CANNES – It goes without saying that Justin Timberlake’s come a long way. I remember chatting with him and a very young Anton Yelchin at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival about Nick Cassavetes’ underrated “Alpha Dog.” Timberlake was prepping “FutureSex/LoveSounds” at the time and this was a pre-“Sexy Back” world, but Timberlake’s enthusiasm for his Sundance debut was evident. It wasn’t clear whether Timberlake enjoyed the art form of acting or whether he saw this as another outlet for his own work, but you could see even then this wasn’t going to be a one time thing.
In the years since he took a long break from the music side of the business and jumped from one potential prestige indie to another (“Southland Tales,” “The Open Road”). Eventually, lady luck blessed him when David Fincher cast him as Sean Parker in “The Social Network.” That was the first sign J.T’s acting career was on a legitimate upswing. His choices since haven’t really lived up to his “really, I’m a supporting actor nominee contender too” potential of “Network,” however. A comedy with his ex-girlfriend (“Bad Teacher” where he was possibly the film’s weakest link), a surprising international hit with Andrew Niccol’s “In Time,” a forgettable rom com with Mila Kunis (“Friends with Benefits”) and the cringeworthy “Trouble with the Curve” alongside Clint Eastwood. But perseverance has paid off for the former boy band singer. Likely more due to his five successful stints as a “Saturday Night Live” host than anything else, Ethan and Joen Coen cast him as the well intentioned and fresh faced folk singer Jim Berkley in “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Chatting to the press Tuesday, Timberlake recalled his reaction when he got the call about working with the legendary filmmaking duo.
“It was just like, ‘Hey, we’d like you to come play this part in the movie.’ They didn’t described it at first,” Timberlake recalls. “I just remember the next day the script was in my hand and I was reading it and I was like, ‘Hold on. These people are singing as well.’ So, I had this moment where I was like, ‘I’m going to work with the Coen Bros.. I’m going to be in a Coen Bros. movie and I’m going to sing in a Coen Bros. movie. And, it just like, how can you get as many things you want to do individually in the same movie? That would be impossible in any other area. So, I peed in my pants.
Timberlake adds, “I guess Joel and Ethan were kind of thing of me for this part based more on the humorous things I may have done? I think they were looking for someone who could make the part earnest and really, really funny. Hopefully it was funny enough. My mission was to make them laugh on set. Any time they were snickering at the monitor I was elated.”
The 32-year-old Memphis, Tenn. native got to put his vocal talents to good use on a number of the film’s songs including folk tunes “Five Hundred Miles,” The Auld Triangle” and “Please Mr. Kennedy.” The former, which arguably may or may not be eligible for a best original song Oscar nomination (we’re guessing not), is one of the funnier moments in the film. The scene begins with Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) arriving at a studio recording gig for Timberlake’s character just thrilled he’s getting a much needed paycheck. The song is upbeat and goofy, but backup singer Al Cody (Adam Driver) steals the scene with a vocal contribution that you can only understand if you hear it. Timberlake says he’d already worked with the Coens and producer T-Bone Burnett on the song so they knew it was funny, but they had no idea what they were getting into with Driver.
“We’d already arranged and rewritten the original which was about Vietnam which was satirical, but a little darker. I think we wanted to camp it up as much as possible, without going off the figurative cliff,” Timberlake says. “And, so, then to put Adam in the mix it just became an umber of things happening at the same time it just became fun to shoot.”
Timberlake continues, “He vomits some sort of sound that makes us both stop and go, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ But I feel like there are a bunch of little funny things to be found along the way. Like [my character’s] reaction to [Llewyn’s] comment ‘Yeah, I appreciate the gig, but who wrote this?’ There was something fun around the way.”
“Inside” should be a staple of the fall film festival circuit and it will shocking not to see it on many critics’ top 10 lists at the end of the year. Timberlake is obviously overjoyed to be part of yet another prestige player like “Social Network,” but he’s not going to have that much time to worry about his own awards chances. When a French journalist asks him if “Lloyd” was a sign he’s focusing more on his acting than ever, Timberlake starred at him, smiled and says, “I just put a record out man. I am putting out a record that has a second part that is coming out this fall. (Laughs.) Where have you been? (Laughs.)”
After the journalist won’t give up on his theory about Timberlake’s career choices – much to the chagrin of the other few writers at the table, the “20/20 Experience” creator goes on something of a ramble about the rest of his year.
“I start a tour in the summer. I start another tour in October,” Timberlake says. “To be honest with you the only conscious decision I made when it pertains to film is that I felt like that if I didn’t start making a concerted effort I really genuinely just am in love with the art form as well. I started off as a television actor when I was 10. So, for me, I dunno. I would argue there are things in music I haven’t done yet. And I think the mission is to continually be inspired. I think you want to be continually inspired by what you are doing, but just to bring it back to the movie you’re looking at a guy who measures his life by success and failure. And whether he’s winning or losing and I think you get to a certain point in your career where it isn’t about winning or losing it’s about the experience of doing it. And if you are going to do it I think you should do it the right way. I take it seriously. I take my time with Carey [Mulligan] on set seriously, but I don’t take myself serious in a way where I feel I need to be vindicated in any way. Honestly, I could stop right now and be on top of the world for me because I was in a Coen Bros. movie. I got to work with Fincher with as well who I adore. So, for me it’s about things that are still interesting and continue to be inspiring. That’s all I can really say without feeling weird about this analysis.”
Everyone clear on that? J.T.’s not looking for vindication on an acting career that still has a long road to go
“Inside Llewyn Davis” opens in limited release on Dec. 6.