April 21, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

You’re Justin Timberlake. Four years ago, you transformed yourself from boy-band confection to studly solo artist with Justified, which sold 3.5 million copies. So why try to reinvent yourself again — this time as a movie star?

Before crying Britney, consider that Timberlake (who’s been in the studio working on a follow-up album, due this fall) has quietly banked four supporting roles in upcoming films. ”Justin could’ve had a starring role,” says Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow), who directed the singer in the drama Black Snake Moan. ”But he’s aware that audiences are cynical about music stars crossing over into acting.” Brewer, however, wasn’t. He was sold on Timberlake, 25, as an anxiety-ridden National Guardsman after just one meeting: ”When I approached him for it I said, ‘It’s a vulnerable role, and I really want you to tap into something.’ He understood that.”

The budding actor also gets the upside of aligning himself with hot indie directors like Brewer and Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) — the latter tapping Timberlake for a small role as a soldier in his dark comedy Southland Tales. Says casting director Billy Hopkins, who auditioned Timberlake for John Madden’s thriller Killshot but ultimately did not use him: ”He was actually quite good…. The way he’s handling his career is smart. If a movie fails, it’s not just his failure.”

So far, Timberlake’s work has elicited mixed reviews. The crime drama Edison, in which he plays a rookie journalist opposite Morgan Freeman, got panned at the Toronto film festival, but he earned pats on the back at Sundance for his turn as a thug in Nick Cassavetes’ Alpha Dog. Still, if all else fails, Timberlake (who declined to comment for this story) always has that gig voicing a young king alongside girlfriend Cameron Diaz in a wee 2007 film called Shrek 3. And we’d certainly never question Timberlake’s voice.


TIMBERLAKE’S MOVIES

ALPHA DOG
Portrays a convincing hoodlum in this gritty pic, featuring Bruce Willis, out later this year

BLACK SNAKE MOAN
Appears with Samuel L. Jackson in the upcoming drama, as a traumatized guardsman

EDISON
Is a cub reporter to Morgan Freeman’s vet in a poorly received thriller without a release date

SOUTHLAND TALES
Plays a soldier in the satire (seeking a distributor), starring Sarah Michelle Gellar

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