Will Forte uses the word "lucky" a lot to describe himself, but the Saturday Night Live alum (2002-10) has spent this year proving his talent and versatility. The 43-year-old had small roles in two hit comedies in 2013 (Grown Ups 2 and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2), but his most buzzed-about performance is his surprising dramatic turn in a little black-and-white movie, Alexander Payne's Nebraska. He plays David Grant, a frustrated middle-aged man who, hoping to bond with his cranky dad, Woody (Bruce Dern), agrees to drive the old man 800 miles to Lincoln to claim a sweepstakes jackpot Woody insists he's won. Along the way, they reunite with distant relatives and old frenemies and are forced to confront some hard truths. Visiting New York City to promote Nebraska, Forte spoke to Rolling Stone about shifting gears to drama, the status of his MacGruber sequel and how much he misses SNL.
How did you convince Alexander Payne to cast you?
I have no idea. I don't think he had ever heard of me or knew any of my work. I just sent in a tape of me doing a couple of the scenes, and that was the first time he'd seen me. I had to audition and go through that whole process. The character in this movie is the closest to who I am in my real life. I felt a connection to the character, and maybe he could sense that connection, too.
After a career spent doing over-the-top comedy, was it hard to shift to dramatic restraint?
It was definitely something that made me nervous. I'm used to just doing bigger, wackier characters. At first, I just went way in the other direction and underplayed it too much. I didn't want it to be too sketch-y. So Alexander would, a lot of the time, be bringing my energy up.
Payne is from Nebraska, yet critics aren't sure whether he's depicting Nebraskans with affection or mockery. Which is it?
Well, I know how much he cares about Nebraska and the people of Nebraska. So I know he's dealing with everything with great affection behind it. You know, there are weirdos in every state. This just happens to be about Nebraska. And there are some wonderful people in this movie who are from Nebraska – some very sweet, kind people. So I feel like you could have the same types of characters if you did this movie in any other state. I've experienced some of these same types of conversations in Modesto, California, or outside San Francisco with my family. These are situations that seem to be resonating with people who go see the movie. They feel like very familiar conversations to people who are from all over the place.
What do you think of all the Oscar buzz you're earning?
Oh my God, that's crazy talk! Bruce Dern is so good in this movie, and June Squibb [who plays Dern's wife] – they deserve every award in the book. And Alexander. I'm so proud to be a part of this movie. It's an experience I never thought I would get to have in my lifetime.
What was it like having to punch veteran tough-guy Stacy Keach?
It was really nerve-wracking because I was scared that I was really going to connect with his face. I am not a huge fighter, so I do not have a lot of experience with throwing punches. So I was really nervous that I would actually hit him. But, thinking back, he is such a rock-solid man that it would probably do way more damage to my hand than to his face.
You told RS in May that in June, you'd start writing a MacGruber sequel. What's the status of that?
Now it's looking more like it might be this upcoming June. Jorma [Taccone], who wrote and directed it, and John Solomon, who was one of the writers – John works at SNL, and Jorma is incredibly busy, and I've been pretty busy, too. So it's tough to get us all in a room together. But we fully intend on writing the movie. That's the easy part. Getting somebody to agree to make it, that's the biggest hurdle. We hope somebody will let us make it.
Do you have any career-transition advice for this year's high-profile departures from Saturday Night Live, like Bill Hader and Jason Sudeikis?
I'm in no position to give any advice. I just got extremely lucky to be a part of something like this. Those guys don't need my advice. They are so wonderful. They're going to get all kinds of work because they are so talented.
So there's no standard way to transition out of SNL into movies?
Oh my God, no. I didn't leave SNL thinking, "Oh, I have a movie career waiting for me." It was more of a personal decision to get closer to my family who's all out in California. Obviously, I wanted to keep acting, but I didn't know what would happen there. But the thing that I thought when I made the decision was just, "Hey, I'll see what's out there." If all the acting stuff dries up, I will go back to writing, which is what I did before I got to SNL, and I was very happy doing it. So that was a wonderful back-up plan. I've been very lucky so far getting not only work but work that I'm incredibly proud of.
Will you continue to go back to SNL for the occasional sketch?
I miss SNL so much. It was just the most unique experience. There's nothing like that show. I'm so thankful to Lorne [Michaels] for letting me have that experience. Now that all those guys are gone, most of the people I was on the show with, I still hope to come back and do a sketch every once in a while. I assume they would just call up if they ever had any desire to have me do something, if it was the right situation. Or if I ever have any idea, I feel very close to Lorne and that whole group, so I could call them up and say, "Hey, could I do this?" They're just wonderful. It's a big family over there. Once you're a part of that family, they're very loyal to you, for sure, and I love that place with all my heart.