For most of the world familiar with Will Forte's work, it was a pleasant surprise to see him pull such an effective, dramatic performance in the Oscar-nominated NEBRASKA. But for a very small handful of folks who caught RUN & JUMP at the Tribeca Film Festival last April, they actually got a preview of Forte's more serious side as an American medical researcher who transplants himself to Ireland to observe a man's recovery from brain trauma as a result of a stroke.
Forte's work in the hands of first-time feature director Steph Green (who had previous made the excellent Oscar-nominated live-action short NEW BOY) is an exercise in utter restraint. His fully-bearded Ted barely speaks as he watches Conor (Edward MacLiam) attempt to re-learn his routines as carpenter, husband and father, despite having lost a great deal of his memories. Maxine Peake plays Conor's frustrated wife, Vanetia, who feels like she's living with two strangers in her house, instead of just this weird, quiet researcher.
Since Quint had just spoken to Forte late last year about NEBRASKA, I didn't talk to much about that remarkable work, although this interview did take place just hours after the film received a handful of well-deserved Oscar nominations, which delighted Forte to no end. And although we didn't discuss it, he does contribute the voice of Abraham Lincoln to next week's THE LEGO MOVIE.
I've interview Forte once before for MACGRUBER, and it was one of the most enjoyable experiences I've had doing this job. I've interviewed my share of nice guys before, but Forte is in a league unto himself. For example, he came onto the call a few minutes late and insisted we extend the interview by far more minutes than I needed to make up for it. It sounds like a small thing, but that never happens. Joining Forte on the call was RUN & JUMP director and co-writer (along with Ailbhe Keogan) Steph Green, and much fun was had by all. The film has already opened in a couple of cities and will hopefully expand in the weeks to come; I believe it is also available via VOD, and it's well worth your time. Please enjoy…
Will Forte: Hello.
Capone: Hi, Will. How are you?
WF: Good, how are you doing? I’m so sorry that I’m calling late.
Capone: Oh, that’s okay. Where are you right now?
WF: In Los Angeles.
Capone: I read something about a gathering of people from NEBRASKA in Nebraska today for the reading of the Oscar nominations, and I didn’t know if you were a part of that.
WF: No, no. A gathering of people from the movie NEBRASKA?
Capone: I thought so, if I read the press release right, yeah. Maybe it was more like locals that made it into the movie.
WF: Oh, that might be it. Nobody invited me.
Capone: They probably didn’t have your number.
WF: How dare them.
Capone: Well first of all, congratulations to you and everybody connected with that wonderful film.
WF: Well, thank you very much.
Capone: You have to be so proud of everybody. Even your cinematographer got a much-deserved nomination.
WF: Oh my god, I’m so excited about everyone getting nominated. And yeah, I’m so excited that Phedon [Papamichael] did too. He made that movie look so beautiful.
Capone: Yeah, yeah. Are you hoping June [Squibb] will take you as her date maybe?
WF: Yeah, I’m looking for any way in. I’ll be anybody’s date. Alexander, I’m going to send him some flowers. [laughs]
Capone: With RUN & JUMP, I didn’t realize until after I watched it that it premiered at Tribeca last April. So for the people that saw it there, what you did in NEBRASKA might not have seemed quite as much of a departure as it did as much for the rest of us. By taking on these two roles, what artistic itch were you scratching with these two parts, or were you aiming to maybe just see if you could do it?
WF: There was no itch that I was scratching. I love comedy. I just like doing things that are interesting. It was not a desire to go into drama, so I was only looking at dramatic scripts. This came to me because, for some reason, Steph thought of me for this part and got the script to me, and I read the script and thought it was wonderful. But I didn’t know why she came to me for it. I wasn’t super confident that I’d be any good at it. She was confident, though, and won me over with her confidence.
So, I just thought, “Wow, this is such a beautiful script. Why wouldn’t I try to do this?” So it just came out of nowhere, and this would have probably been about a year and a half before I had even heard of NEBRASKA, but then there were financing issues for awhile, so by the time the NEBRASKA thing came around, that was when RUN & JUMP came together. I know it seems like this planned-out, one-two punch, going down this dramatic path, but it just happened.
Capone: Are you ever inspired by fear, in terms of that saying yes to roles like this? Do you ever say, “I’m not sure I can do this, therefore I must try to do it”?
WF: Sometimes. Sometimes it goes the other way, and I go, “Oh, I can't do this.” And just will not do it, but usually that's when it’s a role that seems interesting, but there’s stuff in the script that I’m not sure about. But this was just something that scared me in an interesting way, but the script was just too good to let the fear get in the way. The excitement about being a part of it definitely was greater than the fear aspect, so I just had to suck it up and go for it.
Capone: So Steph, Will didn’t seem clear on why you decided he would be good for this. Why did you decide he would be good for this?
Steph Green: Well, Will’s heard it a million times, but I watched as much as I could find and then I avoided watching maybe certain things that I thought would change my mind once I started to feel intrigued by Will. I think it was instinct. I love casting. I wanted the movie to be unpredictable in a lot of ways, and this was one of them, that the only American in the movie that came over to Ireland wasn’t maybe a predictable choice.
And also, I think anyone who knows Will would observe him as an extremely sensitive person, in terms of sensitivity to personability, social ability, and that depth that he’s capable of on a personal level. So, I felt like if he’s capable of this in a performance, I’ve got my character. And he was very quickly when we stared to work together. I felt like I could see the character coming, and all I had to do with Will was make sure he didn’t get in his own way by doubting himself. But he was over that, I’d say, pretty quickly and then the performance was there, which was exciting for all of us in production to watch, and a relief.
Capone: Was there a particular direction you did end up giving him more than once in terms of his performance. He couldn't be more dialed back as a character, but was there a particular thing you were telling him frequently that maybe spoke to his confidence in playing this particular character?
SG: The memory that stands out is convincing him, yes, that was what I wanted. Where Will would say, “Do you want it again, do you want it a different way?” He’s so savvy about providing options for the edit, and also was not always sure he had done what we wanted. In the beginning, we didn't always know if it was--I hope you don’t mind me saying that, Will--the right tone. And then soon, he found the rhythm; that's the way I think about it with Ted, and then I had to say very little. I really just had to explain the setting and where we were in the story, and Will had found the character, I think. So, he settled in.
WF: I grew up with a wonderful sister who was beautiful and also incredibly, incredibly nice. So, I would hear her all the time on the phone getting asked out on dates by these people who were sometimes not people she would want to go out on dates with, but she would say yes because she was a nice person and then she’d get off the phone and go, “Oh no, now I have to go on this date with this guy.” In my head, my whole experience with acting always plays out like, “Oh my god, are they just saying that was what they wanted?” So, I suffer a little bit from that like, “Oh, they said that was fine, but do they mean it really? They’re probably just saying that because they don't want to hurt my feelings.” It does take awhile. And also, coming from comedy, you know when you're getting it right for the most part because you hear laughs, and when you’re doing drama, there are no laughs.
SG: It’s just silence after the word cut. It’s like, "Uh, how’d that go?" I had the fortune of seeing the dailies, where I had editors and producers all going, “He’s great.” I almost wanted Will to be sitting in the back of the room when those were being reviewed so that he would believe. But, we’re really only talking about the early part of shooting. I want to emphasize that Will found his way, but maybe that’s the antidote that’s fun to remember--that early challenge.
WF: No, there certainly was a period where I relaxed, and we just all got to know each other more and that trust formed. You just lighten up and realize everything makes more sense. It’s like THE MATRIX movie. You go, “Okay, I get it. I see what’s going on now.” But it took a while. And I’m a classic over thinker, and so it took awhile for me to stop over thinking stuff.
Capone: Was it good that for your first time out in this type of role for you to be so completely isolated from your support system and familiar surroundings? Did that help?
WF: It absolutely did. Psychologically being out in the middle of Ireland, I didn’t know anybody; it just felt safe to me. I thought, "If I really suck at this it will stay right here in the middle of Ireland." Of course, that’s not the case, because it’s on film, and you send it through a little computer, but for some reason in my head, it was like, “This is just something that’s contained here in Ireland.” And I just felt very safe in trying out something so new.
SG: And now we’re like, "Get ready for your awards push next year for RUN & JUMP." Which we are going to do.
Capone: Let's talk about the choice to have a beard in this, because this character is already hiding behind a camera for most of the film, and that’s his way of distancing himself from the guy he’s watching. The beard almost adds another barrier. Was that a deliberate choice? How did you decide on that look?
WF: Stef was the one who brought up the beard. I was delighted by it because there’s something about having a beard that was comforting to me. It felt like it got me into character in a way; it’s hard to explain, but when you do sketch comedy for so long, little things like wearing a mustache in a scene makes you feel like a different person. I’ve never had a beard in my life. I don't shave a lot but I never havelike a full beard. You just feel different for some reason. It’s hard to explain. It’s like the Ireland equivalent of facial hair. It was just another thing that made me feel another level of psychological safety.
SG: I remember while I would give you little notes, you would play with your beard. [laughs] I have this really strong image of you like stroking it. It helps you to think, obviously; it was an intellectual pose.
WF: You gotta try a beard, Steph. It’s really great. They’re comfortable.
SG: I know, I keep trying to grow a beard. It’s not coming. I think I would have one if I could. I like them.
WF: Rogaine your face.
SG: Awesome. Why did I want a beard? I don’t know, I think I wanted a different look, and I hadn’t seen Will really with a beard, and it was just another way to distance you from waiting for him to do a MACGRUBER move in the first minutes, when you’re watching the film. I think it’s important people start to see him as Dr. Fielding and not Will Forte. So, it was truly almost like a costume choice to turn him towards Dr. Fielding. Also Will’s eyes are really expressive, his mouth is really expressive as well, and I thought I hadn’t really seen his face preform in a beard that wasn’t a comical beard. So again, it was just a different look and a way to start forming a character, and I’m glad it helped Will, but I didn’t really do it to help Will. It was really sort of a more visceral, visual choice.
Capone: You almost forget until someone actually says it in the movie, but this film is really about loss. There’s that line where the mother-in-law says something about, “I know you’re mourning for you’re husband, too.” That just killed me.
SG: Well spotted. You’re the first person who’s pointed that particular line out. It’s a really important one.
Capone: Yeah, that’s the crux of it. It’s almost worse than someone dying because they’re still there and moving and breathing, but it’s a different person. That also speaks to the themes of identity in this--the husband’s identity is gone and the doctor’s identity is becoming this surrogate father and husband. Can you talk about those two things?
SG: Sure. I think that the original writer and I were both interested in identity and what happens when a family is adrift, and where roles are changing around and reconfiguring because of, in this case, a brain injury, but it can happen for a lot of different reasons. So, you’re right to point out the grief element. One of the research interviews that stands out to me is when one woman said that when you have a personality change in the family, it’s like the person is rising from the dead and then returning again.
So you’re suspended between grief and hope because you’re given tastes of the old person, and then it’s rescinded again. It’s like dealing with a parent with Alzheimer’s, I think. You’re right to point out that it is a movie that’s partially about redefining roles in a family. I hope what comes across is that Ted needed an experience that pushed his boundaries, which he had made very tight around him. The inability to even have a warm interaction with a child, he'd really closed himself off to focus on and become very obsessed with brain research. Vanetia says, "Brains demand less of you," and I think that’s another key line for me. Ted has made a choice not to stretch in terms of human connection, and by taking on this pseudo fatherly role, inadvertently, it stretches him.
Capone: The subplot about the Will's friendship with the son, Lenny--you almost could have lifted that out of the movie and made it its own short film. Why was that story line so important, and what did you want to accomplish with Lenny's story?
SG: I wanted to get at real lives and personalities, and not just be the signifier of the kid in the family. And with Lenny particularly, he lost a father figure at such a key moment when he’s toying with his sexuality. I felt like I couldn't just touch on that briefly; I had to go into that a little bit to do it justice as a truthful story line. By loosing that father figure at a key stage and also by getting confusing about what Conor is doing to Lenny--the making fun of him or teasing him--because it gets really confusing when a parent is suddenly uncensored the way a brain injury can unleash impulsive feelings.
So, I was just trying to do justice to the original writer’s vision of fully telling this story, this arc of this boy coming to own his identity a little more by the end, and Ted, this stranger, having a role in that coming of age. Ted is coming of age a little bit too, by getting to know Lenny, so it was just a nice marriage. I know it’s so complex, with Vanetia and Ted, they take their eye off the ball a little bit with Lenny, and then it comes back to haunt her in the low point of the movie, when things go wrong with him. So, it’s a big messy film. It’s like life.
Capone: Will, I know while you were doing press for NEBRASKA, a lot of writers had a variation of of the question “Wow, who knew you could do this?” And you can say it now, but did that start to get a little insulting after a while, that they were somehow shocked that you were able to pull it off?
WF: No, not at all. To be honest, I didn't know if I could do it, so I don’t know why anybody else should have confidence in me being able to do it. It was fine because it was something I myself questioned. I would watch dramatic movies and think, “God, I wonder if I could do that.” I just never thought I would get an opportunity to try it out, so it was just a real thrill to be a part of this movie, and it really was very exciting, and I learned so much. Steph was just really great about being there for me the whole way though. So no, that didn’t bum me out at all. What I do in RUN & JUMP is about as different from MACGRUBER as you can get. ButMACGRUBER is very over the top, but I’m very proud of the acting I do in that. It’s not easy to do that stuff. And I’m really proud of that movie. It’s a bonkers movie, but it’s our bonkers movie. It’s our dirty little secret.
SG: It’s funny how people assume comedy is easier.
Capone: Well, my feelings about it are on the record: I loved it. A question I have for both of you is, what does Ted honestly think is going to come out of this situation that he has found himself, outside of research results? He’s a little delusional about what’s going to happen here.
WF: In my head, I was just thinking: it’s just like life. Sometimes you don’t think about where it’s heading. You just are in the moment--and this is a guy who I feel like is not used to being in the moment--and because of this situation, he starts to be in the moment for the first time; he almost doesn't want to think about the future because he probably knows the feelings he’s feeling are wrong on several different levels. That’s my take on it. He's a guy who’s being in the moment for the first time in his life, or in the moment for a rare instance. We talk about a past relationship he had; he was probably in the moment there and got burned and learned not to live in the moment anymore. I don't know, what’s your take, Steph? Does that make sense?
SG: Totally. I think that’s actually a pretty perfect way to break it down. I think he looses himself.
WF: Nah, she’s just saying that.
SG: Yeah, it’s one of those lies that I told you all the way through. He looses himself, and that’s exactly what this character I think needed to do, to stop thinking and get confused, because. If I look back at experiences in my life where something changed, even slightly in my perspective, it was normally because I had a time I never anticipated I would have, and I acted in a way I never thought I would act, which is I think what happens to Ted. The writer was interested, as was I as we wrote together, on not having a Hollywood happy ending, but having a life-affirming feeling that things just generally don't turn out as we think they will or should, and is there any possibility of accepting or celebrating that? I think that’s part of what the film is asking.
Capone: It is both very sad and yet somewhat hopeful, which is about the best we can hope for for him. It’s an extraordinary film, and Will, once again you knock it out of the park.
WF: Oh my gosh, thank you so much.
SG: Thank you.
Capone: Yeah, it was great to talk to you both. Thank you so much, and Will again, congratulations.
SG: Thanks for helping us spread the word.
WF: I’m sorry I called late. If you have more questions, I’m happy to keep going.
Capone: The only other thing I would have asked you about is about stuff you have coming up. You're in the new Bogdanovich film?
WF: Yeah, yeah. It’s called SQUIRRELS TO THE NUTS. It was super cool to get to work with him, and it was a really fun cast. If you had told me 18 months ago that I would get to work with Alexander Payne and Peter Bogdanovich AND Steph Green I would tell you that you were high on crack cocaine
SG: Oh yeah, oh yeah. I was waiting for that.
WF: I have a lot of appreciation for Steph taking the chance on me; she started this ball rolling on me getting to do this thing I just never thought I would get a chance to do, but she really instilled in me the confidence and this attitude. It means the world to me that she thought of me for this and it’s helped to change the way I look at myself, I guess. Not that I look at myself much differently, but I can't thank her enough for that.
Capone: It seems like a classic case of the two of you sort of taking a chance on each other.
SG: Absolutely, absolutely. It went two ways.
WF: She took way more of a chance on me then I took on her. [laughs]
SG: I don’t know, there are some scary first features out there, Will.
WF: No, if you see NEW BOY, and you talk to Steph for a couple of minutes, you know she's the real deal.
Capone: Well, I have seen NEW BOY. I remember it being terrific.
SG: Yeah, well everyone was telling us to talk to you too. And my DP, who did a great job, Kevin Richey, is obsessed with Ain’t it Cool News, and he kept talking about how we had to talk to you guys, so I’m just very happy for him right now. And it’s a small film, so we definitely need word of mouth, and this is so helpful for our release.
Capone: What is sort of the release plan?
SG: IFC is releasing it in LA and New York first, as well as VOD, and then it’s spreading to over eight or nine cities next, and then they’re saying it’s going to build from there. So, if we actually get butts into theaters, it will create more and more opportunities for the film, and hopefully a little snowball effect happens. We’ll see. It’s very hard to compete being such a small film, but let’s hope. And IFC’s been great in really getting it out there as best they can. And it will be available--
Capone: Alright, now I’m going to get yelled at, so I’m going to let you guys go.
WF: Oh, okay. And will you please say hi to Eric for me?
Capone: Of course, yes
WF: It was really fun talking to him in Austin.
Capone: Thank you again.
WF: Thank you so much for talking to us. We really appreciate it.