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."
A funny start
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."
Times staff writer Nicole Sperling contributed to this report.