Leading Man, Miles Beyond the Boy Band
Nueva York, 15 de Julio (The New York Times) — WHEN Justin Timberlake tried out for the role of Sean Parker in «The Social Network», the director David Fincher had a particular line from Aaron Sorkin’s script in mind. Sean, the former Napster executive who schools Mark Zuckerberg in the ways of Silicon Valley, is a slick seducer: «He was described in the screenplay as moving through the room like Frank Sinatra», Mr. Fincher recalled.
Known best for his stint in the epochal boy band ‘N Sync and the smash solo career that followed, Mr. Timberlake had at the time nudged music toward the back burner, concentrating on acting instead. Scuffing up his teen-idol image, he’d taken roles in dark 2006 dramas like Nick Cassavetes’s «Alpha Dog» and Craig Brewer’s «Black Snake Moan». Mr. Fincher had been particularly impressed by Mr. Timberlake’s turn hosting «Saturday Night Live» that same year. «Every time he came on it was like, man, this guy’s good», he said by phone. «He was magic, so effortless. With Justin you want to see what he’s going to do next. And I felt you needed that for Sean».
As Mr. Timberlake read for the part, Mr. Fincher was convinced he’d found his Sinatra. «But there was the question of whether he’d topple the apple cart», the director recalled. «Everyone thought he was too famous». In the end Mr. Fincher’s initial enthusiasm won out. «We finally decided, just because he’s perfect doesn’t mean we shouldn’t cast him».
Drinking an Americano coffee at a restaurant in the meatpacking district of Manhattan, Mr. Timberlake, 30, recounted the moment he learned the news. «When I got the call from David», he joked, «I peed my pants a little bit».
Today Mr. Timberlake’s status as a credible movie actor has gone from something directors fret about to a seeming fait accompli. Many reviews of «The Social Network» praised Mr. Timberlake’s performance, and when The New York Post reported that he was quietly campaigning for a best supporting actor Oscar nomination, the news sounded much less outlandish than it should have. It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that Mr. Timberlake was widely considered a frosted-tipped curiosity, one-fifth of an elaborately harmonizing and dancing teen-pop machine and one-half of a post-pubescent power couple with his girlfriend Britney Spears.
Now, after one of the more remarkable show business makeovers, Mr. Timberlake oversees a small media and fashion empire, the most recent addition being a stake in MySpace. On the movie front he has delivered two of his highest-profile performances in the comedies «Bad Teacher» and «Friends With Benefits», which comes out Friday. This fall he will star in «In Time», a sci-fi thriller directed by Andrew Niccol, the writer-director of «Gattaca» and writer of «The Truman Show». The big question about Mr. Timberlake’s career is no longer whether the ‘N Sync guy can act, but rather what kind of actor he wants to be.
«I don’t want to make that decision», Mr. Timberlake said at the restaurant, dressed in a black henley shirt and lightly distressed jeans. Heads had turned when he’d entered, but he picked a table in an empty section, nestled discreetly behind a serving station. Outside, Mr. Timberlake had walked with the briskness of someone long accustomed to sudden, shrieking swarms of fans. But as he worked on his coffee, he grew more relaxed and more animated, one leg tucked beneath the other like an overgrown kid.
In conversation he was expansive, but when the topic of his actorly ambitions arose, Mr. Timberlake began a game of cat and mouse. Were there genres he’d especially like to explore? «I don’t think in genres», he said, demurring. What classic roles did he think of and say, I’d love to play something like that? «Once an actor makes a role his own, it’s kind of hard to imagine what you’d do with it». Was any strategy whatsoever guiding his choices? «Of course», he said. «Early on especially, I turned down a lot of scripts that were targeted to a demographic I already had. It’s about being patient, and having something in the back of your mind about not getting pigeonholed».
Mr. Timberlake’s desire to remain unfixed as an actor likely stems from his time with ‘N Sync, which fused him in the public imagination to a single, cartoonish role. With the group he enjoyed an era-defining success (selling more than 11 million copies in the United States, ‘N Sync’s «No Strings Attached», from 2000, is the biggest album of the ’00s) that burned fast but bright, threatening to reduce him to a punch line and relic well before he’d turned 25. Unlike his band mates, Mr. Timberlake managed to start a critically and commercially successful solo career, making state-of-the-art R&B-tinged pop. Even then, he remembers frequently thinking to himself, «I don’t want my whole life to be defined by this moment», and he added that he has «no idea» when he’ll make another album. «I’ve never turned my back on music», he said. «I just want to do other things».
Mr. Timberlake traces his mercurial tendencies to his childhood in Shelby Forest, Tenn., a Memphis suburb where he grew up idolizing Dean Martin, Gene Kelly and, you guessed it, Sinatra: «guys who were entertainers across the board», he said. Music came naturally to Mr. Timberlake, who recalled hearing songs on the radio as a kid, «picking up a guitar and figuring them out». But he also loved trying out jokes and impressions on his parents and their friends. «When you’re young and you make adults laugh, it triggers some chemical», he said.
At the age of 10, after an appearance singing on «Star Search», Mr. Timberlake was cast on the television program «The All-New Mickey Mouse Club», a variety show he described as » ‘SNL’ for kids», and which he fondly recalled as a sort of Actors Studio for the tween set: «We had an acting coach, a vocal coach, a movement coach, improv classes». His fellow cast members included Ms. Spears, Christina Aguilera, Keri Russell and Ryan Gosling.
When the program was canceled in 1994, «I felt like a freak», Mr. Timberlake said. «I was angry, back in this small town, feeling like a door had closed». Just when he’d persuaded his mother to take him to Los Angeles for pilot-season auditions, he received a call from a singer named Chris Kirkpatrick, asking him to join a new pop group in Orlando, Fla. «Within eight months we had a record deal, then we were touring Europe and selling records», Mr. Timberlake said of ‘N Sync’s rise. He threw himself into the group, analyzing performance footage like an athlete. But he was, to a large degree, flying blind: «I didn’t know how to process any of it», he said.
After ‘N Sync, Mr. Timberlake was hungry for a different script. «I wanted to do something real», he said. For his 2002 solo debut, «Justified» (Jive) and its 2006 follow-up, «FutureSex/LoveSounds», he collaborated with the visionary hip-hop producer Timbaland, among others, earning newfound musical credibility. On the No. 1 single «SexyBack», «I didn’t sound the way I had before», Mr. Timberlake said. «I wasn’t singing so much as talking in the key of the song. I ran my voice through a guitar amp». His label thought the jagged, droning track risked being unrecognizable as a Justin Timberlake song, which is precisely why it appealed to him.
Mr. Timberlake’s real breakthrough moment as an actor came, improbably, on «SNL» in 2006. Andy Samberg, looking to involve Mr. Timberlake in a digital short, pitched him on an R&B spoof with an unprintable title and lyrics about gift-wrapped genitals. Going on to garner nearly 30 million YouTube views, the short unambiguously demonstrated that Mr. Timberlake could put a self-mocking distance between himself and the guy on the mike, not to mention give Mr. Samberg a run for his hip-doofus money. «It endeared Justin to a lot of people who wouldn’t have otherwise given a boy-band singer a chance», said Mr. Brewer, who cast Mr. Timberlake as an anxiety-attack-stricken National Guardsman in «Black Snake Moan».
«He’s such a great partner in a scene», said Christina Ricci of working with Mr. Timberlake on that film. «We had to do a lot of intense, heavy things, and he’d know exactly when to throw an arm around you and start laughing».
Physical ease is one of Mr. Timberlake’s clearest assets as an actor, honed over all those years he spent dancing onstage. Mr. Fincher pointed to a wordless montage in «The Social Network» in which Sean holds court at a Japanese restaurant: «There’s no dialogue, but you can see it in his eyebrows, in his hands. He’s this impish leprechaun who’s taken over the night».
In «Friends With Benefits», a romantic comedy about two pals who try to incorporate sex into their friendship, Mr. Timberlake has his biggest role yet, playing a hotshot art director with intimacy issues. Will Gluck, who directed the movie, said Mr. Timberlake was actively involved behind the scenes, «helping to rewrite the script» to make sure his character «felt just right».
Mr. Gluck wanted the rapid-fire banter between the leads to evoke old Tracy-Hepburn vehicles, and Mila Kunis, who acts opposite Mr. Timberlake in the film, said he kept her on her toes. «He’s so unbelievably quick», she said by phone. «He was constantly cracking me up».
Movies are Mr. Timberlake’s priority these days, but he also owns, wholly or in part, restaurants, a fashion line called William Rast, a record label and even a golf course. Discussing his involvement with Specific Media, the company that just bought MySpace, he said he’d put his own money into the purchase (declining to reveal how much) and explained his role, roughly, as that of a «connector» and brainstormer. «I’m not a capitalist», he declared. «I just love ideas, getting chances to create».
After coffee we headed west for a stroll along the elevated High Line park. A photographer outside the restaurant crouched behind an open car door. Another snapped away across the street. «I can’t pretend to imagine how these guys function», Mr. Timberlake said of the paparazzi, playfully suggesting that we walk shoulder to shoulder «and mess with the shot».
On the High Line people widened their eyes and murmured excitedly as Mr. Timberlake passed. He had no bodyguard; his only armor was sunglasses and a newsboy cap. I asked if navigating public spaces made him nervous. «I don’t hang out in malls», he said. «But I spent so much of my youth in a bubble. At a certain point you want to get out and have real experiences».
Ahead, three women in their early 20s appeared to be taking one another’s photos, but as Mr. Timberlake moved, so did their camera. «Look at these double agents», he said, chuckling. «It’s a total ruse. We passed them 100 yards back».
He called out, «You’re sneaky!» They giggled — busted — and immediately begged for a posed photo.
«I think they’re cute», Mr. Timberlake said without stopping.
His posture had stiffened up slightly since the restaurant, and his gait had again quickened. The crowds were thick up ahead, and I asked if he wanted to descend at the next staircase to street level, where he was planning to hail a taxi back to his SoHo apartment.
«Yeeeah», he said, nodding. «Why don’t we do that?»
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