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.'"
Proving his merit
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 powerhouse 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."