Will Forte has learned that life can deliver you to some pretty weird and unexpected places.
When the “Saturday Night Live” star appeared in the first goofy “MacGruber” sketch, he never, in his most deranged dreams, envisioned his clueless, mullet-headed, bomb-diffusing character at the center of a big-screen summer action movie.
And he certainly didn’t foresee a scene in said movie that would require him to be filmed naked on a bitterly frigid night in a cemetery.
“Yeah, so there I was standing there, with nothing but a little sock around my genitals,” recalls Forte, 39. “And I’m adjusting the sock when, suddenly, (“SNL” executive producer) Lorne Michaels appears out of nowhere and snaps a photo with his cell phone.
“I have no idea if he ever sent it to anyone, but if it winds up on the Internet, I’ll know where it came from.”
Forte can thank Jorma Taccone for that awkward moment. Three years ago, Taccone, an “SNL” writer, pitched a sketch pegged to a spoof of “MacGyver,” the 1980s TV spy series about a resourceful secret agent (Richard Dean Anderson) who worked his way out of life-threatening jams using ordinary items such as a paper clip or a book of matches.
Forte’s first reaction? No, thanks.
Recalls Taccone, “He told me, ‘That’s a really dumb idea,’ which didn’t surprise me at all because it is. But I pestered him about it for over a month and finally wore him down.”
Forte was just as skeptical last spring when Michaels suggested he huddle with Taccone and fellow “SNL” scribe John Solomon to write a spec script that would expand the two-minute sketches into a full-blown movie. Yes, the “MacGruber” character had gained widespread popularity via some Pepsi commercials that aired during the 2009 Super Bowl, but still ...
“We thought it was crazy,” Forte says. “But we also thought it would be stupid not to at least toss around some ideas. We went off to brainstorm and started getting really excited with what we came up with.”
Rather than approach the film as an extension of the sketch, the trio whipped up a tongue-in-cheek R-rated homage to classic 1980s action flicks such as “Lethal Weapon” and “Die Hard,” crammed with what Taccone describes as “nudity, sex, violence and gratuitous cursing.”
“We just whipped up this crazy world and stuck our crazy character in the middle of it,” says Taccone, who makes his directorial debut with the film.
Shot on a tight 28-day schedule in New Mexico, “MacGruber” has our bumbling hero coming out of retirement to track down a nuclear warhead stolen by a madman played by Val Kilmer. Also in the cast are “SNL” co-star Kristen Wiig, who plays MacGruber’s sidekick and love interest, and Ryan Phillippe and Powers Boothe as his military cohorts.
“MacGruber,” which opens Friday, is just one of several projects being juggled these days by workaholic Forte. In addition to his “SNL” gig, he provides the voice of Principal Wally on Seth MacFarlane’s animated series “The Cleveland Show,” and he has completed work on another comedic film, “A Good Old Fashioned Orgy.” Also, his voice work can be heard in the video game “Grand Theft Auto IV.”
It all amounts to a surreal experience for a low-key guy who, after attending UCLA, followed his father’s career footsteps into a brokerage firm and then promptly discovered that line of work depressed the heck out of him.
“I think deep down, somewhere inside me, I knew I wanted to do (comedy). But there was another part of me that thought, ‘You’re crazy. It will never happen,’” says Forte, who as a kid in the San Francisco Bay Area suburbs watched a lot of TV and immersed himself in Steve Martin albums. “When I finally made the decision to go for it, I absolutely knew it was the right thing to do.”
But Forte’s path to big-screen stardom has been a long one. After joining The Groundlings, a Los Angeles-based improv troupe that launched the careers of “SNL” alums Will Ferrell and Mike Myers, he spent much of the late ‘90s as a TV writer, penning jokes for “The Late Show with David Letterman” and a batch of sitcoms, including “3rd Rock from the Sun” and “That ‘70s Show.”
Finally, in 2001, Michaels asked him to audition for “SNL” and the iconic show has been his home ever since, despite a bad case of stage fright that plagued him early in his tenure.
Over the years, Forte has proved that he’s willing to do almost anything to sell a joke. In a recent episode of “30 Rock,” for example, he played a Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) impersonator, complete with high heels and short skirt and, fortunately, he had the legs to pull it off.
“His commitment is so intense,” Taccone says. “If he believes in a joke, he will die for that joke.”
Then again, doing a nude scene in a big-screen movie, takes things to a whole new level — a level that, Forte admits, can bring with it certain repercussions.
“I’m a little concerned about my mom taking her friends to see the movie,” he says. “I dread doing something to destroy the family name.”