Tribeca: Will Forte does drama in Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’ and the Irish Indie ‘Run & Jump’

Will Forte
Will Forte

There's no avoiding it: Will Forte, 42, is nice-looking like the guy you cruise across the library and lock eyes with when you both look up from your books. Sitting in a small room in the basement of the Hilton New York Fashion District, just beyond the sweat-and-grunt of the hotel's exercise room, the bearded former "Saturday Night Live" comedian turned actor (yes, "MacGruber," too) is chill without being hip.

Forte's at the Tribeca Film Festival promoting his first purely dramatic turn. In the Irish indie "Run & Jump," he plays a reserved American psychiatrist treating an Irish stroke victim –- and falling for the man's wife.

While at Tribeca, Forte discovered that his film "Nebraska" is in competition for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. In Alexander Payne's first outing since the Oscar-nominated "The Descendants," Forte plays an alienated Midwestern son that takes a road trip to, yes, Nebraska with his alcoholic father (Bruce Dern). Cannes you say, "Can't wait?"

"Nebraska" is set to open in limited release on November 22.

Thelma Adams: It was surprising how quiet your performance was in "Run & Jump" given your comedic history.

Will Forte: Thank you very much. A lot of that is [Director] Steph Green. She made it very clear what she was expecting. We actually started rehearsing two years ago. And then there was a financing issue and we took some time off. But that little break was nice because all the stuff she was trying to tell me really got to set in my head. When we ended up making the movie, I felt pretty clear about what her intentions were for the character. She was just a great director...

TA: Have you worked with women directors before and, if so, was it different in any sense?

WF: I think this was the first time but it's hard for me to answer that question because this was such a different experience for me. It was dramatic and I've only done comedies. In comedy sometimes you're doing heightened over-the-top drama, but I've never attempted any kind of subtle drama.

TA: What was the most challenging emotional scene?

WF: There were times when there would be just a reaction shot in a teeny, tiny little scene where I'm not even the main focus, where I'd be terrified. And then there would be really emotional scenes when I would be just fine. It would depend on the day and how much sleep I got the night before and it was just…

[More Tribeca: Alice Eve talks 'Star Trek Into Darkness' at 'Some Velvet Morning' at Tribeca Film Festival]

TA: Did you prepare a lot for the big scenes?

WF: Yeah, that might be it. I guess if you only have a couple lines of dialogue in something, you probably don't think to read the scene as much. You don't realize I've gotta be acting even if I'm not saying stuff. It was just such a new experience.

TA: Is your role in "Nebraska" dramatic, too?

WF: Yes.

TA: Tell me a little bit about your character, David Grant?

WF: I don't know what I'm allowed to answer. It's just such a wonderful story and has dramatic elements, and comedic elements. All the comedy is based in realistic situations.

TA: How did you get the role?

WF: I put myself on tape and sent it to Alexander. He'll look at anybody. When I got to know him, he would just say yeah, there is nobody that he would not consider. Thank God! [LAUGHS]

TA: So, Payne hadn't even seen your dramatic role in "Run & Jump?"

WF: We hadn't even started making our movie at that point. This tape that I sent him was the first thing he had seen of me. I didn't hear anything for about four months so I assumed that it was off. And then I heard that he had liked the tape and wanted me to come in and read for the part and work through the scenes. About a month later I found out I got the job and was just thrilled beyond belief. [LAUGHS] And then we went to do "Run & Jump."

TA: That must have been a boost to your confidence when you started doing the Irish movie.

WF: I still can't believe it. They were such unique experiences, so different from what I'd done in the past. I love big, broad comedies but I never thought I'd get a chance to do something like "Run & Jump" or "Nebraska."

TA: When did you decide that you could do drama – or even wanted to?

WF: This was not a conscious decision to go into drama. I got these scripts and thought I'd love to be a part of this -- never thinking that somebody would want me to be a part of it.

[Related: Critic's Choice: The Five Summer Movies I'm Most Excited to See]

TA: "Run & Jump" is set in Ireland but you play an American so you didn't have to do an accent. Did you have an accent in "Nebraska?"

WF: No accent. I am a version of myself. We live in Billings, Montana and I make the trek to Lincoln, Nebraska, with Bruce Dern. He plays my father. It turns into a pilgrimage. Because of different circumstances we're forced to go visit his family in Nebraska.

TA: And hilarity and tragedy ensue.

WF: Exactly. But you have to see the movie. No spoiler alerts here.

TA: Since you're also a writer, did you play the lines as Payne wrote them?

WF: Bob Nelson's script is so wonderful but I think there was one point I might have said, hey, can I say night instead of evening? And then I felt stupid. I'll just say evening. I felt so comfortable with Alexander and trusted him so much that it was, whatever you want me to say, I'll say it.

TA: And, now, you're going to the Cannes Film Festival with "Nebraska" next month. Buckle your seatbelt.

WF: It's exciting. I'm just gonna be doing a lot of people watching.

TA: You know, last time Payne went on the festival circuit, it was with George Clooney for "The Descendants," and they walked red carpets together all the way to the Academy Awards. You have some serious shoes to fill.

WF: I know. It's crazy.