SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO – The cast and crew of “Runner, Runner” have found an oasis in the otherwise downtrodden La Perla neighborhood.
Up a steep hill — I shudder to think of how the heavier parts of production navigated the tight and inclined alleyways of an area not designed for car or truck travel — in what appears to just be the backyard of one of the area’s nicer — “Nicer” being a relative term — the film has constructed a restaurant. In the background, extras pretend to eat and converse and make signs of mimed laughter, all having a terrific time sotto voce. Even further back, some patrons gyrate, dancing to music that isn’t there.
The relative silence is an accommodation for stars Justin Timberlake and Gemma Arterton. They’re trying to have an important conversation, darnit. Timberlake’s Richie, a former college student who becomes wrapped up in the murky world of off-shore gambling and online poker, and Arterton’s Rebecca, a somewhat mysterious woman with ties to this semi-legal world, are having a getting-to-know-you dinner. They may be flirting. She may be trying to con him. He may be trying to work her for information. They may be flirting and conning and working all at once.
It’s hard to tell, because the tone of the scene keeps changing. Director Brad Furman (“The Lincoln Lawyer”) likes doing multiple takes — More on that and on La Perla in this story — and with each take he pushes his two actors to improvise both the dialogue and its potential meaning. Nobody who has seen Timberlake on “Saturday Night Live” or on myriad talk shows will be surprised that he’s very quick on his feet. With each take, the pacing of the scene changes and the intonation is varied, with most of the spinning coming courtesy of Timberlake. The only interruption comes when a hanging lamp comes crashing down from a tree and forces a cut.
“Whoa! That was close,” Arterton giggles.
Arterton giggles a lot, which she later explains is a tribute to her co-star.
“I’m a real giggler, on every movie. That’s a giggle. Sometimes I like cackling. It’s terrible. I’m known for it. But it is a good feel on the set. It is. And Justin’s a funny guy and we make each other laugh,” she says.
After nearly an hour of takes, I don’t quite know which way the scene will turn out with all of the different readings of lines like “We can’t do this,” “We already have,” “But that wasn’t this” and “What do you think this is?” but I’m impressed with the diversity of options Timberlake has given the editor.
“He’s very instinctive,” Arterton says of Timberlake. “He works in a very similar way to me and a lot of the relationship was… I’m sure Brad and everyone will tell you, but I didn’t realize how many people they were auditioning for this part. I was just like, “I’ll just go out for it,” you know? But they wanted to get the chemistry right between Justin and the actress.”
Unlike “Lincoln Lawyer,” which already had Matthew McConaughey on board when Furman came on, the director was on “Runner, Runner” first and he was part of the move to alter Timberlake’s character when the singer-star became available.
“I got really super-excited about working with Justin, because I really believe in him and believe we’re going to show a side of Justin Timberlake as an actor that people haven’t seen,” Furman says.
Furman continues, “Look, I’m not negating any of the success he’s had or the terrific work he’s had, but he’s delivering a performance that, in my opinion, is riveting, is grounded, is raw. [It’s] very similar, in way, to what I tried to do with Matthew [McConaughey] in ‘Lincoln Lawyer,’ just really trying to flip it. Putting Justin Timberlake in La Perla, I don’t think that’s something you see every day. That’s not the typical commercial… but I think it’s super-commercial, because I think it grounds him in a way and almost humanizes him a way that I think is relatable and gives you an entry point. So, for me, that stuff’s exciting.”
Timberlake’s co-star Ben Affleck was already already wrapped when a group of journalists descended on the “Runner, Runner” set last August. Affleck was in the process of finishing editing a little film called “Argo,” which was beginning to attract buzz. That left Timberlake with an even larger share of the shooting burden, but he still made time to drop by a sheltered tent between shooting and torrential downpours to chat with the press.
In the conversation, Timberlake discusses “Runner, Runner” and explains why he was initially drawn to Affleck’s role — Ivan, the man at the center of the shady online poker empire — and the changes he made to his own character. Plus, there’s a little “Saturday Night Live” talk, even if it happens to be a full year old.
Click through for the highlights from the sit-down…
Justin Timberlake [Nodding outside at the precarious weather]: Welcome to Puerto Rico.
Question: It’s hurricane season.
Justin Timberlake: Just so you know, it’s like [this] every other day or almost every day.
Question: How bad has it gotten?
Justin Timberlake: All things considered, we are making the days. So, I guess, it’s alright. But it is kind of a thing when you are into the scene and then 20 minutes go by where you are just standing under a tent like this looking at the rain. You have to ramp it back it up or whatever.
Question: What drew you to this project?
Justin Timberlake: Well, honestly, I read the script and I thought it was really interesting. I called the producers and they said, “Read this for the role of Richie and tell us what you think.” I said, “It’s great and I want to play Ivan, because it is fun to play the bad guy.” But I will tell you what really pushed me over the edge was t was meeting with Brad [Furman] and hearing his take on the movie. I thought it was really well crafted. I think that Brian [Koppelman] and David [Levien] are great writers and I just thought the story was really interesting and then talking to Brad about it and meeting with him about it — we met a couple of times about it — he had all of these great visual ideas to kind of contemporize the movie and to kind of take the stakes to a really nice level. I didn’t know much about the gambling world of Costa Rica, so after meeting with him and continuing to do a little bit of research on it, the more you found out about it, the more it kind of felt like that there was this “Wizard of Oz” juxtaposition to what could be attractive and sexy about it, but also there is this seedy undertone to the whole thing. So I thought that his take on it could be really interesting. Then I called the studio and went through this really elaborate 45-minute pitch about why the movie should be rated R so that we could shoot a real movie, a real high stakes thriller. So it just all fell into place and I guess after that they sent it to Ben [Affleck] and he was really digging it too.
Question: Did you help make this movie get rated R?
Justin Timberlake: I think there were a couple of people that made it happen, but I was definitely the first one to kind of put my flag in the sand to say, “I think that this would be better for this movie.” Sorry. Just to clarify, it is not about “We have to make a rated R movie and that makes it a real movie.” It is kind of about… “Trouble with the Curve” should be rated PG-13 then this movie… With everything that Brad and I talked about, he got me so excited and it just seemed like that would be the only way to sort of do it as real and grounded at the same time as possible and to make the stakes high, to make the stakes life or death.
Question: Your character of Richie is described as being formerly on the Wall Street sort of fast track lifestyle. Can you talk about his journey in the film and what kind of research you have done to prepare for it?
Justin Timberlake: I actually have a couple of friends who still work in that world and work for investment companies as well. That was sort of lucky, being able to call them and pick their brains. Just to breakdown how the movie is set up: I play a guy who has dropped out of an Ivy League school to start a career at [a company called] Rush Street Capital in Chicago. So it is not exactly New York but it is the same kind of world. Then, in talking with the writers too, we all kind of decided that it was important to make the movie current and to feel right or real, and that we should embrace 2008 and the whole crash. We thought that was more interesting. Originally, when I was sent the movie, Richie was written much younger. I thought it could be more interesting to embrace that. It raises the stakes that I would be back at Princeton as an undergrad, but older than the rest of the kids there… I just thought it was cool that a lot of movies of this nature start their lead character as wide-eyed and naïve and I thought it would be more interesting to have him have his own story to begin with that was kinda, “I’ve been through…” I don’t know how much you guys know about the movie.
Question: Some. We have an idea of what it is.
Justin Timberlake: Let me back up because that explains nothing. It was probably something general thing like, “It is a thriller about a businessman who gets in too deep.” Was it something like that? What did it say?
Question: That it’s a sultry, sexy, thriller.
Justin Timberlake: A sultry, sexy, thriller? You’ve gotta love Fox Marketing. It’s basically that you meet my character and Ben’s character in the first two scenes. The movie starts off with a guy who was sort of a part of the whole stock market crash and who basically got laid off. We put him at Princeton, but I’m there as an affiliate of an online gambling site. Basically, through a series of events, he gets discovered by the dean of Princeton. He forbids it and, for my character, it’s the only way I can pay my tuition. I was kinda left with nothing after the crash and it is the one way that I can pay my tuition. I really have nothing. And so, in that moment, my character decides that really the only way to get enough money to pay for my tuition in order to finish out school and start a business career is to go back on the site that I’m an affiliate for and win all of my money. And I lose. All of it. But what happens is that I discover that there is this sort of algorithm for a trap door that at some point makes you lose.
Question: So it is assured that you will eventually lose it all and you will have to start over again?
Justin Timberlake: Right. You lose more than you win. So I basically find my way down to Costa Rica and show up to the owner of this site, Ivan Block, who is played by Ben. I show up and say, “Your site cheated and I want my money back.” Sort of the way that I do it endears Ben to me because he kind of sees himself a little bit. So he offers me a job and then wild, sex and sultry ensues. [He laughs] I don’t want to give too much away but that’s how the movie gets set up. Then we get down to the world of Costa Rica and I become his protégé. The deeper things get, the more it gets a little off. Ben’s character slowly peels back the onion and you see the smellier sides, I guess, of this world. So it becomes not really a con game, but a game of smarts to see who is going to outsmart the other. So it really becomes myself versus Ben, in a way, Our characters.
Question: Your character has to start over a lot and take risks. Is that something that you can relate to yourself? Does that draw you to the character at all?
Justin Timberlake: I can definitely relate to not thinking things through. No. [He laughs]. Yeah, I think so, a little bit. But even so, I don’t think you…I think you find like-things about you to the humanity of the character and the rest of it, you can play. So, I think, it’s more about finding those things. “How am I like Richie?” You know? That is more of what I do in general. That’s more of a general way of explaining it. Then, I think, you as Richie, can believe any move that you will make. Be it finding some way to get down to Costa Rica or some of the things I do in this movie to get out of the s***, you know?
[This next “Saturday Night Live”-based question and answer make more sense coming in the August 2012 context…]
Question: If Lorne Michaels asked you to come on SNL for a season as a cast member would you consider it? Because, I think, that most of us would agree that your work on “SNL” is amazing.
Justin Timberlake: You know, that is a funny world, “SNL.” It’s lik… Yeah, I would be game for it.
Question: There are a lot of people leaving this season. I am just throwing that out there.
Justin Timberlake: Yeah, I know. You know what is so funny is that someone asked me the other day when I was going to host again. I was like, “You don’t understand. My homies are gone.” My support — Kristen [Wiig] and Andy [Samberg] — are gone. I end up in at least 2 or 3 sketches with them every time I hosted. So I am actually excited to see where the show goes and I am excited for Andy. Jason [Sudeikis] left as well, right?
Question: They say that he is mulling it over but he hasn’t made a decision. I have a feeling, though, that if you were to host you could probably make a phone call and get certain people to show up.
Justin Timberlake: You never know, man. They are going to be starting their movie careers. They won’t be taking my calls. You never know.
Question: Can you give us some comments about Puerto Rico and how it has been like?
Justin Timberlake: It rains.
Question: I mean, what is it like being here? Does it help inform the character? What is this location like? It’s very photogenic.
Justin Timberlake: Yeah, filmic-ally, it is beautiful. There are certain… Like La Perla and that neighborhood, you can’t build that set. I was in an abandoned building the other day that we had to kick homeless people out of to shoot in. I was looking around at the mold on the walls and I was kind of like, “Alright, yeah, we are in it.” But I will say that there is something it gives you that the luxury of shooting in a place like L.A…. Everybody here is excited to be here and excited to be shooting a movie. I find that with the actors, director, and everyone who is really on the ground making the movie that are constantly there on set, you really do build this bond. It’s like the circus effect. You shut down, move to a different location and you really do build this bond with everyone because you’re sort of forced to in a place like this where everyone speaks a different language. I think it is always nice to be on location shooting somewhere because it just makes it…walking onto a sound stage and then getting into that world versus walking into a neighborhood like we were in today. You are sitting there looking at the ocean and you see an old fork behind you. I think you just feel like you are a part of that world. Then the world that Brad has really envisioned for this…I think he is going to really blow a lot of people away with this. I think he is really, really talented and to have this opportunity for him. I have just gotten really close to him and he is such a great guy. He is really, really talented and has this really amazing vision for this movie.
“Runner, Runner” hits theaters on September 27.