:44 AM CST: adds photo, adds video

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