Justin Timberlake’s bit on the side
Selling 14m records wasn’t enough. Now, Justin Timberlake is showing he can act, too. Is there anything else?
What is it with Justin Timberlake and sex? His 2006 album FutureSex/Love-Sounds, still in the UK Top 30, fair strains at the Y-fronts with priapic purpose (“I’m-a freak you right, each and every night”, he warbles on Summer Love, just one of several declarations of his woodmanship). On his No 1 hit SexyBack — good heavens — Timberlake even had the temerity to berate the rest of malekind for our apparent inadequacy with the ladeez. He has the carnal appetite of a rutting, horny toad, and a line in patter to charm the birds off their bar stools. Maybe it’s the pent-up frustration from the years of squiring a then-chaste Britney.
We should never, of course, confuse image with reality. “It’d be ridiculous to be unconscious of the fact that you do have a sort of a persona”, Timberlake concedes. A nice massage for the ego, surely? “I’m in Catch22, because if I say ‘Ah yeah, that’s cool’, then I look like a cocky bastard. And if I don’t, then I look like a stuffy bastard”. He smiles. “I guess either way round, I’m just a bastard”. Still, give the boy credit for his sense of humour. Last year, on the American television show Saturday Night Live, he sent himself up in a musical number entitled Dick in a Box (23m views on YouTube), in which he wore a Christmas package strapped to his flies, promising a doe-eyed honey “a gift real special”, dare she lift the lid.
The thin, pale chap with the Action Man beard perched on the sofa opposite me doesn’t look capable of mounting the stairs, let alone asserting his reputation as “the new king of sex”, as the cover of Rolling Stone hailed him. The artist sometimes known as Trouser-snake (“Which is just hilarious”, he says) is also in the throes of a long European tour, having jetted into London between yells of ” Gute Nacht, Köln” (last night) and ” Bonsoir, Lyon” (tomorrow). “It does take a lot of wind-down”, he apologises, the Tennessee twang rather tired. “It took me a while to fall asleep last night”.
Timberlake’s lightning visit is in the name of Shrek the Third. He voices the character of Prince Arthur, or Artie, a blond medieval high-schooler whom the green ogre grooms for the throne of Far Far Away. It was another guest spot on Saturday Night Live, in 2003, that prompted all the acting offers. His jaunt over here still seems a bit beyond the call of duty, especially as the Shrek juggernaut has just enjoyed a record opening in the United States for an animated film. But Timberlake is nothing if not the ultra-professional.
His recent split with his long-term girlfriend, Cameron Diaz, who reprises Princess Fiona, must have thwarted all manner of cosy red-carpet moments. But the film was offered to him a long time ago, he explains, before he and Diaz were an official item. The break-up has afforded the tabloids no end of frothing speculation. He has moved on to the blockbuster star Jessica Biel, some claim — the pair were spotted dining out in a Manchester Nando’s, of all places, with the deep-thinking Man United forward Alan Smith. But Timberlake is hardly going to spill the beans on his love life.
Alongside Shrek the Third, he can still be seen in UK cinemas in the gangland flick Alpha Dog (disturbing) and Black Snake Moan (equally disturbing, but for all the wrong reasons). They, along with the thriller Edison and the forthcoming sci-fi flick Southland Tales, were shot in 2004-05, during a hiatus after the hectic period of recording and touring for his debut solo album, Justified.
Acting can be a risky diversion for a muso — call it the Sting factor — but Timberlake seems rather adept at this thespian lark. He was excellent in Alpha Dog — as a feckless, shirtless drug lieutenant, he carried the film. “That’s kind. Thank you. That means a lot”, he responds, seemingly genuine. He could surely make this his full-time vocation. “Listen, I don’t aspire to be a movie star — I got enough attention”, he says. Why act at all, then? “Well, I always wanted to do it [in his teens, he appeared in a TV movie, Model Behavior], but I never really got the courage. I thought I wasn’t going to get the opportunity to do it the way I wanted to do it”.
It’s down to that image thing again, apparently. “You either capitalise on it or you go against it, and I feel like I’ve done the latter. And in the long run, it will turn out better for me, because I’ll get to do interesting parts. I don’t have to be the lead; I enjoy doing a supporting role”. As a creative type, he adds, you can’t afford to stick in a rut. “You have to keep reinventing yourself”. He sighs. “I don’t want to sound like I’m jaded about the whole thing”.
You could forgive him if he was. A performer since the age of 10, when he went on stage at the Grand Ole Opry, Timberlake, now 26, has pretty much spent his whole life in showbiz. Shipped off to Orlando from his home town, the Memphis suburb of Millington (though he lives principally in LA now), he became a Mouseketeer on the TV show The Mickey Mouse Club, alongside Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Ryan Gosling. By 14, under an ambitious mother/manager, he was a founder member of the boyband *NSync (his mum, Lynn, came up with the name, right down to the asterisk). Grammys and platinum records aside, he had, by the age of 20, lived a life — the sex, the drugs, the tight harmonies — that not all come through unscathed. “It’s not the normal ascent to adulthood”, he chuckles.
It’s fair enough that he would have wanted to break out from the manufactured pop image (see also Robbie Williams). When the opportunity arose, he seized on some unwanted tracks that the producers the Neptunes had made for Michael Jackson, another boyband fugitive and Timberlake’s biggest influence, right down to the body-popping and jaunty chapeau. While the other *Nsyncers went their own ways (Lance Bass was last seen trying to become an astronaut), Timberlake landed upright in his pristine trainers. The resultant album, Justified (2003), launched him as a solo artist, FutureSex merely confirming the liberation.
You do suspect, for all that, that there’s something quite safe about Timberlake’s sex. For every risqué diversion (groping Kylie’s derrière at the Brits), there’s his $6m deal with McDonald’s; for every roguish admission (that he smoked a ton of weed while making Justified), a tidying-up exercise afterwards. “It’s not like I said it like that”, he protests. “I find over here [the UK], more than anything, that my words are made into completely different statements”.
Timberlake is not the first rubber-legged troubadour to have issued from the city of Memphis, of course. Elvis casts a long shadow. “I found they’re just starting to accept me as, you know, the younger brother”, he chirrups, rather cavalier given his general circumspection. The pair may have more in common than one thinks. For, to paraphrase John Lennon, if Elvis died the day he went into the army, Timberlake, too, bottled his great rock’n’roll moment. I refer to “Nipplegate”, the 2004 Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction”, when he beat an apologetic retreat, leaving Janet Jackson as hung out to dry as her sorry, star-encrusted breast. What would we have given for a conspiratorial wink to the camera?
Timberlake prefers to skip over the incident and the question of its career impact. “I’ve commented on it so many times, it’s kinda like Groundhog Day”, he mutters. “I don’t feel like it was a boost or a hindrance. I didn’t have anything come out after that, so I didn’t benefit from it any way”.Nothing will be left to chance on the current tour, which comes to the O2 arena in London on July 4. But, yes, he did have dinner with Alan Smith after taking in a match at Old Trafford in May. “If anything, I’m a Red”, he admits. “Alan’s a great guy. And when Becks was here, I hung out with him a few times”.
In London recently, Timberlake went into the studio with Madonna. Something from those sessions may surface soon, he hopes. And beyond that? “I’ve never really thought that far in advance”, he says. It’s a remark casually at odds with his former bandmate JC Chasez’s assertion: “Justin wanted world domination. He came up with a master plan”.
Shrek the Third opens on June 29