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Entertainment weekly 2007

Justin Timberlake’s cheek  is glistening with another man’s perspiration. And he couldn’t  be happier about it.

”There’s nothing like some Will  Forte sweat on your face!” laughs the 26-year-old singer, who  is lying under the comedian on a couch at Saturday Night  Live’s New York studio this December afternoon. With Maya  Rudolph, the pair have been blocking out a sketch called ”Old  Friends,” which concludes with Timberlake and Forte shot by a  sniper. Hence their prone position on the couch, and the  sketch-comedian perspiration dripping onto pop-superstar face.

”People would pay a lot of money for  that sweat,” Forte faux-boasts to Timberlake.

”You should sell it on eBay,”  Rudolph concurs.

She’s joking. Clearly, the only sweat  worth its Internet-auction salt around here belongs to Justin  Timberlake, this week’s SNL host and musical guest. For  this is Timberlake’s time. He seems omnipresent in the  culture, his celebrity status comfortably eclipsing even the  megastardom he enjoyed at the height of ‘N Sync’s success.  He’s at Sundance with a new movie. He imitates Prince at the  Golden Globes. And then, of course, he’s the story du jour for  the tabloid press and entertainment news shows, which have  drooled endlessly over Timberlake’s split with longtime  girlfriend Cameron Diaz and his subsequent rumored ”links”  to a tranche of comely female celebrities including Scarlett  Johansson and Jessica Biel.

But all this — the breakup, the  alleged flirting, the awards ceremony high jinks — is merely  the sideshow to his emergence as a genuine pop culture talent,  the one real deal to survive the boy-band craze. On his second  solo CD, last year’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, Timberlake  went for a whole new sound, a sonic departure from both ‘N  Sync and his first solo album, Justified. The result  was massive success: two No. 1 singles so far; the  introduction of the phrase ”bringing sexy back” to the  idiom; four Grammy nominations, including a coveted Album of  the Year nod; and the fifth-best-selling album of 2006,  shifting 2.4 million copies. While releases by OutKast, Pink,  and Diddy underperformed sales-wise, Timberlake proved himself  a rare beast — an established artist whose new release matched  the commercial hopes of a music business in dire need of  superstars.

”He is hugely important to the  industry,” says Barry Weiss, president and CEO of Jive  Records, who has known Timberlake for nearly a decade. ”In  the past three to five years it’s become more and more  difficult for American artists to sell overseas. He’s one of  the few that successfully sells in every country around the  world.”

As if all that weren’t enough, 2007  will also see the proper debut of ”Justin Timberlake,  Actor,” with at least three films boasting his thespian  talents: Black Snake Moan (which opens Feb. 23), Shrek the Third (out May 18), and the Nick Cassavetes-directed  Alpha Dog. The latter was released on Jan. 12 and  garnered Timberlake a slew of positive reviews.

”If he wasn’t so good, the movie  would fall flat on its face,” says Cassavetes. ”You know,  this kid’s going to be the biggest star that ever hit  anywhere.”

And right now, it  seems he can do no wrong. While the ”Old Friends” sketch was  cut from SNL before broadcast, the onetime Mouseketeer  still managed to create a singular pop culture moment on the  show.

”D — in a Box,”  a spoof R&B music video in which Timberlake and SNL  writer-performer Andy Samberg croon about their gift-wrapped  manhoods, has become an Internet sensation, exceeding even the  spectacular success of Samberg’s previous ”Lazy Sunday.” The  video, whose song Timberlake helped compose, is sharply  satirical — but it’s also sophomoric enough to serve as a  reminder that, despite being a showbiz veteran, the ”SexyBack”  star is still four years away from celebrating his 30th  birthday.

”He was born to do SNL,”  Samberg says. ”He’s got charm and acting ability, but he also  has comic timing. And then, when you start throwing singing  into the mix, it’s like, Oh man, you can make the dumbest joke  sound great! And he has no problem looking like an ass. None  whatsoever.”

”I liked him a lot,” Samberg  concludes. ”He’s a silly man.”

The preteen Justin Timberlake, whose  parents split when he was just a toddler, was anything but  silly. ”I was a tortured young dude — to the point of rage,”  he says between mouthfuls of chicken paillard at Manhattan  eatery Pastis. ”I literally walked around like this…”  Timberlake stares down at his plate, the star’s face  scrunching up into a dark glower before reconfiguring back to  its usual friendly, open demeanor. ”My mom makes jokes. She  goes, ‘It’s no shock to me you’re obsessed with sneakers  because that’s the only thing you looked at for the first 10  years of your life.’ And if I couldn’t do something really  well when I was a kid, I wouldn’t do it at all. I wanted  everything to be perfect.”

That drive carried over to the  emergence of ‘N Sync. ”I had so much power,” Timberlake  remembers. ”We were playing stadiums, and I could say, ‘Hey,  we should fly down!’ And suddenly people are building rigs for  us to fly down on. We had a blast doing it, [but] I was really  a perfectionist.”

But by the time he went solo to  record Justified, the committed perfectionist seemed  like he couldn’t quite hold it together. In fact, he had  become a bit of a stoner. Timberlake has previously admitted  that Justified was constructed in something of a  marijuana haze. That partly explains, Timberlake says, his  somewhat bewildered 2003 appearance on Ashton Kutcher’s MTV  prank show, Punk’d. Timberlake, who was tricked into  believing that his possessions were being taken away by the  tax authorities, seemed totally devastated — for a minute  there, he was known as The Man Ashton Kutcher Almost Made Cry.

”I’ll give you a little hint on that  Punk’d thing,” Timberlake says. ”That was back in my  first-album creative days. That’s why I looked the way I did,  if that makes any sense to you.”

Can I confirm what you’re saying  here?

”I don’t give a s—.”

Were you stoned?

”Incredibly,” he laughs. ”Yeah,  that was a trippy experience. That was why I was completely  glassyeyed…. As a matter of fact, I was like, Okay, I got to  stop doing this…. I don’t do that anymore.

Justified  sold over 3 million copies. Yet, despite having such credible  producers as the Neptunes and Timbaland, it failed to inspire  the critical plaudits that Timberlake then craved.

”I was like, Yes, now I get to be  like an Al Green!” says the singer of his solo debut. ”Then  the reviews came out: ‘Pop album,’ ‘Pop album,’ ‘Pop album.’ I  couldn’t f—ing believe it…. But it’s just the nature of  the world. At some point you have to realize you can’t keep  beating people over the head: I sing R&B, I sing R&B! Then you  just become weird.”

The critical reaction sparked an  epiphany. Timberlake realized there were things he could  control and things he couldn’t. ”And the ones that you can’t  control, you have to say, F— it,” he explains. ”And enjoy  it!… So I was like, F— it! If I’m a pop artist, then I  don’t just have to do R&B. That’s why this [new] album sounds  the way it does.”

Mostly co-produced by Timberlake with  Timbaland, FutureSex/LoveSounds is short on traditional  vocal hooks and long on thundering electronica-styled beats.  Songs such as the title track and ”SexyBack” barely sound  like Justin Timberlake songs at all. The latter was such a  departure, in fact, that Jive boss Barry Weiss more or less  admits he had doubts when Timberlake suggested that it be  released as the album’s lead single. ”It was an unusual  record,” defends the label chief. ”It didn’t sound like  Justin vocally. It didn’t have his distinctive falsetto-style  vocals. It was a bit of a risk for all of us. But it was a  risk that clearly paid off.”

Paid off? In spades. On top of the 2  million-plus copies FutureSex/LoveSounds has sold in  the U.S., it has shifted an almost equal number abroad. The CD  also ended up on a lot of best-of- 2006 lists, including EW’s.  But with Timberlake front and center in the public eye, a  certain inevitable carping followed: Some critics wondered  just who this young punk thought he was to be ”bringing sexy  back.”

”Well, who the f— is anyone?”  Timberlake asks. ”The thing I love about it is, at this  point, people don’t project it onto me. People don’t come up  to me and say, ‘Hey, man, you’re bringing sexy back.’ They go,  I’m bringing sexy back. But, yeah, obviously that’s  being pushed by the media — no offense. ‘F—ing pretentious  kid makes a statement.’ They still love to call me a kid.”

Indeed, when it comes to his private  life, Timberlake’s newfound Zen has its limits. He declines to  discuss his breakup with Cameron Diaz, or any of the supposed  liaisons that followed the relationship’s demise. He is, on  the other hand, happy to discuss his strategy for dealing with  tabloid coverage of his life: Avoid it. ”You sort of know it  exists because, the more promotion you do, the more you hear  about it,” he says. ”But if I wasn’t doing all this  promotion I wouldn’t even know about it. I’d be surfing or  snowboarding or playing golf. That’s how I keep my sanity. You  cannot do this without a sense of humor. Otherwise you get  caught pleasuring yourself in a bathroom stall.”

But surely it’s  irritating to have had this tabloid tracking of your private  life over the past month?

”Like I said, I just choose not to  participate,” he sighs. ”That’s what gets me by.”

When was the last time the coverage  caused him to lose his temper? The singer pauses: ”It depends  what you classify as losing your temper.” Then, after a long  silence, he offers this story: ”I was at the Grammy  nominations and somebody asked me a question. It was like, Do  you have any advice, you know, for someone in particular.  [Though Timberlake doesn’t specify, the ”someone” is most  likely his former girlfriend Britney Spears.] I looked at the  interviewer and I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ I walked off, and  I was like, ‘F—!’ My manager [said], ‘Let it roll off your  shoulders.’ And I was like, ‘You’re right.’ But what is the  point of all that? What does that have to do with anything?”

There is little doubt that  Timberlake’s biggest box office film of 2007 will be Shrek  the Third, in which he voices Artie, a.k.a. the young King  Arthur. And the singer wants to make clear that he secured the  role without the help of the Princess Fiona-voicing Cameron  Diaz. Rather, he says he was cast by Jeffrey Katzenberg after  the DreamWorks cofounder saw him host SNL for the first  time in October 2003.

”He said he saw me on SNL and  was like, ‘That guy is funny,”’ recalls Timberlake. ”’He has  to play Artie.’ I didn’t bring it up with Cameron for a while.  It felt weird. Like, ‘Hey, guess what?…”’

But the big-budget Shrek the Third  is something of a blip in Timberlake’s nascent filmography.  While he did perform in a straight-to-video thriller (2006’s  Edison Force, with Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey),  Timberlake really wants to cut his acting teeth on indie  projects. Alpha Dog tracks the ultimately homicidal  activities of some privileged L.A. gangsta-wannabe kids.  Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival, Black Snake Moan  features the singer as a military recruit whose nymphomaniac  girlfriend, a scantily clad Christina Ricci, is chained to a  radiator by Samuel L. Jackson’s Southern farmer after we see  her developing uncontrollable sexual urges following  Timberlake’s departure. And he has also shot a part in Southland Tales, a new project from Richard Kelly, the  director of cult hit Donnie Darko. None of these movies  is destined to dominate the multiplexes of the heartland.

”That’s comfortable for me,” he  says. ”There’s enough pressure on me to succeed at the music box office. I’d just rather get better at this. It’s  a work of love. I’m really into it and I want to do so  much more.”

How far can he take his acting  career? At Sundance, Timberlake was greeted with serious  applause at a Q&A after Black Snake Moan screened. Alpha Dog received mixed reviews, but the singer himself  was widely praised (the Los Angeles Times hailed his  performance as the film’s ”most nuanced,” while EW’s own  Lisa Schwarzbaum described him as ”charming”).

”That was cool,” he  says of the Black Snake Moan screening at Sundance, the  first time he had seen a proper print of the film. ”I love  the movie. I want to be involved in things that are inspiring  to me. I guess I just have to trust my taste barometer.”

Of course, Hollywood’s dustbin of  history overflows with music stars who tried, and failed, to  make it in Tinseltown. Moreover, the singer’s features are  handsome enough to preclude him from many character roles, and  perhaps too soft to scream ”movie idol.” But similar things  were once said of Will Smith, and Black Snake Moan  director Craig Brewer has no problem comparing the two.

”Little by little, [Will Smith] made  choices that edged him closer to being a better artist,” says  Brewer. ”And Justin is on that road. He could probably go the  Glitter route. [But] that’s not what he’s chosen to  do…. He’s choosing roles that push him outside the comfort  zone. That is a sign of someone who is going to have a career  that is going to last decades.” Samuel L. Jackson is equally  effusive in his praise: ”He went for it every time,” says  the veteran actor of his costar. ”In fact, there was one  point where I said, ‘Wow, he’s gonna run out of tears in a  minute.”’

”Hey, have we paid the check?” asks  a clearly concerned Timberlake after our post-meal coffees  have been cleared away. Dinner with the star is nearly over,  which is a shame. He is remarkably good company: bright,  funny, informed, and voluble on almost any subject that does  not clash with this Southern gent’s aversion to  kissing-and-telling. His reticence even applies when the  kissing happens to be on screen. Asked what it was like to  film Black Snake Moan’s opening raunchy sex scene with  Ricci, he protests that he’s ”not gonna answer those  questions…. Christina is hot, by the way. But, you know…”

He is also, obviously, someone who  believes in doing the right thing. And right now, that means  disappearing to hunt down our waitress and ensure that the  check has been taken care of, despite the 99.9 percent  chance that his publicist would have already done so.

When Timberlake reappears, he has a  big smile on his face. ”You missed something there, dude,”  he says. ”I was at the bar and this girl said to me, ‘Hey, I’m bringing sexy back.’ And you missed it! You’re a terrible journalist.”

”I’m joking,” Timberlake laughs.  ”I’m just breaking your balls…”

And the silly man disappears into the  Manhattan night. Laughing.

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