‘He’s Such an Idiot’: Will Forte on the Glorious Return of ‘MacGruber’
In his 15 years as MacGruber, a hapless special ops agent who only occasionally saves the day, Will Forte has attempted to violently dispatch his enemies with rubber bands, Q-tips and a stalk of celery wedged up his keister. So it’s a bit alarming to see the 51-year-old actor and comedian brandish a jar of smelling salts before he even says hello. A gift, or so he claims. How often do people collapse unconscious around him?
“It’s not something I like to do,” Forte jokes. “Every once in a while when you’re forced to do it. Or you’re just cruising through your day and you need a little pep.”
If Forte played heroes more in the key of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, his words might be comforting. But MacGruber is a moron, albeit a delightfully vile moron who’s managed to survive a treacherous path from fan-favorite Saturday Night Live skit to legendary Saturday Night Live-movie bomb. When the feature-length MacGruber comedy became the lowest-grossing SNL film of all time, failure wounded Forte like one of his character’s throat-rips. But fans caught on. And a decade later, our enterprising hero has clawed his way to victory and gets his own limited series on Peacock that premieres on December 16th. Today, Forte’s peppy enough to keep his smelling salts sealed as he talks about outlasting catastrophes that would have killed off anyone else.
I’ll admit, I’ve read too much into MacGruber over the years. I used to get hung up on the idea that maybe he was so cocky because he faked his own death in 1999 and therefore skipped out on dealing with the trauma of being in the government during 9/11.
Oh, wow. You went deep.
I assume I’m not the only one. I’ve heard Christopher Nolan is a MacGruber fan.
Yeah. We pester him so much. I forget what late night show it was, but Anne Hathaway was on there and she brought up how there was a day that he was in a good mood because he had watched MacGruber — or something like you can tell when he’s in a good mood because he talks about MacGruber. The way that we seized on that bit of information was to automatically go in our heads, “Oh, it’s his favorite movie that he’s ever seen. We have to invite him to direct one.” Jorma [Taccone, who co-wrote and co-directed the series] just is constantly inviting him to do stuff…and he’s politely turned stuff down. But even just knowing that he watched the movie and didn’t hate it was a big win for us.
When the movie came out in 2010, it seemed like this fun, dumb action movie spoof. But in an interview at the time, you said, “That’s America. MacGruber is you and MacGruber is me.” Which made the film begin to look to me like a gag about America’s blundering swagger during the Bush years. Where does an overconfident egomaniac like him fit into today’s conversations?
This was our love letter to the 1980s action movies that we grew up on. All of that stuff that you just mentioned was reflected in the character because it was part of those Eighties movies that we were basing the character on…
Which inspired the tough talk that some of today’s politicians have based their careers on…
…And are the tropes that we would use. Where does MacGruber fit into today’s conversation? He’s just 10 years older. He’s been in jail the whole time so he’s probably read some enlightening books that he doesn’t quite understand. And then he gets let out of prison to do a suicide mission and he’s just rekindling all the old relationships that he had. He really has not grown a ton.
He’s in prison because of what he did to Val Kilmer in the first movie. It’s pretty rare that an action movie hero faces a consequence for the giant bloodbath at the end of a film.
It’s pretty rare that anybody faces a consequence these days. Yeah, years ago when we had finished the movie, it bombed pretty badly. It’s tough after that happens because you start to question yourself, you lose faith in the decisions you had made, and you find a bunch of stuff spinning around in the your head for a couple weeks. But then John [Solomon, cowriter of the movie] and Jorma and I called each other, and realized that we were all really proud of what we’d done. We really liked the movie and wouldn’t have made any changes. It’s much easier to go through a box office failure when you liked the movie.
Those first few weeks when the movie didn’t perform, though — what was your coping strategy?
At that point, I had never been part of something that had gone well. I was on Saturday Night Live and that’s a dream job, but that did not live or die because I was on the show. This was much more directly attributable to me. I did kind of make the mistake of getting kind of excited about the movie. You get yourself thinking, “Maybe this time will be different, maybe someone will go check it out.” A collection of un-fun things happen in your head when reality sets in. First of all, I was kicking myself, like, “Oh, why did I ever get my hopes up?” I thought I had learned that lesson. I also had put myself out there quite a bit. I did that celery scene. There were a lot of things in there that embarrassed my family. My mom actually lost friends because of it. So you’re like, “Was it worth it to subject my family to all this stuff?” It was hard to justify.
Your mom lost friends?
Oh, yeah. My mom is this magical woman. She’s very delightful and very supportive, so she will have her friends go see whatever. And there were a couple friends who she did actually lose. To me, I think that’s a good thing for her. If people are going to drop you because your son says some dirty things…
Good riddance, Carol.
Get out of here! But still. There was also such a collection of things going on in my head at the time. I was realizing that it was probably time to leave SNL. I’d just turned 40. I wasn’t married yet. I just didn’t know what my life was going to be like. And after the movie came out, there was no indication that I’d actually get an acting job again. I just lived for a while and hunkered down at home. It was a time of uncertainty.
But then you do Alexander Payne’s Nebraska and go through the whole awards cycle. The press were writing headlines like, “Look how far MacGruber has come!” But I also remember seeing you across the parking lot at Paramount after a fancy Nebraska event and you were getting into this really beat-up car. I’m not saying the car was literally missing doorhandles and had empty soda cups spilling out of the windows, but it felt like it did.
It was a hybrid, you know! An early Honda Civic hybrid. And I was like, I’m just going to ride this thing until it breaks down.
You come from a pretty solid family, emotionally, supportively, and financially. Your dad was in finance and you came really close to going into it, too. You were one test away from becoming a stockbroker when you decided to do comedy. In those darker post-MacGruber days, did you ever wonder if you made the wrong choice?
Never ever ever ever. From the moment that I went to the Groundlings, I knew that was what I wanted to do. There are certainly times when you’re on that path when you have setbacks and you’re questioning yourself. But I just knew this makes me happy. And that’s why I never questioned it. The plan was to try to see if I could get supporting roles in comedy movies, and without the help of friends I wouldn’t have been able to even do that. Then this chance to be in a more dramatic thing happens. It was just out of nowhere, and I’m eternally grateful. I actually regained some credit with my mom and her friends. Which I’m obliterating again with the new MacGruber series.
Can you eat celery in front of people? Does anybody ever say anything?
I’ve got no problem eating celery in front of people. It’s funny, the day that we did that in the movie, they put a robe around you in between takes. You don’t want the crew to be uncomfortable with some naked dude walking around — and also for my comfort. When we were doing another take, I’d have to disrobe again and get the celery lodged between my legs. It was not in the actual butt, but looked like it. I’m doing all these very delicate procedures to get ready for the thing, and there was some guy back there who would chat me up a little bit. I just thought that he was part of the security team. Later, I found out he was just a random guy and he had collected all of the used celeries. I don’t know what he did with them. Maybe he just threw them away. All I know is that this guy had collected these celeries that we were using and I often wonder (a) What he was doing there? And (b) what he did with the celery?
Make a bunch of Bloody Marys? Mount them on his wall on wooden plaques?
I mean, he seemed like a nice guy. He didn’t seem so sketchy that I’d ask somebody who he was. He seemed to be just a little weird. He could have had a very legitimate use for the celery. You never know?
Name one legitimate use for your used celery. He had a little hungry goat at home and he trolled movie sets to keep his goat alive?
There you go! You just named one yourself. That seems plausible. We were in Albuquerque, so there are a lot of farms in that area.
The whole crew has come back together for the TV series: Kristen Wiig, Ryan Philippe, Jorma Taccone, John Solomon. It’s kind of action movie-esque — you’re all doing one more heist that involves getting paid to make MacGruber jokes. Walk us through how you create a gag. What’s the sweet spot between stupid and smart?
We’re never really going into the too-smart area. You’re constantly walking that line. We’ll catch ourselves going, “Okay, MacGruber is stupid, but is he that stupid?” For instance, one of those things — it made us laugh, so we left it in — is when he spells his name wrong when he’s getting out of prison. All of us went, “Is this too crazy? Eh, fuck it. Let’s do it. It’s our show.” Whatever makes us happy, whatever makes us laugh, we usually go for it. Unless it’s stupid to the point where it might take you out of the story.
It’s funny because there are times where he’s such an idiot, but there are also times when he says things that are way smarter than anything that MacGruber should know. There are times when he can’t fight at all and he’s terrified, or times when he’s the most heroic figure and he’ll do whatever he needs to take people down. I feel like people just kind of go with it. We just have MacGruber ping-ponging all over the place.
He seems like a character who couldn’t be farther apart from you. The number one thing people say about you is that you’re a nice guy.
Oh, that’s nice!
It is! Even though I feel like “nice guy” has been devalued as a compliment.
I will still accept that as a compliment. Certainly, MacGruber is a violent person, and I am not. We go pretty over-the-top with the violence. But there are times I’m a frigging dickhead for sure. You should have a conversation with my wife. She’ll fill you in. I can be a MacGruber-level dipshit. Sadly, a lot of times the character is not so far from me. Basically, the character on The Last Man of Earth is MacGruber without the ability to swear. At a certain point I have to realize, “Oh, maybe this isn’t just a character that I’m comfortable playing. Maybe there is a real element of this character that exists inside of me. That is something I’m aware of — that I’m working on.
Thanks to The Last Man on Earth, you’ve survived both a fake pandemic and now, a real pandemic. Are you still able to be an optimist?
I’m in a place in my life where I’ve never been happier. I just got married. I have this little baby, which is the best thing. It makes you live a little less selfishly. When you wake them up, there’s this smile on their face when they see you and you think, “What if she could just be this happy all the time?” And then I think about how somebody’s going to break her heart one day and she’ll be super sad. You think about all the pain everyone goes through and I don’t want that to happen for her. You think about all the crazy shit that’s happening in this country right now. You know, I’m 51 so if things keep heading in this weird direction, I’ll probably be an old man by the time stuff gets really grim. But she won’t be. There are a lot of things in the future that her whole generation will have to contend with if our generation doesn’t make better decisions. Climate stuff. Democracy. Voting rights.
But I still have hope and optimism just because I refuse to believe that people want to give up on these amazing things that this country is all about. Hopefully saner heads prevail. It seems like there’s a lot of amazing people out there fighting the good fight.
Do you think MacGruber should be a dad?
Everybody should do mushrooms once and everybody should be a parent, if they want to be. You get this sense of community with the world. There are all these connections made in your brain. There aren’t a lot of experiences like that in the world. Now, I feel like a shithead that I’m equating the two.
Has being a dad changed your comedy?
I’ve certainly wondered what she’ll think of what I’m doing now when she’s old enough to watch this stuff. Because I can’t stop her from watching it forever, so I’m keeping track in my head that, “This is something that my daughter will lose a little respect for me when she sees it — but this one she’ll probably like.” I’m cataloguing it. But I’m not making any changes.