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New film: Nebraska – review and interview with actor Will Forte

Directed by Alexander Payne

The following review contains interview excerpts from a discussion with lead actor Will Forte, at San Francisco’s Ritz Carlton hotel during the press tour in early October.


David (Will Forte) leads an entirely unexceptional life, selling electronics in a small store in a Montana town where he grew up – the kind of store and the kind of town that get overshadowed by bigger and shinier alternatives. His father Woody (Bruce Dern) is a taciturn guy, apt to drive David’s mother (June Squibb) crazy by sitting around the house all day. That is, until he drives her even crazier by deciding he needs to go to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect on a winning lottery ticket, even if that means setting out on foot – except that the winning ticket is just one of those “you’ve won if you have the winning number” letters and he’s in no fit mental or physical shape to travel alone. Eventually, David realizes that the only way to solve the problem is to drive his father to Lincoln, setting up a fairly unique and quite touching road trip, father-son, buddy story.

David’s the kind of guy who shies away from commitment and risk. For example, although it isn’t mentioned explicitly in the film, he’s always the slowest driver on the road. And as he talks more to his father than he ever has before, as evidenced by conversations that have obviously never been shared before, both David and the audience slowly figure out more about Woody, how different the two men are, and how much David has missed about his father.

To some extent, it feels as though the character of David is left somewhat open or non-descript in order to make Woody more colorful. And by leaving David less well defined, he also becomes more of an everyman character that audiences can more easily identify with.

Will Forte: We leave it open because we’ll explore that in “Nebraska 2.”

Tony Sheppard: “Back to Nebraska.”

WF: (laughs).

TS: You are in the story on our behalf to some extent – do you think that David is left open as so that more people will identify with him as an everyman?

WF: That’s very interesting – I’ve never thought about that. I would agree that I’m the lens into Woody’s character and probably the person who most people would relate to.

We continued discussing the role and the opportunity to play David:

WF: When I first read this script I really felt a connection to the character of David and it excited me to feel that connection – but at the same time it was a bit heartbreaking as I thought that there was no way in a million years that I get to play that part. So it was so exciting when I somehow was able to be a part of this.

TS: David seems a little aimless to some extent, so when you say that you identify with him … you have one of those gigs when you never know when your next role will come along or your next script will get picked up, so you never feel quite in control. And David never quite feels in control.

WF: Yes, absolutely. I was a writer when I first got into the business and my goal was always to be a performer as well. As time went on, I thought I love this, writing is great, I don’t necessarily have to act to be happy. And then the Saturday Night Live job came out of nowhere and I got to be a part of that – and it was a dream of mine to be a part of that show – and so for eight years I got to live my dream. When I was at the end of that, I just didn’t know what was going to happen.

TS: For eight years you had a day job.

WF: Yeah – for eight years I had a day job, this job I had dreamed of having. And when it was over I didn’t know what would happen – I didn’t leave it to go and do movies – it wasn’t like the world was calling out for Will Forte movies.

While this is definitely a father-son story, it’s also a reflection of differences in generations. In one scene, various elderly family members catch up in mono-syllabic terms, immediately filling, or at least masking, a void decades in the making.

TS: It’s a fascinating topic – this idea of generation gaps in terms of expressing feelings. When you see Woody with his relatives, it’s not like he’s out of place – you have to wonder how they were raised. Woody is 80ish and they were raised to keep things to themselves. But kids nowadays – everybody has taken Psych 101 – not only do they want to express themselves, they want to diagnose themselves.

WF: Yeah (laughs).

TS: It seems to me that this isn’t just a portrait of Woody, it’s a portrait of a generation.

WF: Yeah, sure. That’s a good way … it is very interesting. Every person in this movie feels like somebody I have in my life, in one way or another. And I’ve lived very far away from Nebraska. I grew up here, outside of San Francisco and then moved away to Los Angeles for school, and for work was in New York. So I’ve been in these major population centers but it just feels like you could take any of these characters in this and they remind you of somebody from those places. It’s set in Nebraska and Alexander is from there and loves Nebraska with all his heart. And it feels so authentically Nebraskan but at the same time you could set this anywhere, with the relationships that are in there – everything is so relatable.

The interview wandered from the film to Forte’s career and at one point I posed the following question:

TS: So if I put two contracts in front of you and both will make you equally, fabulously wealthy – but one says you can write but never act and the other says you can act but never write, which one would you pick?

WF: Thankfully I don’t have to make that decision. But I would probably go with the acting. And that’s because I’ve learned to trust people a little more. There are so many wonderfully talented writers – and I’m a control freak and there’s something wonderfully thrilling about not being in control, especially when you trust the people in control. So it’s really been a process of learning to trust people. And of course with this, Alexander Payne is one of the best directors ever, so it was not hard to just immediately – and I was concerned about not letting him down.

TS: And your career path doesn’t suggest “Will Forte, dramatic actor.”

WF: Not at all!

TS: You were wondering if you were going to act but you’ve been firmly in a world of comedy.  If somebody had said 10 years ago, you were going to star in a drama with Bruce Dern….

WF: After I left SNL, I left because it felt like it was about time – eight years is a long time. My family is out here in the Bay Area and I wanted to be closer to them. I just thought that if the acting stuff goes away, I’ll just go back to writing, which I love with all my heart. To have been a part of SNL for so long was such a blessing and any acting work after that would be gravy. Never would I ever have believed that I would get to be a part of something like this movie.

TS: Bruce Dern’s son.

WF: Yeah! On so many levels it was just a surprise and I’m trying not to think “Where does this go next?” because I realize that this is an experience that not everybody gets to have, to be part of a movie they’re really proud of. So I’m really just enjoying every step of the way here – it’s really just a surprise, an unexpected opportunity and experience. If nothing ever comes of this, it’s just been the best experience.

TS: I think you did a great job.

WF: Thank you.

Towards the end of the interview, I asked Will about David’s character, and especially his cautious nature and the slow driving.

WF: In “Nebraska 2” he’ll be passing everything (laughs).

Nebraska is in theaters now and is a wonderful, small, intimate, multi-generational character study. And funny too.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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