“I’m not gonna write on New Year’s Eve this year,” soft-spoken Will Forte says with a laugh as we sit down at The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of the ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. Over the last two years, as the creator, showrunner, executive producer, writer and star of Fox’s comedy series The Last Man on Earth, Forte has had his hands extremely full, to the extent that he was working on the show even when everyone else was ringing in 2016.
But the 46-year-old wants to be very clear that he’s not complaining. In fact, he’s grateful for the opportunity to be a part of a show that he loves and gets to make with a lot of old friends — people whom he met in his previous incarnations as a writer for The Late Show with David Letterman, Third Rock from the Sun and That ‘70s Show and a performer on Saturday Night Live. And the fact that he’s received back-to-back Emmy nominations for best actor in a comedy series? That’s the cherry on the cake.
(Click above to listen to this episode now or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Amy Schumer, Louis C.K., Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Kristen Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Brie Larson, J.J. Abrams, Kate Winslet, Samuel L. Jackson, Jane Fonda and Michael Moore.)
Forte very nearly had a totally different sort of career. Like his father, he worked at a Beverly Hills brokerage firm after graduating from college. But, after a year-and-a-half, during which he began writing comedic screenplays as “an outlet,” he realized he had to get out. He began taking classes with The Groundlings, the famous improv and sketch comedy group; wrote a comic book, 101 Things to Definitely Not Do If You Wanna Get a Chick, that became his calling card; and landed his first writing gig, at The Jenny McCarthy Show. From there, he was hired to write for The Late Show, which, to him, a lifelong fan of David Letterman, was “the most exciting thing.”
Then, after nine months, Forte was fired — “I just didn’t do a good job,” he acknowledges — but landed as a writer/producer at That ‘70s Show while simultaneously performing as part of the Groundlings‘ main stage company. It was there that, one night in 2001, Lorne Michaels saw him for the first time. When Michaels shortly thereafter offered Forte an audition for SNL, Forte felt “tortured.” He had never appeared on TV before and didn’t want SNL to fall off the pedestal onto which he had put it, so he auditioned but, upon being offered the job, turned it down. He soon came to regret his decision. “I just thought, ‘I’m an idiot, I can’t live my life out of fear like this,'” he recalls. Fortunately, a year later, he was offered a second chance and took it.
Forte feels he was a poor cast member during his first years on the show, even though he was elevated from a featured player to cast member after his first year. “I really had tremendous stage fright,” he recalls, and he was “terrified” at having to impersonate George W. Bush, which became his primary assignment following the departure of Will Ferrell. Moreover, because he often was assigned Bush sketches, he was unable to do the quirkier sort of bits he preferred — characters like inept politician Tim Calhoun and The Falconer, who, when he got to do them, tended to end up in “the 10-to-1 [a.m.] block,” shortly before an episode ended.
“We had such a big cast at the time that a lot of times the crazier stuff that I would write just wouldn’t make it in,” Forte says, “because they’d have to get everybody in the show and I already had my thing, which was this Bush thing that I didn’t want to do.” At end of third season, he was almost fired, but got off with a warning from Michaels to “own things when they’re not your own.” Another of the characters written by someone else that he initially resisted, but eventually came to love, was “MacGruber,” which eventually spawned a 2010 Michaels-produced movie. While that was not critically or commercially successful, Forte insists, “I am as proud of MacGruber as I am of Nebraska… I would stand behind that movie with everything I got.” (And, he reveals, “We’re gonna try and make a second one.”)
After MacGruber‘s release and his 40th birthday, Forte decided to leave SNL, on which he’d appeared for eight years, and move back to LA see what else was out there for him. At first, he was disappointed to find he wasn’t much in-demand. Then, bit parts in friends’ comedies were followed by a dramatic role in a no-budget film and a TV pilot called Rebounding and then, following a most unexpected audition invitation, a co-leading role in Alexander Payne‘s Nebraska, opposite Bruce Dern. “I don’t know anybody who would have not been surprised by me getting this part — and I was leading the charge on that,” he says. The film, a father-son road movie which premiered at Cannes in May 2013, went on to receive multiple Oscar nominations, including best picture, and Forte won the National Board of Review’s best supporting actor prize.
In the years since, Forte has been open to doing other dramatic parts, but has not expected them, realizing that the Payne opportunity was of a sort that, in all likelihood, comes around once in a lifetime. Instead, he has focused intensely on The Last Man on Earth, which he wrote with his friends Phil Lord and Chris Miller, assuming that someone else would be its star and that it would air on cable, if anywhere. But Fox took an interest in it with him as the eponymous character, greenlighted its 13-episode first season and then brought it back for 18 more. “It’s been really hard the first two years,” Forte confesses, “just an insane amount of work,” adding, “You can’t really sit down to write until after the acting is done. And then, of course, you’ve gotta edit on the weekends.” The grind has taken a toll on his health — “I put on, since the start of the first season, probably 30 to 40 pounds,” he says with embarrassment — but, with the passage of time, he’s learning how to pace himself and delegate work. He marvels, “What an experience I’ve gotten to have with these people I love.”