Hungry for more

Hungry for more

creative mind

new sensation Justin Timberlake photo by Mark  Veltman/ The New York Times

When Justin Timberlake tried out for the role of Sean Parker in The Social Network, 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,”  Fincher recalled.

Known best for his stint in the epochal boy band ’N Sync and the smash solo career that followed, 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. Fincher had been particularly impressed by 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.”

Drinking an Americano coffee at a restaurant in Manhattan, Timberlake, 30, recounted the moment he learned the news. “When I got the call from David,” he joked, “I peed in my pants a little bit.”

Today, 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 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 Timberlake was widely considered a frosted-tipped curiosity, one-fifth of an elaborately harmonising 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, 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. His upcoming projects include 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 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,”  Timberlake said, 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, 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, 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. “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.”

Timberlake’s desire to remain unfixed as an actor 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 punchline and relic well before he’d turned 25. Unlike his band mates, 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.”

Timberlake traces his mercurial tendencies to his childhood in Shelby Forest, a Memphis suburb where he grew up idolising Dean Martin, Gene Kelly and, you guessed it, Sinatra. At the age of 10, after an appearance singing on Star Search, Timberlake was cast on the television programme 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 Spears, Christina Aguilera, Keri Russell and Ryan Gosling.

When the programme was cancelled in 1994, “I felt like a freak,” 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. “Within eight months we had a record deal, then we were touring Europe and selling records,” Timberlake said of ’N Sync’s rise. He threw himself into the group, analysing 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, 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,” 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 unrecognisable as a Justin Timberlake song, which is precisely why it appealed to him.

Physical ease is one of Timberlake’s clearest assets as an actor, honed over all those years he spent dancing onstage. 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, Timberlake has his biggest role yet, playing a hotshot art director with intimacy issues.

Movies are 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.”

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