On Sept. 24, at the opening night reception for the New York Film Festival’s premiere of The Social Network, a young woman in jeans and an oversize cardigan, an average-looking brunette, elbowed her way past actor Kevin Spacey, past director Darren Aronofsky, past a barricade of handlers that had formed around the young stars of the film, past the advancing reporters, their tape recorders jutting out of the crowd like entitlement torches, and assumed a small space in front of Justin Timberlake. She took hold of his bicep. “Hey! I just wanted to say, you were really great.”
It appeared Timberlake, who was having a close conversation with co-star Andrew Garfield, did not know the young woman. He was polite and thanked her, ready to return his attention to Garfield.
“Was this your first movie role?”
“Uh, no, no,” he said, helplessly looking around for a handler to step in. The Observer, meanwhile, looked for the group of giggling girls who had to have put her up to this, but the young fan seemed to be acting alone.
“Oh, well, I thought you were really good. For, like, a musician, you know?”
Timberlake, 29, dressed in a tailored vest and glasses, was not promoting the movie to reporters or fans that evening. Rather, he had the humility and eagerness of someone attending a career fair—networking with the other actors, producers, movie publicists, screenwriters and directors. He listened. He nodded. He did not interrupt.
It was this version of Timberlake that the young woman seemed to threaten. Here she was, butting in just as Timberlake is talking to the future Spider-Man with her JT lust and memorized lyrics to “Bye Bye Bye,” yanking Justin Timberlake, Actor, surrounded by whispers of a supporting actor nomination, back into Justin Timberlake, Pop Star. And at the New York Film Festival, no less! And yet she was also his creation, whose very existence had propelled him to being cast in a David Fincher film, reciting Aaron Sorkin’s frenzied dialogue.
“Well, thank you,” he said. “For the compliment and the …” It was hard to hear the last word, but the shape of his lips and the icy delivery sure looked like “insult.” Whatever he said, the young woman realized her mistake and lunged forward. “No, no, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way. I just meant I thought you were very good.” Timberlake looked down and studied the young woman’s hand that had found his forearm. This was her cue to remove it. “Right. Thank you.”
Meet Justin Timberlake, Movie Star.
Since its $23 million opening weekend, The Social Network has been discussed as many things: a thrilling dissection of a tech-master whose social deficiencies served as the basis for a modern dialogue; a parody of the Harvard incubator; the reinvigoration of Fincher; and a possible Best Picture nod. But, years from now, what it may ultimately become known for is the launch of the long and versatile career of the actor (yes, actor) Justin Timberlake.
He’s been seeking out roles for almost a decade, but until now he’s had trouble making us believe him. Remember Edison? Of course not. The 2005 thriller, in which Timberlake found his first major role opposite Spacey and Morgan Freeman, went straight to DVD. He was fine as Ronnie the discharged soldier in Black Snake Moan and great in Alpha Dog, but who can remember that considering it came out the very same year as the multiplatinum album FutureSex/LoveSounds and we all danced to “SexyBack”?
With The Social Network, a pitch-perfect script, a marquee director and the role of darkly charismatic Sean Parker aligned in Timberlake’s favor. Fincher gave him a stage and he owned it.
“One of the things you learn when you make a bunch of movies,” producer Scott Rudin told The Observer via phone, “is that when someone has to show up in the movie and be a star, it helps if they’re already a star.”
In December 1993, shortly before the release of Six Degrees of Separation, the movie that founded the film career of a rapper and sitcom actor, USA Today published an article titled “Will Smith’s Exponential Leap: Six Degrees elevates rapper and TV star.” Could it be we are witnessing something similar with Timberlake? The two actors have some things in common: the charm and likability that appeals to urban audiences as well as their suburban grandparents; a studied, nonthreatening goofiness and self-deprecation (see: “Dick in a Box”); a wholesomeness that comes with having steady relationships and no reported drug problems; the voice that, when you least expect it, leaps high and nerdy. Think about it: Is “Getting Jiggy Wit It” really all that different from “Rock Your Body”?
“I think Justin is certainly getting the same opportunities as Will, but it depends on what he chooses to do with it,” said Randi Hiller, a casting director who’s worked on the Iron Man franchise, Pride and Glory and Crash. “I meet with musicians who want to be actors all the time, but not a ton who are committed enough to step off the road and stop touring for a little.”
According to Hiller, LL Cool J is “amazing.” Ludacris is “fearless.” Method Man “will work really hard on anything.” And Xzibit takes “enormous risks.” Historically there’s Cher, Oscar winner, and audiences barely remember that former rapper Queen Latifah, who has been paired in rom-coms with Steve Martin, was once arrested on gun possession and drug charges. But other music stars have been atrocious (see: Madonna, Mariah Carey), or can’t handle themselves on set and end up in jail (DMX, T.I., The Game), or are simply too intimidated to really go for it. “Most directors will still make you audition and really battle for it, and some people don’t have the ego for that,” Hiller said. “It’s amazing. They can stand in front of 20,000 people and not have a problem, but then they get in a small room in front of a casting director and they just panic.”
“Mariah Carey is never going to live down Glitter, in part because we’re never going to let her,” said Tom O’Neil, who closely covers the award season for the Los Angeles Times’ Gold Derby. “Pop stars have this trashy reputation built in by the nature of their job, and there is usually a strong resistance to letting them in even if they’re good. The serious thespian community of Hollywood doesn’t want them in because it’s a threat to their vaunted self-image.”
And yet Hollywood seems to really like Timberlake.
“He has the work ethic of a champion!” said Laray Mayfield, the casting director for The Social Network who worked with Timberlake and Fincher through the audition process.
“I think he has humility and tons of charm,” Rudin said. “He’s a real guy and he has an innate decency that makes him playing complex, darker people really fascinating. All you had to do was see how brilliant he was on [Saturday Night Live] to know that he could work in movies.”
“I think he’s being sent all kinds of things,” said Hiller, who first met Timberlake about 10 years ago. “I just know from things I’ve worked on that his name comes up a lot in meetings. At any point in time, there’s always a viable list of actors people are betting on, and he’s certainly on that list.”
Timberlake currently has two other movies with Sony scheduled for release next year: Bad Teacher, a comedy opposite Cameron Diaz, and Friends With Benefits, with Mila Kunis. “We think he can do broad comedy, we think he can do drama, we think he can do romantic comedy,” said Sony co-chair Amy Pascal.
But perhaps what Timberlake needs is the opposite of Hollywood’s girl-meets-boy comedies to wipe away that proverbial shininess and use this newfound attention to show us something else.
“I would like to see him do a drama and maybe something even further away from what the perception of him is—like a psychological introspective,” Hiller said. “I’d like to see something where he’s a little less shiny.” Should he do Broadway? “If he did, it would probably sell out, but I don’t think he needs to do that.”
Timberlake turns 30 on Jan. 31. He’ll be 18 years removed from his Mickey Mouse Club days; 13 years since “I Want You Back,” ’NSync’s first hit; and nine years since he cried a river over Britney Spears. And more importantly, if the Hollywood Foreign Press allows it, the shiny new boy will be two weeks away from taking home a golden statue.
“The interesting analogy to make here, if The Social Network continues to be in the running for Best Picture,” O’Neil said, “is its parallel to From Here to Eternity, which had Frank Sinatra, a pop singer and a heartthrob of his day who went on to win Best Supporting Actor for the same kind of hell-raiser role that Justin plays in The Social Network.”
“He will certainly be nominated at the Globes and that will put him in the awards game,” he continued. “And then it depends on what his acceptance speech is at the Globes, because usually that is your audition for the Oscar. If you wow us like Hilary Swank or Jamie Foxx did, who had extraordinary speeches that carried them to an Oscar win, Justin could do it, too.”