Justin Timberlake On Music, Comedy And Wearing Out His NPR T-Shirt

Oct 28, 2011
Originally published on October 30, 2011 8:23 am

It was almost two years ago now that Justin Timberlake, while filming The Social Network, cemented his place in the NPR collective heart by being photographed wearing our logo across his chest like a tattoo, only fabric, and temporary, and less painful. (Back then, by the way, that shirt wasn't in our shop. Now, you can have one! It's with our "best-sellers," even now.)

On Saturday's Weekends On All Things Considered, host Guy Raz talks to Timberlake about that shirt — as well as music, comedy, and his new film, In Time, in which he plays a man battling a dark future where time is traded as currency. According to Timberlake, the idea that the rich could literally buy life from the poor is particularly topical given the Occupy Wall Street movement and its concern with "separating class by wealth." But for the most part, he says he took the role because he admired the character — and all the cool stunts and beautiful women weren't a hardship, either.

Timberlake's movie career has been a little spotty, more so than his music career, but his prospects in acting took a giant leap forward when he played Sean Parker in 2010's The Social Network. The film was so important for him that Timberlake says he often tells friends his business card should say "[director] David Fincher Put Me In A Movie."

But music and serious acting aren't Justin Timberlake's only calling cards — they may, in fact, be secondary in his pop-culture ascendancy to his comedy work (much of which incorporates singing), including highly regarded hosting gigs on Saturday Night Live, hosting the ESPYs for ESPN, and appearances on Jimmy Fallon's Late Night that have, when posted online, turned into massive viral hits.

Being involved in comedy seems to come naturally, and he believes it does a lot to help people connect with you. "Comedy, in general, is the most disarming," he says. "It kind of breaks this wall down that I feel like people have because they have some perception of who you might be."

Speaking of perceptions: About that shirt. "I'm a big fan of many different programs on NPR," says Mr. Justin Timberlake,"so it wasn't because I thought it was hip. I actually am a really big fan." Despite the fact that this comment could be taken to mean he thinks NPR isn't hip, he follows by making the point that he's loved the shirt to the point of damage: "I have to get a new one. It's gotten some wear and tear. I actually wear it a lot."

And there you have it. Better to be utilitarian than to be hip.

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GUY RAZ, host: Our music segment today: the new Sinatra? Well, Justin Timberlake may very well be his generation's Sinatra or Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire.


JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) Don't be so quick to walk away, dance with me. I wanna rock your body, please stay.

RAZ: He sings, he dances, he acts, and in recent years, Justin Timberlake's made a name for himself in comedy bits on "Saturday Night Live." In last year's film, "The Social Network," he played Sean Parker, an early backer of Facebook, and Timberlake's portrayal earned him high praise from the critics. His new movie is a futuristic sci-fi thriller. It's called "In Time." Timberlake plays Will Salas. He's a man who is trapped in a world where no one ages past 25 years old and money can literally save your life. When he sat down with us recently, we asked him about his music, his life, and of course, his new film.

TIMBERLAKE: It's a future where time is the currency. You know, time is money and we're able to give that money back and forth.


TIMBERLAKE: (as Will Salas) A man named Henry Hamilton gave me over a century. He said he didn't need it anymore. It was a gift. I'm not a thief. But, hey, if you guys are looking for stolen time, maybe you should arrest everyone here.

And, you know, our life span's directly linked to a digital ticking clock that's on our left forearm. And when you run out of time, you die. It's about separating class by wealth.

RAZ: Justin Timberlake, this is really the first time that you have played the leading character in the film. What was that like for you? Was it difficult for you?

TIMBERLAKE: It's funny. When you're making a movie, you're obviously not as conscious of it. And then you screen the whole thing after they finish it and you become incredibly insecure because you're seeing your face the whole film. But I don't know. I think I wanted to play this character because I admired him. I admired his courage and his brass. So it was a lot of fun to play this character. I mean, look, you tack on getting to shoot guns and kick ass and kiss hot girls and you flip cars. And it's like every boyhood fantasy.

RAZ: Isn't that your real life though?


TIMBERLAKE: Yeah, yeah. I shoot guns at people. I try to get in a fight once a day and just randomly kiss as many women as possible. No. You know, I think it's every boyhood fantasy trapped into one film. So - I mean, I had a ball playing this character.

RAZ: Justin, the breakthrough role for you was the one you played in the film "Social Network" as Sean Parker. How much did that film open a whole new world for you?

TIMBERLAKE: Yeah. That's sort of my running joke with all of my closest friends is that I should have a business card that says David Fincher put me in a movie. No. I obviously saw that character on the page as sort of this kind of sociopath in a way. And I felt like the biggest trick that I could possibly pull off in playing that character was sort of, for as long as possible, make the audience question who they should side with. And I feel like my favorite villains in a way tend to do that. And I didn't necessarily see him as a villain. I thought he had a very clear-cut point of view. And, you know, when you walk away from that film, you still have to say, you know, without the character of Sean Parker in that movie, that company never reaches a billion dollars.


TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) I'm bringing sexy back, yeah, them other boys don't know how to act, yeah...

RAZ: Justin, I'm looking at a photograph that was taken of you for Vanity Fair. It ran over the summer. And you're in a hotel room, there's a beautiful woman behind you. Your tie is undone, and you're holding what looks like a glass of scotch, very sort of suave. And it just occurred to me that women like you, men like you. It seems like you don't have a problem being likable. And I'm wondering how much you think that has to do with the comedy that you've done.

TIMBERLAKE: I don't know. I just feel like there's something to be said about feeling comfortable with what you have and don't have. And - for instance, I don't think I'm particularly a great singer, but I feel like I write songs that complement my voice, you know, and I feel like it's unique. And I don't feel like I'm particularly a great actor, for instance, but I feel like I approach each thing that I do with some level of sensitivity. And I would say that comedy in general is the most disarming.


BOBBY MOYNIHAN: (as Immigrant #1) What about you, Cornelius Timberlake? What do you hope your great, great grandson will be like?

TIMBERLAKE: (as Cornelius Timberlake) I actually dream of a day when my great, great grandson will bring sexy back.

MOYNIHAN: (as Immigrant #1) Bring sexy back? What does that mean?

TIMBERLAKE: (as Cornelius Timberlake) It will be gone, and he'll bring it back.


TIMBERLAKE: Laughter can be - it kind of breaks this wall down that I feel like people have because they might have some perception of who you might be. And so, yeah, I guess I would definitely agree with you on that.

RAZ: There's a price to pay for it. I mean, you can't walk around Los Angeles or New York or you can't really have a normal day, can you?

TIMBERLAKE: I don't know. I mean, I feel like, you know, listen, I feel like I have normal days just like everybody else where I do walk around New York. And, let's be clear, no one walks around Los Angeles. We all drive. It's ridiculous. But, you know, for every sort of experience I have where you feel like you might be photographed in your free time or someone might recognize you, I have - I can add them up to days as well that you don't have that experience. And, I don't know, maybe it's just that those aren't as interesting to talk about.


TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) Take my order, 'cause your body's like a carry out. Let me walk it to your body 'til you hear me out. Turn me on, my baby, don't you cut me out. Turn me on, my baby, don't you cut me out. Take my order 'cause you're body's like a carry out.

RAZ: Justin, I know that you've been focusing on your acting career. You haven't had an album since 2006. But there is, as you may know, an online campaign. It's called Justin Timberlake Make Music Again. One of the YouTube clips has like 400,000 views. Do you know about this?

TIMBERLAKE: Yeah. I actually took to my Twitter to post it.

RAZ: So what do you think about that?

TIMBERLAKE: I thought it was very funny.

RAZ: Yeah. But, I mean, people really want this. And, of course, you know, you make your own choices, but does it ever factor into how you think about things? I mean, do you ever think, well, maybe I should start thinking about that again.

TIMBERLAKE: Yeah. I mean, I think, for me specifically when it comes to music, I don't think that I need any persuading to think about it. It's always kind of in the back of your mind and - but I think it's part of who I am and always will be, I mean, in a very cellular way. When you grow up doing, you know, one thing, I think you get to this place where you want to try new things. And, you know, I do think that we live in the type of world where people get comfortable with you in one way, and so seeing you in a different way, it takes some time.

RAZ: Yeah. Justin, last year, you did something for NPR that was more meaningful and valuable than 100 hours of me doing my show, which is you wore an NPR T-shirt, and it was photographed and published in a magazine. So I want to thank you for that.

TIMBERLAKE: Well, I told you, it wasn't because I thought it was hip. I actually am a really big fan.

RAZ: Well, by all means, wear that shirt as much as you want.

TIMBERLAKE: OK. I'll have to get a new one, you know. It's gotten some wear and tear. I actually wear it a lot, so...

RAZ: All right. Good. Just make sure you're photographed on those days.

TIMBERLAKE: Yeah. I'm not sure how to do that, but you have my word. If I happen to see someone photographing me, I won't cover up the logo.

RAZ: All right. That's actor and musician Justin Timberlake. His new movie, "In Time," is in theaters now. Justin, thank you so much.

TIMBERLAKE: No, my pleasure. Thank you.


TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) Don't fear me, baby. It's just Justin. It feel good, right? Listen, I kind of noticed from one night, in the club your front face. It's kind of weird to me that you're so fine. If it's up to me your face would change...

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Check out our weekly podcast, Best of Weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can find it at iTunes or at npr.org/weekendatc. And for audio outtakes from interviews on this program and previews of what's coming up, you can follow me on Twitter. That's @nprguyraz, spelled G-U-Y R-A-Z. We're back with a whole new hour of radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.