On a rainy New York afternoon, Saturday Night Live star Will Forte stands on the sidewalk outside a deserted photo studio confronting a potentially disaster-causing device. The similarities to his SNL ”MacGruber” sketches — which always end with Forte’s MacGyver-lampooning idiot-hero failing to defuse a bomb — are ominous. True, the device is just the stuck studio door that Forte is determined to close before we vacate the premises. And the disaster is not that we will be blown to smithereens, but that we will become further soddened. Still, the situation is too MacGruber-esque for comfort. ”I’m going back inside,” Forte declares. ”There’s got to be something we can use to fix this thing.” Oh, dear. He returns shortly with a hammer, and delivers a few well-placed blows to a stuck bolt. Unlike characters in a MacGruber sketch, we do not die.
Here’s hoping Forte’s luck holds. On May 21, his character hits the big screen in the movie MacGruber, an R-rated adventure also starring Kristen Wiig, Ryan Phillippe, and Val Kilmer. The film was helmed by SNL writer-director Jorma Taccone and cost $10 million. That’s a tiny fraction of the budget of the blockbusters it will compete against, including Shrek Forever After, which opens the same day and features SNL alums Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy. They’ve had enormous success in Hollywood, of course. Forte’s only previous starring role was in 2007’s The Brothers Solomon. ”It cost about $10 million and didn’t gross a million,” deadpans the comedian, 39. ”Isn’t that a success?”
MacGruber must also overcome the patchy record of the last few SNL sketch-inspired films (A Night at the Roxbury, Superstar, and The Ladies Man) and the whispering that the one-note character may not be built for the big screen. As one blogger wrote when rumors of a MacGruber film surfaced last spring, ”You can’t build an entire movie around a theme song and a mullet.” Forte says he didn’t worry about the bad taste that some SNL movies may have left in the mouths of audiences: ”What we were worried about is ‘Do we have enough to make a good story?”’
Ironically, when Taccone originally suggested a character who ”defuses bombs using only pieces of s— and pubic hair” at the weekly SNL pitch meeting, Forte himself didn’t think it’d even make for a funny sketch. ”I wasn’t interested,” recalls Forte, who previously wrote for That ’70s Show and 3rd Rock From the Sun. ”After the third or fourth week of him pitching it to me, I said — to shut him up — ‘Okay, fine, let’s try to write it.”’ The first MacGruber sketch was broadcast in January 2007, with host Jeremy Piven and Maya Rudolph playing Forte’s doomed assistants. MacGruber joined the show’s gallery of recurring characters, and Forte reprised him for Pepsi commercials broadcast in February 2009 during the Super Bowl.
According to Taccone, the ads ”created buzz in Hollywood.” Enough buzz for SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels to ask Taccone, Forte, and SNL writer John Solomon to pen a script. The trio are devotees of the ’80s action genre and resolved that their screenplay would both parody and pay homage to the likes of Die Hard and Lethal Weapon. They completed the script in a month and, after the production company Relativity Media agreed to back the project, filmed in New Mexico last summer. ”It felt like an action movie,” says Forte. ”We had these safety talks: ‘If you get glass in your face, you come over here.’ So you realize, ‘Oh, there is a very real element of danger.’… It’s also pretty raunchy.”
Indeed, one of the attractions of the film is seeing Forte — who both on screen and off exudes a goofy, innocent demeanor — gratuitously tearing out bad guys’ throats and engaging in some very energetic sex with Wiig. ”Poor Kristen,” chuckles Michaels. ”It was a hundred degrees in the room. And the sweat just dripped on her.” Forte says he and Taccone were worried the MPAA might give the film an NC-17 thanks to his character’s pelvic thrusting. ”They count the pumps,” he says with a smile. ”And there’s so many pumps in this movie.” Team MacGruber was encouraged by the upbeat reception the first trailer got in January — ”MacGruber trailer shockingly doesn’t suck,” declared the website Gawker — and by a screening of the film at the SXSW festival in March. ”It went very well,” says Forte. ”It was one of the best nights of my life professionally.” The movie also received a nice publicity boost when Betty White played MacGruber’s grandmother — and, uh, future wife — on the May 8 SNL, the most-watched episode of the show since November 2008.
Forte says that he hopes to return to SNL next year but has yet to discuss the subject with Michaels. When he does leave the Rockefeller Center mothership, he will not be short of boosters. Forte has twice guested on 30 Rock, first playing a servant to Paul Reubens’ inbred prince in 2007 and more recently as Jane Krakowski’s boyfriend (see sidebar). He also regularly appears on Adult Swim’s darkly humorous Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! ”Whenever Will comes on the show it’s the best days,” says Tim Heidecker, who created the series with Eric Wareheim. ”Eric and I sit behind the monitors crying from laughing.” Much depends, of course, on how MacGruber fares at the box office. ”It feels like people have negative, or positive, ideas about MacGruber based on their feelings about SNL movies, which is kind of crazy,” says Forte. ”Go watch the movie! How can you possibly judge a movie before you’ve seen it? I would love for it to do well. I would love the chance to do MacGruber 2…in a tropical setting.”
Sometimes life’s a drag
Will Forte donned drag to play Paul (a.k.a. Miss Jinah Baloney), the Jenna Maroney-impersonating boyfriend of Jenna Maroney, on the April 29 episode of 30 Rock. How much did he prepare for the role? Too much. ”I basically shaved all the hair on my body,” says the comedian. ”And then the outfits they picked were not really baring that much of my chest. It’s really fun to work with those guys, and Tina Fey’s so awesome. But my hair is still growing in!”