We know he can sing. We know he can dance. He even makes dad’s waistcoat look pretty cool. But acting? Well, aside from a cameo in Zoolander and the straight-to-DVD movie Edison Force, the jury has still been out Alpha Dog, JT plays the best friend of Johnny Truelove, a San Fernando Valley drug dealer who kidnaps a deadbeat customer’s brother.
Based on the true case of Jesse James Hollywood, the youngest person ever to appear on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, Dog takes a scathing look at an amoral generation–call it Goodkiddies. Timberlake more than holds his own in a cast that includes some of Hollywood’s finest young actors, like Emile Hirsch, Anton Yelchin and Ben Foster. Timberlake talked to VH1 about getting inked, researching the role behind bars, and the brutal bonding ritual the cast went through.
How much input did you have into the tattoos that your character wears?
I created all of them, actually. I sat with the artist for like two or three days. I based some of the tattoos on ones my friends had, but when I talked to the director Nick [Cassavetes] about it, he gave me the simplest direction. He said, “I want you to pretend that your uncle owns a tattoo parlor and from the time you were 14 years old you had access to it”. So we went from there.
Did you know a lot about the story prior to being cast in the movie?
In California, this became like a legend. Around Los Angeles, people would be like, “Hey, you’re doing that movie on the Jesse James Hollywood and Nick Markowitz thing, right?” Everybody knew somebody that knew him. It helped when we were making the film to hear those kind of things, because you could tell immediately that half of the people that would come up to you and tell you about it knew nothing about it. All they knew was that the kid was kidnapped. But they were always like, “Yeah I knew him”. Through his infamy, he became this weird sort of tall tale to these young people who wanted to somehow be involved with it.
How important was it to know your character’s background?
I met the guy that my character was based on. Nick and I traveled to upstate California, and I sat and spoke to him in prison for a couple of hours. I walked away from that meeting deciding that I could not get through this film by literally basing my character off of him. It just felt wrong. You’re talking about someone who for four years had been in a penitentiary and was serving a life sentence. What I found was a person who seemed very misunderstood and very remorseful. But you get one life to do things right and he didn’t. So I told him to his face, “This will not be a portrayal of you. This will be a character based on what happened”.
Your performance is pretty amazing. Were you nervous about acting?
[Laughs] Well, I think I’m amazing in general, so … yeah, of course! I felt like a fish out of water. It was amazing for me to be around people my own age who are so gifted. Everyday I’d just watch them. I was like a fan throwing lines back and forth [with them]. The director urged me to find those unscripted moments, too. There’s the scene where my character and Ben’s character fight out at the pool. He fires the gun into the pool, and everybody leaves the party. I’m kind of standing there by myself and that was sort of an off-the-cuff reaction — that wasn’t scripted.
How did you bond with the rest of the cast?
The real life characters grew up playing baseball together. If all of us could imagine our one or two best friends that we grew up with from our childhood, that’s who these kids were. So it was important to develop a sort of chemistry. Before the first day of principal photography, we had trained together for almost three months. Five to six days a week, we would work out from nine to noon. We would run the stairs in Santa Monica, we would run the beach, we’d do drills on the beach, we would lift weights … Then on the sixth day, on Saturday, we would box. I’ve toured since I was 14 years old, and I’ve never done physically as tasking as this!