LOS ANGELES — Justin Timberlake is well aware that the public’s new perception of him as a movie star — one on indefinite hiatus from his platinum-plus pop music career — comes with certain perks as well as a few potent liabilities.
Timberlake’s colorful performance as Facebook co-founding father Sean Parker in the David Fincher-directed box-office hit “The Social Network” netted him the best reviews of his still nascent film career and sparked speculation that the onetime Mr. SexyBack may land an Oscar nomination for supporting actor on Jan. 25. Consequently, the six-time Grammy winner’s stock as an actor has shot through the roof. Timberlake recently wrapped his first leading role, in the romantic comedy “Friends With Benefits” opposite Mila Kunis, and he’s currently filming his debut action-hero role — that benchmark of mass appeal in Hollywood — in the sci-fi thriller “Now.”
But Timberlake acknowledged that the lengthy break from his recording career — his last album was released in 2006, and there are none in the works — has created a backlash among some fans. “They’re looking at me like, ‘Why aren’t you staying with one path?’” he said. “They look at me like I’m ungrateful for my music career because I want to do film.”
Seated in a small office at NBC’s Burbank studios last month before a taping of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” appearing thoughtful and uncharacteristically somber in a black cardigan and Buddy Holly-esque glasses, Timberlake took pains to explain that this acting thing isn’t some fluke; he considered coming to Los Angeles to break into television as early as 1995, before future band mate Chris Kirkpatrick persuaded Timberlake to commit to ‘N Sync, which went on to become the most popular boy band of the decade.
Indeed, Timberlake brackets any current debate with his earlier career metamorphosis. His decision to quit ‘N Sync in 2002 and develop a solo career was greeted with as much, if not much more, shock and dismay by millions of screaming fans.
“I faced the same feelings when I went solo,” said Timberlake, absent-mindedly cracking his knuckles at the memory. “I had the same obstacles in music. I still do. But I feel like I should pose the question to everyone else: If you had this opportunity, what would you do with it?”
“Entertaining is in my blood,” he continued. “I make no bones about the fact that I have always wanted to work in the forum of film. I take this seriously. I’ll be 30 in January, and I’m saying to myself, ‘If I’m going to do this, I need to do it now.’”
The acumen with which Timberlake has developed his screen career was thrown into even more flattering perspective in November when his former cast mate on the Disney Channel’s early-‘90s “All New Mickey Mouse Club,” fellow pop star Christina Aguilera, followed the more common route for young singers and took on a lead role in the musical “Burlesque.” Her acting was dismissed by critics, and the film has done tepid box-office business.
By contrast, Timberlake aimed low at first. He accepted supporting parts (the 2006 indie drama-thriller “Alpha Dog”), vocal roles in animated movies (the box-office smash “Shrek the Third”), joined ensembles (2005’s widely panned straight-to-video thriller “Edison”) and contributed glorified cameos (Mike Myers’ comedic misfire “The Love Guru” in 2008) en route to creating consciousness for himself as an actor without the burden of carrying those movies on his own.
“I think that people became more trusting,” Timberlake said. “And when they become more trusting — entrusting you to lead the vision — you get to create more.”
Chalk up that uptick in actorly trust in part to Timberlake’s career overseers: Rick Yorn (whose clients include Jude Law and Martin Scorsese) operates as his movie manager, and Ari Emanuel, the head of William Morris Endeavor, has served as Timberlake’s movie agent for the last couple of years — perhaps not coincidentally the precise span of time in which his film career has caught fire.
Put within a larger pop continuum, though, Timberlake’s mainstream transformation from tween heartthrob to marquee star of a Serious-Minded Movie written by “The West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin seems to follow less in the tradition of, say, Will Smith or even Tim McGraw than it does recall a similar reconfiguration in the public imagination by Frank Sinatra. In 1953, Sinatra managed to obliterate public perceptions of himself as a lightweight crooner with an Oscar-winning supporting performance as a doomed Army private in “From Here to Eternity.”
However much “The Social Network” has managed to reboot Timberlake’s Hollywood standing, landing the part of Sean Parker — a charismatic Silicon Valley upstart who co-founded the underground music file-sharing service Napster before muscling a partnership stake in Facebook — proved to be an uphill battle. The performer was up against a Who’s Who of the hottest young actors in town, including, reportedly, “Transformers” star Shia LaBeouf and “Superbad’s” Michael Cera.
“Social Network” producer Scott Rudin credits Fincher (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Panic Room”) with the idea to tap Timberlake’s pop-star charisma in service of the Parker character’s id-driven seductiveness.
“Justin has the experience of being someone who changes the air in the room when he walks in,” said Rudin. “And I think David felt that in the end only someone who could do that could deliver the part.”
To hear it from Sorkin, Timberlake’s pop stature was initially the primary obstacle to hiring him.
“No one had to audition more or work harder than Justin to get into the movie,” Sorkin said. “We were putting together a very balanced ensemble cast, and to parachute this international superstar into the middle, we were concerned that it might be a problem.”
Timberlake remembers things differently. “I auditioned a couple of times,” he said. Fincher “was workshopping the part.”
“He came in and auditioned a number of times,” Rudin said. “David really put him through it.”
Sorkin continued: “I think the reason we had him come in and read so many times is we were just praying that he’d give us a reason not to cast him. ‘The next time he’ll be bad.’ Or ‘He got lucky the last time.’ But he just kept getting better and better.”
And in preparation, he watched and re-watched Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street,” basing his characterization in large part on Michael Douglas’ “greed is good” stock market steamroller Gordon Gekko.
As well, Timberlake built in a layer of self-conscious posturing into his portrayal. “Mark (Zuckerberg) invented Facebook, and Sean Parker invented Sean Parker,” the performer said. “The guy invented a persona so he could communicate more effectively. So my performance in the film is a guy giving a performance. There wasn’t a time when he wasn’t on stage.”
Timberlake now has finished three consecutive films for Sony Pictures — he followed up “The Social Network” with “Friends With Benefits” for its Screen Gems division and the ribald comedy “Bad Teacher” (costarring ex-girlfriend Cameron Diaz) for Sony subsidiary Columbia Pictures — and studio Co-Chairman Amy Pascal says it’s a testament to his versatility and on-screen skill set.
“He can do it all,” said Pascal. “He’s a character actor, a serious dramatic star. I think he’ll be great in action movies, and I think he’s a romantic lead. I don’t know what else you could ask for.”
To hear it from various Hollywood movie honchos, the wellspring of interest in Timberlake’s acting services can be traced back to one source: his stints guest-hosting and appearing in digital videos for “Saturday Night Live,” for which the entertainer won two Emmys. “SNL” creator and longtime executive producer Lorne Michaels pinpointed Timberlake’s 2003 guest host appearance — most notable for his “Omeletteville” sketch opposite cast member Chris Parnell — as the moment Hollywood’s eyes opened to the star’s viability on-screen.
“Look, comedy and music are both about rhythm and timing,” Michaels said. “We just saw that — in the old-fashioned sense of it — he’s an entertainer. I think people saw for the first time, in the same way you would have 40 years ago with Dean Martin or any number of performers, here was a star.”
Timberlake’s appearances on the show were enough to convince Donald De Line and Karen Rosenfelt, producers of the combination live-action/computer-generated animated adventure-comedy “Yogi Bear” (which reaches theaters Friday), Timberlake would be perfect to provide the voice of Yogi’s furry sidekick, Boo-Boo.
De Line praised Timberlake’s comedic timing but also pointed out that Timberlake has been able to succeed on different entertainment platforms because “everybody roots for Justin.”
“He’s got a really broad fan base — goodwill that cuts across age groups and genders,” De Line said. “He’s reinvented himself several times and consistently shows new sides of himself. His intelligence shines through. He’s handled his career really smartly.”
Any yet, by Timberlake’s own estimation, the C-word doesn’t enter the equation when it comes to weighing his professional prospects. “I don’t know what a pop ‘career’ is. I just wanted to be in music,” Timberlake said. “I don’t necessarily crave to be a movie star. I just want to be an actor. I don’t look at it as a career — I just feel lucky. That’s not to say I’m going to take every opportunity that comes up. But now I have more chance to plot out a path.”
For the time being, that path does not involve recording or performing music. Timberlake recalled the “undeniable” urge to produce his two solo albums — a feeling that he says is notably absent from his creative process these days. But that doesn’t mean Timberlake is closing the door on music. He looks forward to a time when he can combine acting with his singing and producing talents for a movie project and even envisions stealing a page from the David Bowie concept-album playbook on a future album.
“I want to conceptualize something a little bit more,” said Timberlake. “And it’s probably because of the experience I’m having working with directors and screenwriters and getting to play cool characters. If that means I come up with, like, my version of ‘Ziggy Stardust,’ so be it. Who knows?”
“What I’ve learned from acting in movies, I want to apply to music and see what happens.”
Los Angeles Times staff writer Nicole Sperling contributed to this report.