Just before his 26th birthday, Justin Timberlake — who was a big presence at this year’s Sundance (and could be an even bigger one at Sunday’s Grammys ceremony, where he’s nominated for four awards) — sat down to talk with EW about his booming career as a singer and an actor. Check out some choice bits from our interview that didn’t make the cover story — about the controversy surrounding ”Alpha Dog,” his early education in the blues, his shocking connection to ”The Notebook,” and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What do you remember about recording ”SexyBack”?
JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: The day before I was listening to David Bowie’s ”Rebel Rebel,” and [producer] Timbaland had listened to ”The House of Jealous Lovers,” by the Rapture. I said, Now I want to take that raw energy and apply that to what we do and see what happens. The song got done in, like, two and a half hours. Obviously it won’t win lyrics of the year. But that’s sort of the point of it.
You have said previously that you intend to record your next album with Rick Rubin, who is predominantly a rock producer. Is that still the case?
I don’t know. I’ve recorded four or five songs with him already. I feel bad, because Rick and I talked about it and I don’t want to taint it. The thing that came out of the recording session was, Let’s not talk about it — let’s just let it happen. Because Rick’s like that. He just lets it happen. So I don’t know. I haven’t even thought about it.
Your Alpha Dog director, Nick Cassavetes, told me that he spoke to you about being in his romance The Notebook.
It was for the Jimmy Marsden role — he wanted me to play the rich guy who lost the girl. He was like, ”Listen, I don’t know much of your music.” And I said, ”I’m glad, you know, because I don’t want you to.” He said, ”There’s this part in there I want you to play.” The first thing I said was, ”I love that you thought of me, but it sounds like you need a movie star. I don’t know if I fit the bill. BUT if you do have a part that comes along that has a little more grit to sink your teeth into, really, call me.”
For Alpha Dog — about a group of L.A. gangsta wannabes whose kidnapping of a rival’s brother has deadly consequences — you met with Jesse Rugge, the person your character is based on?
It was surreal to see someone my age serving a life sentence. My heart went out to him, you know. It’s hard, because you’re torn. That’s the whole point of the film. You want to feel sorry [for my character]. But you can’t, you can’t. That’s a testament to Nick as a director. For really capturing those events the best that he could.
The mother of the real-life victim in the case said that she was against Alpha Dog being made. Do you have any sympathy for that viewpoint?
Um, I didn’t know that. I do, I do. I have sympathy for her, period. I can’t imagine, I really can’t. I think everybody felt that on some level we got our hands dirty making this film.
In the sense that you shouldn’t have been making it?
No, no, no, no. In the sense that it felt like there were no winners in this movie. The reason some people don’t like this film is that they’re looking for some kind of win at the end. It just seems like it’s going to show up — and it doesn’t.
Let’s talk about your other movie, Black Snake Moan. It’s very blues-drenched — how much of a fan of that kind of music are you?
Huge. On top of having a sort of a church-singing background, my mom used to take me down to Beale Street [in Memphis] and I could hear what was going on. Man, the blues is so simple, so simple. And that’s the beauty of it. Unlike jazz, where the intricacies are what makes it what it is. The blues is just, like, walk it up, walk it back down. That’s blues. But you have to have the funk. Miles Davis [gave] the best musical quote of all time. He said, ”Funk is not the notes you play. It’s what you don’t play.” That’s the funk. That’s what Donny Hathaway understood. It’s not what I’m singing, It’s what I’m making you wait to hear from me. And that’s, to me, far more intriguing than just jumping on a song and [Timberlake ululates in the style of a particularly show-offy pop diva], all that shit.
You performances in both Alpha Dog and Black Snake Moan have received good reviews. In the wake of that, have Hollywood producers been saying, ”Get me Timberlake!”?
You know, if they have I definitely don’t know too much about it. [Laughs] Anyway, I have my hands full until the summer’s over.
What was the story with Edison Force, the film that was supposed to be your big movie break but went straight to video last summer?
That movie is tough to sort of identify with. I’m not bitter about it. But what we were all sold on — myself, and Morgan [Freeman] and Kevin [Spacey] and LL [Cool J] — was a psychological take on law enforcement and how crooked it can get, and how it goes higher up. And it just turned into something else. As we were shooting it you could kind of feel it happening, and there was nothing any of us could do. At the time I was all doom and gloom. I was, like, ”This sucks! I never want to f—in’ do this again.” Now I’m really glad that I did it. Because I learned a lot about what not to get myself into. Like I said, I’m not bitter.
I’m bitter that I had to watch it.
I’m terribly sorry.
I’m not. [Laughs]
You seem to have chosen very adult film projects. Did that feed into your thinking when you chose them?
Not necessarily. I find that question comes up because people have watched me grow up. It’s funny, I think a lot of people forget, like, he’s sort of an adult now. I don’t think that was conscious. I just enjoyed the material. They’re movies that make huge statements and they make them in a way that might get under your skin and is provocative. When you read material that is that provocative, it grabs you by the throat.
You lead a pretty surreal life at times, don’t you?
I think we all do.
I go to an office every day. Any time you want to swap…
You know what? I might call you up soon. It’s funny, my birthday is tomorrow. I’ll be 26. I don’t know. I’m using all my good years pretty fast…