Leap year: how US actor Will Forte landed a lead role in an Irish film

Will Forte, the comedy actor and writer, star of ‘Nebraska’ and the upcoming Irish film ‘Run & Jump’, talks about giving up stockbroking for comedy – and being hungry at the Iftas

Splashdown: Will Forte and Maxine Peake in ‘Run & Jump’

Splashdown: Will Forte and Maxine Peake in ‘Run & Jump’

 

It would be overstating things to say that Will Forte has found himself at the centre of a controversy, but he is certainly somewhere in the vicinity of a minor media whirlwind.

The night before we meet, the gentle comedy actor and writer – star of Nebraska and the upcoming Irish flick Run & Jump – made an appearance at the Irish Film and Television Awards. As you may recall, a consensus formed that the evening was less than an unqualified success. The show overran. The gags fell flat and a great deal of extraneous noise somehow made it into the television broadcast.

Let’s hope Will knows how to be diplomatic.

“I had a great time there,” he says cautiously. “I loved the looseness of it. There was a festiveness to it. Maybe it was a little too loose. I was hungry – that’s one thing I will say. They didn’t feed us until pretty late and I was a bit jet-lagged. That’s maybe one change I would make. Feed people earlier.”

Forte was at the Iftas to support Steph Green’s impressive Run & Jump , which was nominated for four awards, including best film. The actor stars as an American doctor carrying out a study of an Irish family coping with the aftermath of a father’s stroke. The reliably impressive Maxine Peake plays the mum trying to hold things together.

There are more than a few reasons to express surprise at Forte’s presence in the picture. To this point, he had done almost no straight acting on film – the shoot for Alexander Payne’s Nebraska followed – and he has no conspicuous connections with Ireland. So, how on earth did he find himself in the picture?

“I don’t know,” he says. “The director, Steph Green, had thought of me for the part. For some reason she was confident I could pull it off. I wasn’t confident. The script was great, but I wasn’t sure I could do it. I didn’t want to mess up her great movie. In the end, I was delighted she talked me into it.”

So, how was the shift into dramatic roles? If you knew Forte at all before Nebraska , you probably remembered him as the MacGyver clone in MacGruber or as one of the idiot siblings in The Brothers Solomon . With that pedigree, it hardly needs to be said that he is an alumnus of the Saturday Night Live school of comedy. As writer and performer on that show, he had few opportunities to flex his thespian muscles to the full.

“It was so new to me,” he says. “It’s hard to gauge how you are doing. On Saturday Night you know you are doing well if you get laughs. It’s as simple as that. I just didn’t know how to gauge drama. Of course, you don’t hear laughter, but you don’t hear people crying either on set. I was down on myself for the first few days, but I got over it.”

Forte comes across as a very well- brought-up young man. If things had gone differently, he could be living a quiet, prosperous life as a financial something-or-other in a downtown skyscraper.
His father’s family were originally in the cashmere business in Massachusetts (somebody has to be, I guess). His mother’s clan, from the west coast, were a little less well off and he feels he enjoyed the sort of balanced upbringing that gives a chap a sense of proportion.

“My parents were wonderful,” he says. “We were gifted to have some money, but, with my mum’s parents not having a ton of money, we were taught how lucky we were. So I don’t take anything for granted in life.”

It seems as if he was on the road towards a straight career until relatively late in life. Raised largely in the San Francisco Bay Area, Will studied history at UCLA and, following in his father’s footsteps, went on to train as a financial broker.

Some sort of revelation seems to have struck him while he was poised over the laptop. I imagine him flinging folders and balance sheets in the air and striding from the office towards a waiting garret. By 1997, then in his late 20s, he found himself writing for David Letterman.

“There is a certain truth to that,” he laughs. “My dad was a stock analyst. I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I thought: ‘I guess I’ll do what he did’. I was very unhappy doing that. There was a very long period where I knew I wanted to write and act, but I was nervous to admit that to family and friends. It got to the point where I was so depressed every day and I just thought: ‘I have to give this a shot’.”

Having watched The Larry Sanders Show and 30 Rock , we think we know what it’s like writing for David Letterman or Saturday Night Live . Gangs of borderline-sociopath writers huddle in a bunkers trading jealous insults with one another. Do I have this right? Please don’t say that’s a myth.

“There is some competition in places,” he laughs, “but I would say for the most part the places I’ve worked – particularly Saturday Night Live – there is a supportive atmosphere between writers and cast. You are going into battle. You want your sketches to get on, but you also want a good show. What you most want is the best material to get on.”

Oh darn. Well, if you say so. Forte has managed to make good use of his niceness over the past year or so. After shooting Run & Jump , he made his way to the US interior to star as a patient son to Bruce Dern’s confused father in Alexander Payne’s greatly admired Nebraska . Will’s a proper actor now.

“It’s odd,” he remembers.

“I had spent more time in Ireland doing Run & Jump than I had in Nebraska. I was a long way from home. And it was the same feeling of nerves, but different. Steph hadn’t made a feature. Here I was with Alexander Payne who’d worked with Jack Nicholson. Now, that made me nervous.”

You won’t be surprised to hear that he’s nice about Bruce Dern also. To return to our opening musings, Forte does just fine as an amateur
diplomat.