Settling into a hotel bar in Soho after a long day shooting a film for Woody Allen in the Bronx, Justin Timberlake wastes no time ordering the first of several Vesper martinis. “I was terrified all day today, dude,” he says.
“All day I’m thinking about what Woody was going to say to me on set, like, ‘Man, he’s gonna annihilate me.’ I think we all have a level of anxiety. I have it. I’ve had panic attacks.”
Timberlake, 35, is hardly a stranger to working with storied auteurs, among them David Fincher, the Coen brothers, and Jonathan Demme, and yet for the rest of the evening he’ll joke about Allen potentially firing him from the production. He also recalls the day the role came his way.
“Literally, it’s embarrassing,” he says of being cold-called by Allen and offered a part. “Woody, Jonathan… I’m literally working with all my heroes. It’s leading me to drinking.”
His fears are surprising, since Timberlake, over the last two decades, has amassed a remarkable career as a pop star, songwriter, and actor. Yet his modesty seems quite genuine. Full-scale leading-man movie stardom, after all, is perhaps the one brass ring that has eluded him. But if film stardom remains a hole in his résumé, Timberlake is making up for it by expanding his reach into unexplored creative corners.
In September, for instance, he traveled from his home in Manhattan to the Toronto Film Festival for the premiere of his Demme-directed concert film, “Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids,” which has since been released by Netflix. In May, he visited Cannes on a press jaunt for DreamWorks Animation’s animated comedy “Trolls,” in which he voices a lead character and serves as executive producer of music. “Can’t Stop the Feeling!,” one of his original songs for the film, stands as the best-selling single of 2016 and has accrued plenty of Oscar buzz along the way.
|Tom Munro for Variety|
This year also marked Timberlake’s first foray into film scoring, with “The Book of Love,” which premiered at Tribeca and was produced by his wife, Jessica Biel, who also stars. He’s also spending time in the studio with an old mentor, producer Pharrell Williams, recording songs with an eye toward his next album. On top of that, he’s working to develop and star in a biopic about the life of Casablanca Records founder Neil Bogart, with Nick Cassavetes lined up to direct. All this, and Timberlake has an 18-month-old son at home.
And yet, by Timberlake standards, 2016 has been a year of newfound balance between the vocal booth and the mixing board, above-the-line and below. After all, the last time Timberlake released new music, it was the double-album blitz of “The 20/20 Experience,” which saw the singer flood the airwaves with two and a half hours of new music in a single year, sell six million albums, make appearances on just about every televised venue, and embark on a series of tours that stretched for two years.
“My life has changed and is changing. So it’s important to discover that there’s work you can do where you get more time with your family,” Timberlake says. “I wouldn’t go on tour next week, because I wanna be with my son. I wanna be with my wife. What does touring even look like for me now? It’s such a luxury to be able to make those decisions: to be able to think about how you could do the work you used to do in a different way. As men, we’re always taught at a young age to be a man and have your priorities in order. And you get to a point where you’re like, ‘It’s not about “being a man” — it’s about fulfillment.’ Which is a totally different thing.”
Timberlake apologizes for “sounding like I’m reading from the New Age Entertainer Manuscript,” but this level of easy-going maturity suits him. For someone who won his first Emmy for co-writing “Dick in a Box,” his humor is now largely of the dad-joke variety. He tells detailed diaper-changing anecdotes, asks for film and music recommendations, and almost proudly says, “I haven’t seen or heard anything in a year.” (Although, for the record, he’s keen to discuss Chris Stapleton and Chance the Rapper’s latest albums, and when the topic of Frank Ocean’s “Blonde” is broached, he offers some impromptu a cappella beat-boxed renditions of “Solo” and “Ivy” in the middle of a crowded restaurant.)
“You’ll notice I say ‘I don’t know’ a lot,” he says later. “And you know the reason why? Because I don’t f—king know! I’ve realized that I don’t really know anything, and when you realize that, you realize a lot.”
He adds, “I think you always have to be able to be malleable. The worst thing you can do is base all your creativity on some sort of ideal destination. Because you never get there. Which is not to say that I didn’t think more like that when I was young, but that’s a big part of growing up.”
There’s no doubt that Timberlake spent the first stretch of his career working ruthlessly toward a particular destination. Raised around Memphis by his mother and stepfather — a manager and a banker, respectively — and the son of a church choir director father, Timberlake caught the performance bug early.
“My parents were divorced,” he says, “and I’ll never forget going to stay with my father for a weekend, and he had a vinyl player that he had set up in my bedroom for me. There were a lot of records, and I just looked at the cover of Queen’s ‘A Night at the Opera’ and put it on, and I didn’t leave the room for a weekend. I listened to it over and over again.”
|“I think everyone I’m working with right now knows I’m notorious for being like, ‘Yeah, let’s work. I have no idea when I’ll put it out, though.’ I’ll put it out when it’s done, when it feels right.”|
Timberlake first appeared on “Star Search” at age 11, and by 15 he had joined the nascent boy band NSYNC, quickly ascending to the front pages of both the music and gossip press as the group’s standout member. As stratospheric as the group’s popularity would soon become — the first week’s sales for their 2000 album “No Strings Attached” set a record that was broken only last fall, by Adele — Timberlake still had to prove himself as a credible adult solo artist. “Justified,” executive produced by Pharrell, started that process in 2002, and 2006’s “FutureSex/LoveSounds” — the first of Timberlake’s three album-length collaborations with producer Timbaland — finished the job.
Unlikely collaborators when they first crafted Timberlake’s 2002 No. 3 hit, “Cry Me a River,” the former boy-band star and the hip-hop-bred producer have since become one of the most forward-thinking star-producer duos in pop music. Their work on Timberlake’s second solo album not only brought the star into his own, it also helped recalibrate the sonic frequency of several years’ worth of pop-radio trends.
“My connection with Justin is very deep,” says Timbaland. “Just because I like what’s in his brain, and he likes what’s in my brain. And our process is we just sit around, talk and vibe, catch up on life. All the while, the musical equipment is hooked up, and we play little sounds until we find something and go, ‘Ooh! Let’s do that.’ When a sound stops the conversation, that’s where we start.”
But even as Timberlake established himself as one of the new millennium’s premier pop idols, film has been a difficult nut to crack. It took him years of work to develop a reputation as more than a moonlighter, an image that finally began to dissipate with his supporting roles as Sean Parker in Fincher’s “The Social Network,” and as a guileless folk singer in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
Yet, strangely, while those roles served notice to most people that Timberlake had genuine promise as an actor, it was through admiring his film work that Jonathan Demme became acquainted with Timberlake as a musician.
“There’s a certain irony to it,” Demme says. “When I saw ‘The Social Network,’ J.T. came on, and he just knocked me literally out of my seat. I couldn’t believe how thrilling and dynamic this guy was in that story. And I just felt this extraordinary potential as an actor from him. But I wasn’t at all hip to his music. I’m stuck decades back, really, when it comes to pop music. But it was like, ‘OK, this is on my relatively short list of things I want to do: make a movie starring Justin Timberlake.’ ”
The two met four years ago to discuss a possible lead role in which Timberlake would play a schoolteacher, but Timberlake kept turning the conversation to one of Demme’s older projects, the storied 1984 Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense.”
“ ‘Stop Making Sense’ is a whole thing for me,” Timberlake says. “Within that meeting, I probably made [Demme] slightly uncomfortable with how much I brought it up.”
Demme’s scripted Timberlake vehicle ended up fizzling, but the singer called him up years later and asked him to film the last stop on the “20/20 Experience Tour” in Las Vegas, in January 2015. Much like “Stop Making Sense” captured Talking Heads in what would eventually be their last major concerts, “Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids” is suffused with the go-for-broke energy of a grand finale, serving as both a spectacle and a time-capsule glimpse of the peak of Timberlake’s pop star ubiquity and ability.
|Tom Munro for Variety|
“I have accepted the fact I may not be physically able to do that again,” Timberlake says, not entirely joking, of watching his own dancing in the film.
Of course, acting ability is rarely diminished by age, and Demme believes that Timberlake is due to make a definitive statement as a leading man. “I think he can do anything,” the director says. “And part of the director’s ego is that you want to direct someone’s first gigantic breakout movie, right? Well, Justin is right on the verge of his gigantic breakout movie.”
Whether that breakout will come with Allen’s film remains to be seen. (With no announced premise or even title for the movie, Timberlake remains mum on the project’s details “in the interest of keeping my job until the end of principal photography.”)
But there have certainly been bumps along the way. As much as he’s excelled in smaller parts, his leading turn in 2013’s “Runner Runner” was a nonstarter, and the effortless comic timing he’d displayed on “SNL,” or with skit-buddy Jimmy Fallon, didn’t entirely translate to 2011’s “Friends With Benefits.” Timberlake acknowledges that there’s a perception of overreaching that comes with working in both film and music.
“For this generation of actors and musicians, to try to do both probably feels gratuitous in a way,” he says. “I just feel like I grew up thinking about Frank Sinatra or Gene Kelly — that era of entertainment, where everyone could use their voice and sing, everyone studied acting. It just seemed like being an entertainer was an all-encompassing and unabashed thing.”
He traces this sort of multimedia ambition to his first brush with stardom, when he was cast on “The All-New Mickey Mouse Club” alongside the pubescent Britney Spears, Ryan Gosling, Keri Russell, and Christina Aguilera.
“Listen, my first job ever was on a television show. It’s not a stretch when you see people who’ve come out of that show and go, ‘Oh, that guy can sing? Oh, that girl can act?’ We were taught all that, and we were just sponges — most of us, anyway — just soaking it all in.”
Jeffrey Katzenberg, who hired Timberlake on “Trolls,” recalls their first encounter when he was a top executive at Disney. “The first time I met Justin, it was literally right after I saw an audition tape of him singing. And even then he was brilliant. He was charismatic, captivating, warm, charming. He was Justin.”
Timberlake was always eager to soak up more than just the ins-and-outs of on-camera razzle-dazzle. Shortly after joining NSYNC, the 15-year-old was sent to Sweden to work with songwriter-producer Max Martin, who was then just beginning to accrue the résumé that would make him the reigning pop hitmaker of the last two decades.
“Already back then, in the mid-’90s, he stood out,” Martin says of Timberlake via email. “You could tell that his interest in writing and producing was there from the very beginning.”
Tasked with composing a few key original songs for “Trolls,” Timberlake reunited with Martin for the first time since his boy-band days, and their combined knack for earworms paid off handsomely with “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” a song so perfectly geared toward beach trips and pool parties that it was strategically unleashed months before the film’s November release.
Katzenberg says he was amazed how skillfully Timberlake and Martin adhered to the film’s creative demands. “There were so many different guidelines for the song within the movie: It had to fit into a specific place, a specific mood, a specific type of melody and sentiment, and a lyric that could talk to the character moments…. It’s inconceivable to me that it worked.”
Timberlake was originally tapped simply to voice Branch, a co-lead succinctly described in the film’s marketing materials as a “paranoid, disgruntled Troll survivalist.” Over time, he accrued more and more roles within the project, taking what had initially been conceived as a needle-drop musical and reworking it into something he describes as “a ‘Saturday Night Fever’ approach to an animated movie.”
|Tom Munro for Variety|
“He took it and made it into this glorious, cohesive, fully rainbowed pop soundtrack,” says producer Gina Shay.
In addition to re-recording old standards like “September” and “True Colors” with the film’s cast (which includes Anna Kendrick and Zooey Deschanel), Timberlake started from scratch with new songs for Ariana Grande and Gwen Stefani. Yet “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” scores a particularly essential moment in the film’s third act, an emotional pivot over which director Mike Mitchell had spent months agonizing before Timberlake came to the rescue.
“We had maybe a thousand different temp songs in there, and sometimes there were two or three of them mashed up,” Mitchell remembers. “It was cacophonous, and it was messy, and it was frustrating. And when Justin signed on as music producer, it was like, ‘Well, there’s that problem going away forever.’”
Martin remembers writing the song with Timberlake and frequent collaborator Shellback. “The lyric was the hardest part, to capture the vibe of the scene, the characters, and the movie overall, but still making it a relevant pop song,” he says. “I personally am always nervous and paranoid before a song comes out — if it’s going to work or not. In this case, I felt I was alone in feeling this way.”
The perpetually bouncy, kid-friendly track is unlike anything in Timberlake’s recent discography — from the sinewy robo-funk of “FutureSex” to the sprawling luxury pop of “The 20/20 Experience” — and Timberlake naturally nods toward his experiences entertaining a particular audience of one as inspiration.
“I think I would’ve said yes to the project regardless, but I do think that song came together the way it did because I’d had a son at that point,” he says. “It’s the sort of thing where you realize, ‘Man, there’s nothing wrong with putting some good vibes in the world.’ Like, ‘Hey, you over there trying hard to act like you don’t care, that sounds exhausting.’”
Whether or not “Can’t Stop” is an arbiter of Timberlake’s future musical direction, he’s confident he’ll continue to work closely with his core collaborators.
“I wouldn’t say [my new material] is the antithesis of ‘20/20,’ but it does sound more singular,” he says. “If ‘20/20’ sounded like it literally surrounds your entire head, this stuff feels more like it just punches you between the eyes.”
Which, of course, could just as well describe the distinction between Timbaland and Pharrell. Timberlake defines his major collaborators like this: “Tim is a sound junkie, the same way Pharrell is a song junkie. And then Max is like music’s Morpheus.”
After a few weeks in the studio with Timberlake this year, Pharrell reports, “Songwise, I think we’ve got a good solid six that are like, ‘Whoa, what was that? Play that again.’” He also notes that the sessions have been unusually personal and self-reflective. “I would pay Justin a huge compliment to say he’s just discovering who he is now.”
Pharrell explains: “For the biggest pop stars in the world, the place where they have the most trouble is honesty. It’s hard for them to know that the beauty of a record, the sweetest spot in the song, is where they show vulnerability. Because there’s a formulaic sort of vulnerability, like, ‘Baby, I can’t sleep without you …’ and that’s not really it. But if you’re able to really screenshot your own vulnerability, and frame it properly, and color-correct it, then it becomes something that every human can relate to. And I think Justin is in the place where he’s mastering that right now.”
As for when this new material will see the light of day, there’s no need to mark any calendars. Timberlake has cultivated an old-fashioned insistence on developing material at his own pace — pop-radio demands be damned — and that’s unlikely to change.
“I think everyone I’m working with right now knows that I’m notorious for being like, ‘Yeah let’s work. I have no idea when I’ll put it out, though,’” he says. “I’ll put it out when it’s done — when it feels right.”
He continues: “I’m just in the now of now. I think it’s an effect of just enjoying my life more. For a long time I lived my life for a lot of other people, or for the idea that those other people had an idea of me. And whatever — there’s a guy who’s gonna wake up tomorrow and transfer an organ from one body to another and save someone’s life — so what are we even doing?”
Lingering in the hotel entryway after dinner, Timberlake is approached by a fan — the first such encounter in the past three hours. He responds warmly and appreciatively, and then makes his exit without too much fuss. It’s a subtle survival skill: neither dismissing the enthusiasm of his supporters, nor allowing their attentions to overwhelm him.
“But the more I go through this — making people laugh, and making people feel — it’s an amazing thing to be a part of,” he says. “I get a gift out of it. When you’re younger, sometimes you can’t see that gift; I think that’s how some people in our industry become so megalomaniacal, in a way: It’s easy to be made to feel like, ‘I made all this happen.’ But you didn’t. You were just there for it. That’s what I feel like whenever I write a song. I was just there for it.”
|Justin Timberlake Through the Years|