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The Globe and Mail

Funnyman Will Forte plays it straight in Nebraska

Actor Will Forte is pictured at Sutton Place Hotel in Vancouver on Sept. 26, 2013.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

To say that Will Forte was not an obvious choice for the role of David in Alexander Payne's post-recession drama Nebraska would be, well, stating the obvious.

Forte is best known as the funny guy – a Saturday Night Live cast member, the star of the SNL spinoff film MacGruber and with a recurring role on 30 Rock as Jenna's (Jane Krakowski) cross-dressing boyfriend.

But Nebraska is another matter entirely, a lament in black and white for the decline of small-town Middle America and for the lives that once would have quietly thrived there.

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In the film, David is son to Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an aging, deteriorating alcoholic who believes he has won the sweepstakes and insists on travelling to Lincoln, Neb., from Billings, Mont., to collect his prize. David, recently single and stuck in a dead-end job, reluctantly agrees to the road trip – even though his father has clearly not won a thing, and David's upbringing would not have earned Woody any father-of-the-year awards.

"When I heard about the role, I thought: This is crazy. Why should I audition for this? There is no way I'll ever get this role," explained Forte during an interview at the Vancouver International Film Festival, where Nebraska had its Canadian premiere this fall. "But I also sometimes buy lottery tickets, so I just thought: What the heck? Why not take a couple of hours to learn the scene, put myself on tape? You never know."

When he didn't hear back for a few months after sending out the audition tape, he assumed nothing was going to come of it. He just hoped Payne wasn't showing the tape around to his friends for a laugh.

The director was doing no such thing, of course. Forte got the part. But that was only the beginning: Now Forte, the sweet funny guy from TV, had to pull it off – play the straight man on the big black-and-white screen opposite Dern in the veteran star's performance of a lifetime.

"It was really scary. I was totally out of my comfort zone," confided Forte.

He didn't stay there for long. Working with Dern – who won the best actor award at Cannes this year for the role – was like a Hollywood crash course. "Just watching him was such an education," Forte, 43, said. "But mainly it was just the stories. It was like going to a film history class where you get the gossipy stuff too. …He knows information about everything in the world. He's kind of like a Cliff Clavin [the know-it-all character from the TV series Cheers] but with the correct information."

Screenwriter Bob Nelson, who also comes from the sketch comedy world, thought casting Forte and comedian Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad) as Woody's sons was inspired. "I love watching comedians dip into more dramatic roles," said Nelson, 57. "I've seen the film three times now and when I watch it, it's hard to imagine anybody but Will Forte as the son. I think he's perfect. He catches the low-key personality of the guy and he doesn't try and go outside of that."

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Nelson, who lives on Whidbey Island in Washington state, wrote the screenplay – his first feature – more than 10 years ago. After losing his job as a radio producer, he was at his own dead-end job, selling classified ads for the Seattle Times on his 30th birthday, thinking, "I might want to try and find my way out of this and do something else."

He did, writing a screenplay – with the character of Woody inspired in large part by his own father – that found its way to the producers of Payne's 1999 film Election and then Payne himself, whose interest stunned Nelson.

Cut to Nebraska, during the first week of shooting. Nelson drives up with his mother – his father died more than 30 years ago – arriving on the set in the late afternoon, and is offered headsets by the crew so they can listen in. "They're running the scene, and I heard Bruce Dern saying words that I wrote 10 years ago, and then I hear Stacy Keach [who plays Woody's old business partner] saying the exact line that I wrote 10 years ago," said Nelson. "I'd been there for five minutes and I'm listening to them rehearse that, and yeah, it was quite amazing."

Nebraska opens Nov. 22 in Toronto; Nov. 29 in Montreal and Vancouver; Dec. 13 in Calgary, Edmonton and Victoria; and Dec. 20 in Ottawa and Winnipeg.

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