NEW YORK - Putting celery in one's butt is not the traditional pathway to coveted dramatic roles and illustrious international film festivals.
But three years after the "Saturday Night Live" spinoff "MacGruber" - and that infamous moment of vegetable prop comedy - Will Forte finds himself starring in an Irish drama playing at the Tribeca Film Festival ("Run & Jump") ahead of his starring role in Alexander Payne's "Nebraska," an entry to this year's Cannes Film Festival.
"I have no idea how I found myself in this position," says still bewildered Forte.
Though known for ridiculously over-the-top characters on "SNL" (a hermit falcon-owner, a whiskey-swilling morning talk show band leader, a potato-chip obsessed NASA scientist), the 42-year-old comedian is more earnest than you'd expect. In a recent interview during Tribeca, a wide-eyed Forte peppered nearly every answer by adding how genuinely thankful he is for his good fortune.
In "Run & Jump," Steph Green's feature debut, Forte plays an American psychologist who moves in with an Irish family (a radiant Maxine Peake plays the mother) to study and document how they adjust to living with a father (Edward MacLiam) brain damaged from a stroke.
"It was interesting to not hide behind these big, bold characters and just kind of act like a normal person," he says. "You feel very vulnerable. Frankly, it was hard to watch the first time. I'm a neurotic person. It's just really scary. You almost feel like: Now people are seeing what I'm kind of like as a normal person. I'm surprisingly kind of a private person, but that's coming from a person who put celery in their butt."
Forte, a California native, came up as an improv performer with the Groundlings before finding success as a comedy writer, notably for David Letterman's "Late Show." He arrived at "SNL" relatively late, at the age of 32, but stayed for eight years performing wide-ranging, bug-eyed lunatics, as well as a stint as President George W. Bush.
Forte has never been shy about pushing himself as a comedian. When he auditioned for "SNL," he performed a sketch he had done with the Groundlings as a gold-painted street performer who sings a stirring anthem that devolves into a confession of prostitution. Tina Fey admired his boldness not just on "SNL," but in his memorable cross-dressing cameos on "30 Rock."
"Will is so deceptively all-American handsome, but his taste in comedy is so wonderfully weird and unafraid to be arbitrary, dark or occasionally even filthy," Fey said in an e-mail. "He also has this sweetness that always comes through. He seems absolutely incapable of malice."
The "MacGyver" parody "MacGruber" helped Forte transition away from "SNL." While a box-office disappointment, earning just $8.5 million, the absurdist comedy has its cult adherents.
Green, whose 2007 short "New Boy" was Oscar-nominated, says she thought of Forte early on for her Ireland-set drama, having glimpsed from press interviews that Forte was "a thoughtful, in some ways shy, self-deprecating, deep individual."
"People did think I was slightly ... they didn't think I was crazy, they knew how talented he was," says Green. "But he had not done a role like this and there were other actors that were either available or the company felt I could get. I was greeted with some funny reactions, especially in Europe. A lot of people didn't know who Will Forte was and when they Googled him, they found a naked man with a piece of celery up his butt."
Green urged Forte to grow out his beard (the classic calling card of a "serious" performance for a comedian). Forte, drawn to the project by Ailbhe Keogan's script, took some convincing from Green that he could play the doctor.
"It took me a while to get out of my own head," he says. "I didn't go to acting school. I took a drama class with Mr. Eggerson in high school."
Accustomed to either amplifying characters to the extreme (like his enthusiastic but airheaded ESPN commentator Greg Stink) or making them comically soft-spoken (like his slow-talking politician Tim Calhoun), Forte often felt out of his depth calibrating a more subtle dramatic character: "I don't have any kind of internal monitor that I trust," he says.
Forte found out he had landed the part in "Nebraska" on his way to Ireland to shoot "Run & Jump." He had sent an audition tape to Payne, but didn't get called back to meet with Payne for four months. "I just assumed that they hated it," he says, still in disbelief.
In it, Forte plays the estranged son of aging alcoholic (Bruce Dern). The two drive from Montana to Nebraska so the father can redeem a winning sweepstakes ticket. "Run & Jump," Forte says, helped him prepare to be in a more dramatic environment. He also recently finished shooting a starring role in an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's "The Switch," with a cast including Tim Robbins and Jennifer Aniston.
"I somehow was able to get this opportunity to do these movies that never in a million years would I think I'd get a chance to do," says Forte.
But he also still hopes to make a sequel to "MacGruber," and says he and director Jorma Taccone have planned a rough story line. They realize getting funding for such a sequel poses challenges, but he says they plan to make it, somehow, "whether somebody lets us do it or not."
"I don't think any more celery will go in my butt," says Forte. "I feel like I've put my family through enough celery. Asparagus?"