'Last Man' Will Forte On Beards, Comedy And Bruce Dern's Acting Advice Forte tells Fresh Air about landing a job on Saturday Night Live and learning on the set of Nebraska that acting is "all about commitment."
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'Last Man' Will Forte On Beards, Comedy And Bruce Dern's Acting Advice

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'Last Man' Will Forte On Beards, Comedy And Bruce Dern's Acting Advice

'Last Man' Will Forte On Beards, Comedy And Bruce Dern's Acting Advice

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LAST MAN ON EARTH")

WILL FORTE: (As Phil Miller) Oh, you're just up there laughing at me, God, aren't you? Why did you do this?

GROSS: That's Will Forte in "The Last Man On Earth," the Fox comedy series he created and stars in. When we first meet Forte's character Phil, he fears he's the only human on Earth who survived a deadly virus. He thinks it's horrible being the sole survivor, but when he finds out that he's not alone, things don't get any better for him. The series is about to wrap up its first season and has already been renewed for a second. Forte was a cast member of "Saturday Night Live" from 2002 to 2010. He also starred with Bruce Dern in the film "Nebraska." Forte recently spoke to FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado about the new show and his career.

Here's a scene from an early episode of "The Last Man On Earth." After searching in vain for other survivors, Phil finally finds one, played by Kristen Schaal. Although they don't really like each other, they decide to get married since they believe they're the last two people on Earth. But just a few minutes after the ceremony, they encounter a beautiful woman, played by January Jones, and Phil immediately regrets getting married. The three of them decide to have dinner, and Phil, in an effort to look more appealing to the new woman, decides to shave off his long, wild beard. Kristen Schaal's character is surprised by his new look.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LAST MAN ON EARTH")

KRISTEN SCHAAL: (As Carol Pilbasian) Phil Miller, what's gotten into you?

FORTE: (As Phil Miller) I don't know what you're talking about, Carol. I'm just coming down for dinner, as I do.

JANUARY JONES: (As Melissa Shart) So you got rid of the beard?

FORTE: (As Phil Miller) Yes, I did.

JONES: (As Melissa Shart) I thought that was kind of cool.

FORTE: (As Phil Miller) You did? Oh.

SCHAAL: (As Carol Pilbasian) Yeah, your chin is too pointy. You just need something to smooth it out.

FORTE: (As Phil Miller) And you feel the same way about that.

JONES: (As Melissa Shart) You look smaller.

SCHAAL: (As Carol Pilbasian) Weaker.

FORTE: (As Phil Miller) OK (laughter).

SCHAAL: (As Carol Pilbasian) Who do you look like?

JONES: (As Melissa Shart) Quentin Tarantino.

FORTE: (As Phil Miller) Uh, OK, yeah, yeah. I don't see that, but...

SCHAAL: (As Carol Pilbasian) k.d. lang.

JONES: (As Melissa Shart) Oh, k.d. - it's k.d. lang.

SCHAAL: (As Carol Pilbasian) Isn't it?

FORTE: (As Phil Miller) k.d. lang, the female country singer.

JONES: (As Melissa Shart) Mmhmm.

SCHAAL: (As Carol Pilbasian) Yeah.

FORTE: (As Phil Miller) Well, I like it (laughter).

SCHAAL: (As Carol Pilbasian) Well, you don't have to look at it.

FORTE: (As Phil Miller) (Laughter) I guess I don't. Shall we eat?

ANN MARIE BALDONADO, BYLINE: That's a scene from "The Last Man On Earth." Will Forte, welcome to FRESH AIR.

FORTE: Thank you.

BALDONADO: Could you talk about filming that scene 'cause you had just shaved off this beard that you've had for a really long time?

FORTE: I had just shaved the beard off. I had been living with this beard for about nine months, and I had a real love-hate relationship with it. There are a lot of very tricky things when you have a beard of that size. Eating is horrible. Personal interactions are - get tricky. You know, people are nervous around a person with a beard that size. But I also kind of missed it. It was like a little security blanket.

BALDONADO: So you wrote the whole premise for this show in a weekend - this idea of a post-apocalyptic comedy. It's a funny premise because what happens is first there's Phil alone and then a woman shows up, and it's just these few people - first the two of you then three then four. But still, all of the same issues sort of come up. You know, there's jealousy. There's, you know, trying to figure out what the right thing to do is.

FORTE: Yeah. I mean it - you know, eventually the show becomes more than just (laughter) sex stuff and procreation and repopulation, but this seemed like a fun territory to start. The other interesting thing to us was, you know, taking the characters in different directions. Like, you know, automatically in the first episode, you want your character to be likable. You want people to find him to be sympathetic and then, you know, we thought it would be interesting to move away from there and create this character who's - isn't the perfect person. You know, in the show I feel like if you continue to watch your allegiances will kind of constantly be shifting.

BALDONADO: Now, people know you primarily from being a performer - from being a cast member on "SNL" and being an actor, but your first job in comedy was as a comedy writer, is that right?

FORTE: Yep.

BALDONADO: And you were also a member of the improv group The Groundlings.

FORTE: Yep.

BALDONADO: And I think while you were writing for "That '70s Show" you were discovered by Lorne Michaels while you were performing at one of the Groundlings's shows. Can you tell us that story?

FORTE: I just lucked out and Lorne Michaels came to one of the shows. And I - I already had a job, so I didn't even think that it was possible to go over to "SNL." I was under contract with Carsey-Werner and the "'70s Show." So I was nice and loose 'cause I was very happy as a comedy writer, too. So I just didn't even think that it was an option, and then I ended up having a good night probably because I was so loose. And he invited me for an audition, and I was terrified. I had to really get talked into auditioning. And then I went out, auditioned and got the job and then turned it down - just terrified that I wouldn't be good at it and I would be giving up this amazing job at "'70s Show," which was such a fun job, great people. I liked the show so much. And I turned it down and I regretted it for the entire year that I had to wait until Lorne, thank God, came back the next year and asked me if I would change my mind. And I decided I had to go for it 'cause I just would never forgive myself if I didn't at least see what it would be like.

GROSS: We're listening to Will Forte speaking with FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. One of the characters he was known for on "Saturday Night Live" is MacGruber, a parody of the main character in the TV series "MacGyver," a secret agent who was able to use everyday items to get out of dangerous situations. In this sketch, Kristen Wiig and Charles Barkley play MacGruber's assistants.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

CHARLES BARKLEY: (As Darrell) MacGruber, this door is magnet locked. We're trapped.

KRISTEN WIIG: (As Vicky) That's not our only problem, MacGruber. From the looks of that nitrogen bomb, we've only got 20 seconds.

FORTE: (As MacGruber) Don't worry, Vicky. Chill, Derrell (ph). We'll have plenty of time to relax, time to chill, Derrell, once we get out of here, once we scram, Derrell.

BARKLEY: (As Darrell) It's pronounced Darrell.

FORTE: (As MacGruber) (Laughter) Oh, like a white Darrell.

WIIG: (As Vicky) Ten seconds, MacGruber.

FORTE: (As MacGruber) OK, Vicky, hand me the Allen wrench.

WIIG: (As Vicky) You got it, MacGruber.

FORTE: (As MacGruber) OK, Derrell.

BARKLEY: (As Darrell) Darrell.

FORTE: (As MacGruber) Funk me over that copper wire, out of sight.

BARKLEY: (As Darrell) It's Darrell.

FORTE: (As MacGruber) OK, Vicky, hand me that stir stick.

WIIG: (As Vicky) On the way, MacGruber.

FORTE: (As MacGruber) Derrell.

BARKLEY: (As Darrell) It's Darrell.

FORTE: (As MacGruber) Jazz me over that fly shoelace, you dig?

BARKLEY: (As Darrell) MacGruber, I don't know if this is working out.

FORTE: (As MacGruber) That reminds me of a good joke. What do you get when you cross a Mexican with a black...

BARKLEY: (As Darrell) MacGruber.

FORTE: (As MacGruber) 'Scuse me - a black African-American. Mo' better?

BARKLEY: (As Darrell) Yeah. Mo' better.

FORTE: (As MacGruber) OK, so you cross a Mexican with a black African-American and a Jew and a woman and what do you get? I don't know, but I sure don't want that person to move in next door to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

GROSS: We'll hear more of Will Forte's interview after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with Will Forte, a former "Saturday Night Live" cast member who created and stars in the new comedy series "The Last Man On Earth."

BALDONADO: So a lot of people know you for your comedic roles, but I think a lot of people discovered you as a dramatic actor when you did the role - your role in the Alexander Payne film "Nebraska." Let's hear a scene from the film. Woody, the father played by Bruce Dern, thinks he's won a million dollars, but it's a scam. It's one of those scam sweepstakes, but he's convinced you - his younger son David - to drive him from Billings where they live to Lincoln, Neb. And on the way you've stopped at the hometown - his hometown where he grew up - and you are in a local bar there. You've had some drinks, and you're trying to connect with him. That's one of the reasons why you've taken him on this trip. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NEBRASKA")

FORTE: (As David Grant) I didn't tell you that Noel and I broke up.

BRUCE DERN: (As Woody Grant) Who?

FORTE: (As David Grant) Noel. You know, the girl I've been living with for the past two years. She moved out. We broke up.

DERN: (As Woody Grant) Oh.

FORTE: (As David Grant) Maybe I should've asked her to get married. I don't know. I just - I just never felt sure, you know what I mean? I mean, how are you supposed to know when you're sure? Are you sure?

DERN: (As Woody Grant) Huh.

FORTE: (As David Grant) How did you and mom end up getting married?

DERN: (As Woody Grant) She wanted to.

FORTE: (As David Grant) You didn't.

DERN: (As Woody Grant) I figured what the hell.

FORTE: (As David Grant) Were you ever sorry you married her?

DERN: (As Woody Grant) All the time - could have been worse.

FORTE: (As David Grant) Well, you must have been in love, at least at first.

DERN: (As Woody Grant) Never came up.

FORTE: (As David Grant) Did you ever talk about having kids and how many you wanted and stuff like that?

DERN: (As Woody Grant) Nope.

FORTE: (As David Grant) Then why did you have us?

DERN: (As Woody Grant) Because I liked to [expletive] and your mother's a Catholic, so you figure it out.

FORTE: (As David Grant) So you and mom never actually talked about whether you wanted kids or not.

DERN: (As Woody Grant) Well, I figured if we kept on [expletive] we'd end up with a couple of you.

BALDONADO: That's a scene from the film "Nebraska" with Bruce Dern and our guest Will Forte. Bruce Dern has said that during some of the filming of the movie "Nebraska" he took out his hearing aids because he is a person who's kind of very present. And to help him connect to the character Woody, who's a little bit more removed, he took out his hearing aids. And you sort of get that here when he's doing all the huh, huh, what, while you're - while you guys are talking.

FORTE: Yeah.

BALDONADO: Also you drove with Bruce Dern, I think, part of the route from Billings, Mont., to Nebraska. Can you talk about spending that much time with Bruce Dern, and if you sort of spent time as yourselves or kind of in character?

FORTE: We spent a ton of time together. I - it was pretty amazing to watch him make the transformation because for anybody who doesn't know him, he is the most vibrant, feisty in a fun way. He's just - he's just awesome and full of life. And then the moment that the cameras would start rolling, he just morphed into the Woody character. It's about as drastically different as you can get, and no, we didn't spend - you know, the moments we would be done shooting or between takes, you know, we wouldn't be in character. We'd just be talking like friends. I mean, that was such a big part of this experience 'cause I was really nervous the whole way through. I was - you know, I didn't want to mess up Alexander Payne's movie and Bruce Dern's movie. Here are all these legendary people, and he was so good about putting me at ease, and that friendship that we developed helped me get out of my head and I think do a better job in the movie. And yeah, the very end, after we completed all of the dialogue stuff from the movie, we actually went to Billings, Mont., and made the trip all the way to northern Nebraska. And Alexander Payne followed us in this big RV. He actually had bought the RV that Jack Nicholson drives around in "About Schmidt." So he had had this RV, and they mounted a camera to the front of it and would just drive behind us and then pull up to the side of us and get all of these just amazing shots of that drive. But the whole time Bruce and I are in this car just for days and days just talking about life, and I could listen to his stories forever. He's a fascinating, wonderful man.

BALDONADO: Will Forte, thank you for coming on FRESH AIR.

FORTE: Thank you for having me on FRESH AIR.

GROSS: Will Forte spoke with FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. Forte created and stars in the Fox comedy series "The Last Man On Earth." Tomorrow on our show, we'll talk about the chaos in Yemen, which has becoame a haven for al-Qaida and extremist rebels and what that could mean for the U.S. Our guest will be Gregory Johnsen who has reported from Yemen, wrote a book about it and was nearly kidnapped on his last trip there. Join us.

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