Apparently, Alexander Payne is not only a great movie director and screenwriter. He's also a good cook and a fantastic host.
That's the word from actor Will Forte, who was Payne's houseguest a week ago while appearing at an Omaha Press Club roast of Payne and at a Film Streams fundraiser.
“He made a nice eggy thing this morning,” Forte said in an exclusive telephone interview with The World-Herald. “Now he's making us a curry chicken dish for this evening. It smells great.”
Payne takes care of his actors, apparently off the set as well as he does on. Forte had nothing but good things to say about appearing in Payne's sixth feature, “Nebraska,” which has had a gradual rollout over the past three weeks and has gotten uniformly strong reviews.
“He knows exactly what he wants, which is wonderful,” Forte said of Payne's approach to capturing a scene on film. “You know this is a guy who won't move on from a scene unless he's got what he wants, and that's a good feeling to have. He makes you feel very safe as an actor.”
Payne's process, Forte said, changes from scene to scene. At times he gives meticulous notes, while at other times his approach is very open, what Forte called “laissez faire.” The combination of being incredibly relaxed yet confident in knowing what he wants is a winning one for cast and crew.
It took Forte a little while to catch that relaxed vibe.
“I still can't believe I got to be in this movie, to be honest,” he said. “It just is an experience I never thought I'd get to have. I didn't plan to go into dramatic acting. It just kinda happened. Making this movie was terrifying at first.”
Nobody, least of all Payne, thought of Forte initially as casting for “Nebraska” began.
Orville Willis Forte IV was born in Alameda County, Calif., in 1970. His parents divorced when he was a kid. He grew up in Moraga and Lafayette, Calif., earned a history degree at UCLA and planned to become a financial broker like his dad.
He hated it.
He pursued comedy and soon was hired as a writer for “Late Show With David Letterman,” then the sitcoms “3rd Rock From the Sun” and “That '70s Show.” He began getting parts in movies: “Beerfest,” “The Brothers Solomon” (directed by “Nebraska” co-star Bob Odenkirk), “Baby Mama.”
“Saturday Night Live” hired him as a writer and featured player in 2002, and he stayed for eight years. He had a recurring role on “30 Rock,” small parts in several Adam Sandler movies and the lead in “MacGruber,” a satire based on one of his SNL characters.
In other words, he has become known for a particular kind of wacky, broad comedy that's nothing like the dry humor steeped in realism that Alexander Payne shoots for.
His goal when he sent Payne an audition tape, he said, was to do it well enough not to become the butt of jokes from those who saw it.
He loved the script, he said, and instantly felt a connection with the character of David Grant.
“A lot of the pieces of this guy are similar to who I am,” he said. “David is kinda stuck in life. He's willing to work hard but doesn't want to intrude. He's a little shy, considerate of others, but at the same time super frustrated. That made it easy in that you don't have to do too much acting. But hard because it felt like you were revealing your little secrets. It made me feel very vulnerable at times.”
He has loved Payne's films since he first saw “Election,” he said, and had watched all of them before auditioning except Payne's first, “Citizen Ruth.” Now he loves that one, too.
“He has such a unique tone,” Forte said of Payne.” One thing I've always admired is that grounded comedy. It's more thrilling to be the straight man than to do the other stuff.”
But he was rattled, working with a director he idolized, opposite acting legend Bruce Dern and stage-screen veteran June Squibb. Dern and Squibb, who played David Grant's mother and father, helped Forte find confidence.
“They treated me like there wasn't any experience gap, very inclusive and patient. They were able to get me out of my head. I remember Bruce saying, 'Just be in the moment. Find the truth in the scene.'
“Sounds like a no-brainer, but when the camera is rolling you're thinking about a million things. The trick is to stop that and pay complete attention to what Bruce and June are doing. The way these people act, it's really easy to be in the moment.”
The whole experience of making “Nebraska,” he said, was special. The critical response at the Cannes Film Festival, where the audience cheered for 11 minutes, was a stunner.
“I've never really had any kind of critical praise,” Forte said. “So it's really exciting it's been well-received.”
He has another straight role in a movie based on an Elmore Leonard story, “Life of Crime.” He got to be a straight man in a Peter Bogdanovich movie called “Squirrels to Nuts.” Life is changing for Will Forte. Life is good.
“If you'd told me a year and a half ago, I'd have never believed I'd get to work with Payne and Bogdanovich. This has been the most exciting year.”