Variety’s 2014 Breakthrough Actor Winner: Will Forte

'Nebraska' star quietly carves promising career

Breakthrough Will Forte
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The Variety Breakthrough of the Year Awards, which recognizes a select group of rising stars in entertainment and technology, will be held Jan. 9 at the Consumer Electronics Show. 

Will Forte is your classic late bloomer.

The 43-year-old actor and writer, who’s enjoying the best reviews of his career as Bruce Dern’s long-suffering son in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska,” admits he’s “sometimes actually pretty surprised” to have bloomed at all.

“I followed my dad into finance initially,” says the Northern California native. “I didn’t even start acting till I was 32.” But after cutting his teeth at improv troupe the Groundlings, Forte didn’t waste any more time.

“My first writing job was at MTV, then I worked for David Letterman, and then in 2002 I got ‘Saturday Night Live,’ which was huge in terms of both the comedy and acting,” he says.

SEE ALL: Breakthrough of the Year Awards

Since then, Forte has established himself as one of the most versatile comedic actors in film and television, with such credits as “That’s My Boy” opposite Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg, “The Watch” opposite Ben Stiller and Jonah Hill, “A Good Old Fashioned Orgy” opposite former SNL co-star Jason Sudeikis, voice parts in both “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” toons, “Parks and Recreation,” and “30 Rock,” which earned him a 2013 Primetime Emmy nomination.

Because his resume was mainly comedic, Forte was “shocked” when Payne cast him in his acclaimed father-son road trip drama, a role that’s already won him the National Board of Review’s supporting actor award and an Independent Spirit Award nom.

“It just seemed so far-fetched (that he’d want me for this part), but Alexander told me that he just believed my audition tape,” he says. “And I really related to the character – he’s very optimistic, and like him. I always feel things will work out for the best if I just hang in there long enough.”

A busy year ahead certainly bears that out. Forte stars in “Run and Jump,” “a tiny Irish family drama” to be released by Sundance Selects, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival and recently won the Irish feature award at the Galway Film Festival. Forte also stars in the upcoming “Life of Crime” opposite Jennifer Aniston, Isla Fisher and John Hawkes. The pic is based on the Elmore Leonard novel “The Switch,” and has “his typical mix of comedy and drama,” says Forte.

He also stars in Peter Bogdanovich’s “Squirrels to the Nuts” opposite Aniston and Owen Wilson, “an old-school farce.” Forte has even found time to write a pilot for Fox titled “The Last Man on Earth.” “I never expected all this,” he says. “There’s no game plan. I just take it as it comes.”