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Justin Timberlake

...doesn't take himself very seriously

Justin Timberlake
04 September 2011

Justin Timberlake places one hand under his jaw, the other on his crown, and violently jerks his head to one side, loudly cracking his neck. It’s quite unnerving — almost as if, like Worzel Gummidge, he’s about to remove his head.

He says that it’s just a pinched nerve, but it might not be that surprising to see him unscrew his skull and replace it with another one — he certainly wears enough different hats, literally and metaphorically. He’s a multi-Grammy-winning musician, restaurateur, entrepreneur and, now, rapidly emerging Hollywood actor, not so much negotiating the treacherous path from music to movies as moonwalking along it while blindfolded.

His latest metamorphosis is a little less dramatic. Having been suited and booted for our photo shoot, the 30-year-old has merely slipped into something more comfortable (cords and a sweater, in case you’re conjuring up images of a kimono) and joined ShortList in a very opulent hotel suite. He points at a plate of cookies on the small dining table and, endearingly anglicising, tells us how nice “those biscuits” are. They are shaped in the letters F, W and B, representing the title of his latest film, Friends With Benefits. Or at least they were. Because we arrived early, they now look like a V, a B and lots of tiny full-stops.

We begin to talk about the film. Or rather, he begins to talk about the film. Boy, can he talk. His Tennessee accent is not so much Southern drawl as Mississippi rapids. Churning out hit records is second nature to him, but making films is still new and you can tell — his excitement is palpable.

It’s either that or the fact he recently spent several weeks rolling around with a naked Mila Kunis. That was one of the ‘benefits’ in Friends With Benefits: a romantic comedy in which two chums, unlucky in love, embrace their cynicism and engage in a no-strings-sex relationship. It must be awfully hard to be him.

So, those sex scenes: your toughest assignment ever?

[Laughs] This is the first time I’ve actually read love scenes, because they revolve around the dialogue. We rehearsed by reading the script together and discussing, “What’s funny about this? Give me a girl’s perspective.” I’m sure the DVD will have a reel of all the jokes we tried to add during filming. I did joke voices during scenes, such as Igor from Frankenstein, and Obi-Wan Kenobi.

It’s clown sex…

Exactly — we just made each other laugh.

Was acting always part of your plan?

To be honest, my plan would have probably been to do another record, probably right about now. I never stop considering myself a musician. To me, it’s my bread and butter. And I mean that in a personal way — I don’t mean that it finances my “acting hobbies”. I joke with my friends that I should have a business card saying “David Fincher put me in a movie”, because Bad Teacher got a blessing due to The Social Network, and then Friends With Benefits came out of that. All the movies I’ve done were just opportunities that came up, but now that they’re all coming out back-to-back, people think, “Oh, he’s trying to make a statement by having an acting career.” But it’s not like that for me. I don’t ever want to stop doing music.

But you’ve made a clean cut between music and acting — was that necessary to be taken seriously?

The only conscious decision I made was that I didn’t want to do a movie about a musician, because I felt like that was presumptuous. If Bad Teacher had come out before The Social Network it may have curbed it a bit because people got used to seeing me on Saturday Night Live and thought, “Well, he’s kind of funny.” I never cared about being taken seriously as a musician.


I do pop music. I’m not saving the world. It’s making people forget about their worries, so I’ve always seen myself as an entertainer. I don’t take myself too seriously, so I don’t know how I can ask anyone else to.

You’ve said that Saturday Night Live opened a lot of doors for you — do you want to return the favour by flagging up anyone we might not be aware of?

I still stand by that. Being the host and musical guest got me in the door. The cast is starting to show it. Andy [Samberg] is doing two movies this summer, Jason [Sudeikis] is in a hit movie, Horrible Bosses, Kristen [Wiig], Jesus Christ, she’s huge… It’s so cool to see it go well for them because I feel very fond of that whole family.


As David Bowie told us through the medium of song, fame puts you there where things are hollow. And, assuming The Thin White Duke wasn’t talking about an Easter egg factory, Timberlake seems well aware of this. It’s hard to overestimate how famous he is, and yet he recognises the insubstantial, even absurd, nature of the situation.

As a man who’s spent two-thirds of his life in the public eye, ever since he appeared alongside the likes of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Ryan Gosling on The All-New Mickey Mouse Club in the early Nineties, he knows the fame game. He knows, he says, that people with cameras will follow him when he cycles around New York and that, once they’ve got a picture of him, they’ll go after someone else. He knows it, yet doesn’t understand it. To him, he’s got “nothing special to offer” in his free time. To him, he’s normal.

In fact, it would be tempting to think that he knows the fame game so well he can ‘perform’ his interviews, expertly covering up the supersized ego that so often comes with fame and fortune. But there’s been nothing to suggest that such Machiavellian tinkering is at play.

He’s sitting there, occasionally cracking his fingers, occasionally going off on tangents, occasionally pausing for breath, but never looking annoyed or perplexed, never being short, and never glowing in some ethereal otherworldly way. He simply doesn’t ‘look’ famous.

Do people have an expectation of you when they meet you?

I think that people have an expectation of people like me in general. I remember hearing a story that Jim Carrey told. He was walking down the street and these two women came up to him and said, “Oh my God, we love your work, can we take a picture with you?” So he took a picture with them and they said, “OK, say something funny.” He said, “I don’t know what that means!” I feel like people’s relationships with ‘it’ has nothing to do with me.

Can you be yourself in public? Or do you feel the need to maintain a particular image?

I don’t know what that image is. I grew up as an only child, so I actually enjoy being alone. And when you have a crazy job like I do… Actually, it doesn’t feel like a job — I don’t know why I call it a job. When you have a crazy career like I do, you’re around people a lot, so when I’m not doing that I’m kind of quiet and to myself. But that’s just the way I grew up — it’s not because I’m particularly shy.

What do you do to relax, then? Just sit there by yourself?

Sometimes. Sometimes it’s nice to just sit and watch sports channels. I’m a huge sports buff. And I actually enjoy going to the cinema by myself.

Can you do that?

I can. I’ll put a hoodie and baseball cap on and go to late shows by myself. Sometimes you get insomnia or jet lag from tours. When I get back from this one, I bet you, in the next week I’ll be able to catch up on all the films I’ve missed. And I like to go to the driving range and hit a few balls. Peace and quiet is what I crave.

You’re rather good at hitting balls, aren’t you?

I’m not that good.

You’ve got a six handicap.

I have a six handicap.

That’s good enough. A lot of celebrities play golf — what’s the most interesting golfing foursome you’ve taken part in?

Samuel L Jackson is good fun to play golf with. Andy Garcia is fun, too. Golf for me is a social thing — have a beer, be guys, talk about women, talk about sports.


Golf is a pleasure he rarely has time for (two games this year, he says, with genuine sorrow), which isn’t surprising. Timberlake is a man with fingers in so many pies that he’s started having to use his toes. There’s the music and the films and, of course, his fair share of charity work. He also has to cope with the condition known as ‘serial entrepreneurship’.

Timberlake owns an eco-friendly golf course in Tennessee, has his own brand of tequila, co-owns at least one restaurant, co-owns the William Rast clothing line and, in June, was part of a group that topped off Rupert Murdoch’s year by buying Myspace, a company valued at $12bn (£7.2bn) in 2007, for $35m (£21.2m) from News Corporation. It’s quite a portfolio, although he plays down his involvement.

Something that he’s stopped trying to play down are the rumours about his private life, which is probably wise considering how many there are. If they were all true, we could expect a whole generation of Hollywood actresses to bear a brood of curly-haired kids with good rhythm, and he’d have a pinched nerve in more than just his neck.

After 20 years in the ‘business’, he’s very much come to terms with the gossipy nature of some parts of the press. But that doesn’t mean he likes it, and he has little sympathy for another contributor to Murdoch’s annus horribilis.

We’re going to assume that you love all things British…

I do. Minus things sometimes being sensationalised…

Ah, yes, well, that’s being addressed.

I see that. I was not upset about News Of The World being cancelled — that didn’t bother me at all. I mean, I do feel terrible for people who lost their jobs, but as a whole I don’t feel that terrible.

Have you ever come across any ridiculous rumours about yourself?

For the most part, it’s that if I’m in the same room as another famous female, then I must be hitting on her.

It’s clearly the other way round.

[Laughs] God, I wish! I wish that I was that lucky.

But you do love our football…

Yes, I became a Manchester United fan. I know that seems stereotypical — as an American, as soon as you get into football, you start liking Manchester United. But it wasn’t David Beckham. I met [former midfielder] Alan Smith and he invited me to a match and I fell in love with the whole experience. I can’t think of a faithful as strong as the Man United fans.

So, what future plans do you have?

I have nothing on my plate for the rest of the year. I’m getting sick of me. I realise that I’m in a really lucky place because, to be honest, I don’t think I’m that good. I just want to make the right choices. You get to a certain age where you don’t feel the need to be validated by your choices in your career. I want to be validated more by choices in my personal life.

More golf, then?

God, that’d be amazing.

Friends With Benefits is at cinemas nationwide from 9 September

(Photography: Paul Stuart)