Will Forte is terrified.
He's speaking to a room of roughly 300 people upon receiving an award for his performance in Alexander Payne's "Nebraska", and his years of performing sketch comedy on live television for untold millions of viewers don't seem to be making his speech any easier. "I don't usually make the kind of movies that get awards", he tells the crowd, "I usually make the kind of movies that get the opposite of awards." From the back of the room I can hear Emma Thompson laughing. Forte might feel as though he's out of his comfort zone at the podium of a fancy awards gala, but – as he wends his way through one of the evening's most enjoyable and sincerely humbled acceptances speeches – the moment proves yet again that Forte's comfort zone might be a lot more expansive than anyone realizes, himself included.
The next morning I was scheduled to speak to Forte about how "Nebraska" wasn't a fluke. In fact, viewers fortunate enough to see Steph Green's "Run & Jump" at last year's Tribeca Film Festival would tell you that Forte's sensitive but restrained everyman performance in "Nebraska" wasn't even much of a surprise. Payne's awards season contender may have been first out of the gate (at least publicly), but Green's debut feature was the first to recognize Forte's range, even if the young director had to convince the man known as "MacGruber" that he had any.
A warm, poignant, and refreshingly honest domestic drama about a young Irish father who returns home and attempts to rejoin his family after suffering a mentally debilitating stroke, "Run & Jump" succeeds on the strength of Green's elegant direction, but resonates by virtue of the excellent performances she inspired from her actors, and the immaculate eye with which she selected them in the first place. Maxine Peake is a revelation as Venetia, the resilient but increasingly fragile mother whose husband suddenly looks at her like a stranger, while Forte holds the film together as Dr. Ted Fielding, a visiting American psychologist who moves into Venetia's guest room in order to videotape and study her husband's unusual recovery. As Venetia looks at her husband and struggles to see the man she married, Ted grows to become her confidant, and perhaps something more.
I spoke with Forte and Green about how the film came to be, and why fear can sometimes be a filmmaker's best friend.
FILM.COM: Mr. Forte, I saw you last night at the National Board of Review awards and I thought your speech was so great and sincere.
WILL FORTE: Oh, thanks!
I’m surprised that you’d be nervous for something like that given your history on live T.V.
WF: I was terrified. The people in that room were people that I have so much respect for. A lot of heroes.
I can imagine being up there on the podium and you look down and there’s like, Leonardo DiCaprio… I’m not sure why I said Leonardo DiCaprio. I meant more like, Martin Scorsese.
WF: It was just really scary. Doing SNL is scary in a different way. You have a part, and you’re used to that. But this was so out of my comfort zone – a speech that I wrote myself! It terrified me.
Well it went over great.
WF: Well, that’s good.
So I’m sorry if my first question about the film is an asinine one, but the whole thing was such a surprise for me, and I know nothing about the production. Would you mind telling me a little bit about how this all came together?
STEPH GREEN: The script came from my producer, she found it, and I immediately responded. It was an early draft. Alibhe Keogan, that’s the name of the writer, she lives in County Kerry, Ireland [where the film is set] and this was her first screenplay. And it had so much more to offer than so many scripts I had read from seasoned screenwriters, Alibhe just had this really idiosyncratic voice. The dialogue was fun, and Venetia was drawn so well. So we got together and we started thinking about the outsider in the story, who he could be. Alibhe originally thought he could be English, but since I’m American I thought maybe it should be an American visitor. So immediately after we defined Ted as the third wheel or eighth wheel to this family, I started looking at lists of actors in the right age bracket, and I very quickly settled on… I got a bee in my bonnet, as people accuse me of having, and I wouldn’t listen to anyone else. I was going to use Will. I knew in the soles of my shoes that he could do this role. And Alibhe watched some stuff that Will had been in and she agreed.
Had you guys known each other at all beforehand, you and Mr. Forte, or were you just going off a feeling?
SG: Nope, I was completely cold. People did think like “The comedic guy? From Saturday Night Live?” Particularly in Europe where they don’t watch “30 Rock” it was even harder to defend. [Green & Forte laugh together]. So when Alexander Payne started looking at Will for “Nebraska” I felt greatly relieved and validated. Like, “See!?”
You’re a visionary! You were way ahead of the game.
SG: And then I sent the script to Will’s agent, she was kind enough to share it with him, he agreed to meet with him, and I nervously tried to convince him that he would make a wonderful Dr. Fielding. And here we are.
Mr. Forte, I’m sure you were asked a million times during the “Nebraska” press tour about reinventing yourself as a dramatic actor, but that never really occurred to me as a valid question because I would think that, in sketch comedy, you would have to reinvent yourself several times per night. So… I guess I’m asking the exact same question just from a different angle, but has this been as much of a stretch for you as people might think?
WF: Well, in my head going in… I look back now and realize “Oh, it’s not that different”, but going into it I thought “How would I ever do this? I’m not prepared for this. I don’t have the tools. I’ve never taken a dramatic acting class. I’m sure there are chunks of knowledge that people who take those classes have at their disposal that solves every problem!” But then you realize…
SG: There is no pandora’s box that unlocks all of those solutions.
Had you ever at least grown a beard of that caliber before?
WF: The beard I had for this movie was the thickest beard I’d ever grown.
SG: You really looked different with the beard!
WF: It actually really made me feel more comfortable.
I was going to say, it must have been a great prop for you to find your way into the character.
WF: Absolutely. Absolutely. For somebody who loves and is so used to having a mustache, or having a this or a that I can hide behind with different characters, it really helped to make me feel comfortable. [Laughs]. It’s so weird to say that, because it’s just some hair on my face, but Steph made it such a comfortable experience… I didn’t even know why she asked me to do it. I was excited that she asked, and I loved the script when I read it, but I wasn’t sure that I could do it. But she seemed so confident in me that she gradually won me over and so I thought “Why not try this? It’s a great script, and what a great experience this could be. And a paid trip to Ireland for almost 2 months!?” It was an experience I’ll never forget, personally and professionally.
One of the things that struck me about your character right off the bat is his voice. The character is introduced behind the camera in the film, and only gradually becomes a more physical presence in the film as he puts the camera away and gets more involved. Ms. Green, was Will’s voice, which is definitely identifiable, something that appealed to you for the character either before or after you cast him?
SG: No… [both laugh]. I mean, I love your voice, but it was more the whole Will Forte package.
It’s a strange question.
Well, I really appreciate your interpretation at least, because that was definitely the intention, to meet Ted really hidden behind the camera and then for him to slowly emerge.
Well, it’s a really elegant articulation of assimilation, which your short film “New Boy” suggests might be a reoccurring element in your work. The idea of, can he come into this family, is it possible, or is there some ineffable bond between this family that would never be able to be pierced by an outsider? I wonder, as an American filmmaker shooting abroad, if that was part of your personal experience as well?
SG: Definitely. I think most storytellers are interested in the idea of the outsider, because we all feel like outsiders at different times, and getting past that feeling is a part of human connectivity. It was just so perfect that here we had this American flying in, I had had pre-rehearsal time with the family, so they were greeting Will as a stranger. And then we shot relatively chronologically, so Will’s comfort as an actor working with these Irish actors was increasing alongside his character’s comfort with the family.
WF: It definitely helped me out acting-wise, it all kind of helped with my nerves and that notion of being an outsider so by the time I got comfortable with the acting stuff I was also just getting comfortable with the family. By Steph’s design.
SG: Well I knew that Will would want to do a good job.
That he wasn’t going to just come in and sabotage the project?
[both laugh] SG: Well a lot of actors just think they will do a good job. …That’s kind of a negative thing to say about actors. But I knew that Will was striving to do well, just like Ted is there to do a good job on his report. So Ted and Will entered my movie with the same motivation in a way.
Can you talk a little bit more about how you wanted to slowly dissolve between the front that Ted has with the camera? Especially visually, I was interested in how you didn’t go too far out of your way to call attention to the different aesthetic of the camcorder footage, but rather relied on sound and voices.
SG: I think that the camcorder was a part of Ted’s character, it wasn’t a device for the film. So I didn’t want to call attention to it like we’re cutting between two different worlds, because it was so much more important that yo were involved in the dynamic of what was going on. I was more interested in the relationships, whatever you were watching. So I didn’t want a Record signal beeping in the bottom of the frame or anything like that.
But there is something intrinsically powerful about home video footage, even when fictionalized.
SG: Yeah, I love it. Probably a lot of filmmakers are obsessed with the notion of hiding behind the camera, I think we can all relate to that. And I loved that idea of Ted slowly coming out from behind the lens, because I didn’t want to use big signifiers… Ted’s arc is so deeply meaningful for the rest of Ted’s life, but you can’t mark it through the movie like “Oh, in act 2 he hugs Noni.” Well, he actually does hug her at the end, but that’s as big as I wanted to go.
Mr. Forte, Ted is sort of defined by his present. You can imagine a lot about him, in that he has the kind of life where he can pack up and move to Ireland and enjoy that, but how did you find your way into this character when he didn’t have much of a known history?
WF: Yeah, that was a big concern of mine. With “Nebraska”, I really connected to that character. With this, I loved the script but the character was a mystery to me. So when she was saying that she thought I’d be good at this character, I just went with blind faith. So it was really interesting figuring out what she wanted, especially cause I usually like to know going in. But her direction, a lot of times, if I were to ask a question, would be to have that lead to more questions. And I love answers! [both laugh]. It got me to the right place, but it was so interesting getting there.
SG: Sometimes the slight discomfort that Will felt was actually the way into the scene. So I recognized that Will my friend might be uncomfortable, but Dr. Fielding is coming across.
WF: After about a week in it was like oh, okay, I see what we’re doing here. But that first week was really scary. I had no idea if I was doing well or horribly. And Steph would say that I was doing great, because she’s a really nurturing person, but I would think “Oh, she’s just saying that. She knows that if she doesn’t say I’m doing great I’ll spiral out of control…”
SG: And also I had the luxury of seeing the dailies, which were very reassuring. I could see that he was doing great.
WF: More than anything, it was just such a new experience for me that I was just nervous about making a choice. What I like to do is to make a choice and commit to that choice, but I didn’t have enough information to do that. But somehow, with all that mystery, it was making a choice. Without me knowing it, she was guiding me along.
About the structure of the movie, I thought it was really refreshing how messy it feels. I think so often you see films that share a similar tone with yours where there’s a buoyant first half, and then there’s a montage, and then there’s a dour second half. And in this film when there’s that montage of them at the zoo I was like “Oh, here we go.” But that’s not how it plays out, there are so many interesting peaks and valleys and unexpected developments. Can you talk a little bit about how you wanted to lay this story out in a way that felt so organic and lifelike?
SG: Thank you, that just makes me feel so good. Imposing too much of a structure on this story would have made it feel so predictable. I mean, you have this stranger who has growing affection for the wife and the wife has this disabled husband, and we could all see it. I had to keep switching things around, but the script helped me. You have to settle into it, the film opens with a choppy montage of daily routines in a domestic setting, it doesn’t grab you by the neck. But I think that life is so messy, and grief is so messy, and adjusting to a big change is such a roller coaster that to accurately represent that the film was careful not to overly structure itself. To its critical detriment, some people won’t connect because it’s not as formulaic as they’re used to. But I’m proud of that. And I’m proud of my producers for supporting that in a cut. Not being like “Chop 15 minutes off the end!”
One of the interesting elements that the film takes on in the 2nd half… well, this is a story in part about what makes people who they are. Is it the body, or is it the mind? And when the body is impaired, how does that reshape identity? So I thought it was so interesting that Venetia and her husband reconnect via their bodies, with sex being reintroduced into their lives. And obviously it impacts Ted’s character as well, and his dynamic with Venetia.
SG: Yeah. Did you think about that at all, Will?
SG: The character doesn’t really know that happens, does he?
Well there’s a pall…
WF: It’s really well written, so you know where you’re supposed to be at all times. It’s such a complex and subtle bunch of shifts.
SG: If someone asked me to get rid of the sex scene, I’d say that it’s important that Venetia’s husband offers her something at that point of the movie. Because at the end she stays with him, and I think as an audience member you’re going to be weighing why she made that choice. I think it’s important to show how that connection remains, even if it’s really tenuous and really devastating that he’s only sort of half there for that.
“Run & Jump” opens in select theaters in NYC & L.A. and via VOD on Friday, January 24th.