“I’m cool right now because I’m a nerd,” Justin Timberlake quips.
Frankly, I was expecting a wilder spirit from the man, who tore part of Janet Jackson’s outfit exposing her bosoms before 140 million viewers worldwide at the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show, when I met him in a Beverly Hills hotel. But softly-spoken, his blond hair short and curly, his blue shirt buttoned up, a Cartier watch strapped around his wrist, Timberlake has a palpable nerdy edge to his personality.
“I had a lot of fun doing the job that I have wanted to do my whole life, but I’m in a place in my life where things are different for me. My version of wild is not what it was,” the 30-year-old laughs.
Irrespective of how wild he was, the success of the recording artist and songwriter in music and TV was beyond his wildest dreams. He has won six Grammy Awards as well as two Emmy Awards. His first two albums, Justified and FutureSex/LoveSounds, made him one of the most commercially successful singers in the world, each selling in excess of seven million copies.
“I had a thing about my twenties that was kind of like I wanted to do as much as I could. I look at it now and say I don’t necessarily need to do everything. I don’t need to be validated by some huge album or some huge movie, which is a great place to be at such a young age and I can make choices that are more for myself and are interesting to me.”
In fact, Timberlake hasn’t released an album since 2006 and has no plans to release one in the near future, prompting pundits to wonder whether he has abandoned music for acting.
“I didn’t stop doing music,” he exclaims. “I just started doing other things. I am a male; I am not good at doing a lot of things at the same time. It’s easier for me to focus,” he laughs.
Nonetheless, Timberlake continues to write songs all the time. “I love making music. I just don’t feel a need for every song that I write to be heard by the world. I have a piano and a guitar in my house, and wake up and fiddle around with melodies. It’s part of who I am, but where it becomes a business and where it becomes what I do, that’s not who I am and I don’t want that to define who I am. I like having a relationship with music that stays pretty pure.”
Listening to Timberlake, one senses his disenchantment with the music business that embraced him and showered him with accolades.
“I’ve always thought the music business was weird, but it doesn’t take away from my joy of making music. You have to be able to detach from the business of it because otherwise you will be overwhelmed by everyone telling you how good or bad you are.”
Hailing from Millington, Tennessee, the solo artist actually began his career acting in the TV show “The Mickey Mouse Club,” at the age of thirteen. Only after the conclusion of the show in 1995, he was recruited to sing in the N Sync boy band, which elevated him to music stardom. Hence he considers it natural to return to acting, which he always wanted to do and still finds inspiring and exciting.
“I started as an actor,” he stresses. “I haven’t put out an album in five years so I do these things because I’m inspired to do them and that’s an amazing place to be so how could you not be excited about that?”
His acting career hasn’t reached the spectacular heights of his music career yet, but seemingly is firmly on the ascent. Last year, he acted in the multi-award winner, The Social Network, and recently has completed three movies, among them the comedy The Bad Teacher, in which he plays a geeky teacher, Scott, opposite his former girlfriend Cameron Diaz, who portrays a foul-mouthed, wild teacher who falls in love with him and ruthlessly competes with another teacher (Lucy Punch) for his affection.
Timberlake was initially apprehensive to sign on for The Bad Teacher, but he got excited when he learned about Diaz’s involvement in the project.
“I just happen to like the girl,” he laughs. “We still love and respect each other just in a different form. There was no weird process that we had to go through for this to be comfortable for the both of us, but specifically for me it was definitely a benefit. I think it takes a huge amount of chemistry to create characters that have absolutely no chemistry.”
But reading the script, Timberlake couldn’t connect with or understand Scott’s character, finding him weird and uninteresting. Only after a second read, could he see a ground to infuse the character with more energy and colour it with subtle humour.
“After rehearsing it, I felt like we found a good rhythm to what Scott wasn’t versus what I thought he was. What he wasn’t was so much more interesting to me because that way you could kind of make these weird funny choices and not have to answer for them. There was really no consequence to playing that character. He kind of just floats though the movie and I wanted that to be really subtle and not over the top.”
Although Timberlake holds great admiration for teachers and believes that they are underpaid and unrewarded for their noble job, he can’t tolerate being around kids more than an hour or two. He has also never attended high school, because at the age of 15 he was already a celebrity and hence was home-schooled by the best tutors.
“I had a really privileged, interesting high school experience without going to high school, because I was touring the world and seeing the places and getting a real life geography and cultural lesson about history and life at a very young age.”
Indeed, Timberlake has lived and continues to live a privileged life, blessed with immense success, endowed with international fame, gilded with huge fortune and embellished by the hottest dates in the world. But like all those who reach worldly heights, the superstar is looking inward, seeking inner peace and fulfilment.
“I’ve had a very cool life so far and I feel like I’m just getting started to be honest with you. On the macro level, I’ve been part of some really amazing moments but I think what’s kind of exciting me is the micro things of life, like the little things, and so this is what’s fulfilling me right now.”
Although the singer-turned-actor talks passionately about music, I sense that he is eager to give his acting, which is often overlooked or is overshadowed by his incandescent music career, more prominence and receive more recognition for it. Frustrated by the repeated questions about his return to music, he, at one stage, asked, “Is that why you guys still don’t think I’m an actor?”
Even after listening for more than an hour to Timberlake, I couldn’t figure out where his heart truly lies? So before we parted, I press on him one more time. “Justin, what comes first: acting or music?” I asked.
“Music,” he stuttered following a brief contemplative pause.