This 11-year-old quote is the key to Justin Timberlake's surprising acting career
The pop star still isn't a movie star. That's okay.
Justin Timberlake "will never be a movie star." That was the blistering verdict of Hollywood's top trade publication, Variety, in 2013, when writer Ramin Setoodeh practically begged the singer to give up on acting. "An artist who can rock the MTV Video Music Awards like Timberlake doesn't need a second mediocre career," Setoodeh's reasoning went.
Timberlake didn't take the advice — though now, almost eight years later, Setoodeh has proven to be right. Timberlake is not a movie star, despite working with titans of the industry: David Fincher, Woody Allen, the Coen Brothers, Jonathan Demme, and, with the release of Palmer on Apple TV+ on Friday, an Oscar-winning producer, Fisher Stevens. But Variety had one thing wrong back in 2013, too: Timberlake never intended to become a "movie star," and you can't judge his acting career without first and foremost understanding what he set out to do.
Conveniently, Timberlake all but stated what his intentions were back in 2010. Speaking with Parade in the weeks before the release of The Social Network — the film that, for many cinephiles, would put him on the map as a serious actor to watch thanks to his memorable portrayal of Napster founder Sean Parker — the former-boy-band-singer-turned-successful-solo-artist said he wasn't seeking out fame or money with his pursuits on the big screen. "I'm ... extremely aware of the perception of me as an artist," Timberlake told the magazine 11 years ago, adding: "That's why I chose the smaller films that I've done. I thought that I'd rather have the experience of the process from people who are really respected and admired, and characters that I can really dive into, rather than cash in, so to speak."
Timberlake was 29 at the time of the quote; this weekend, he turns 40. It would have been fully understandable if he'd been speaking at the time with a youthful idealism about his art, only for him to pragmatically pursue more lucrative gigs once becoming a husband and father of two. But over the last decade, Timberlake remarkably hasn't wavered from his intentions with acting, and his emphasis on working with people he admires on projects he's passionate about. He is considered and deliberate in his choice of films; Palmer is his first live-action role since 2017's Wonder Wheel, and before that he hadn't acted in a movie since 2013's Inside Llewyn Davis, a pickiness that nearly rivals Daniel Day-Lewis'. Aside from maybe the Trolls soundtrack — which is hardly an unusual partnership for a celebrity musician — you can't accuse Timberlake of selling out anything other than concerts.
Timberlake's resistance to the Hollywood movie star machine is part of what makes him an unconventional actor, and mystifying to critics who don't understand his perceived lack of ambition. Back around the time that Variety was excoriating the actor, other industry experts also expressed concern that without accepting a macho, action hero role in a movie, his only appeal would be with fawning, former *NSYNC fans. As a publicist told Vulture in 2010, Timberlake "seems like a guy only women respond to, not a guy's guy … I have my doubts that guys will respond to him as a leading man." Box Office Guru's Gitesh Pandya expressed similar concerns about Timberlake's choice of roles. "[H]e needs to work on getting the male audience to be a really big star," Pandya told The Wall Street Journal. "Males can't look at him as a teenybopper heartthrob who grew up. He needs to almost be a macho action star if he wants to be another Will Smith." Beyond the sexist undertones-that-are-barely-undertones of such quotes, the unspoken assumption is that Timberlake should want to be another Will Smith.
But it's been the sensitive, quieter, and emotionally complex characters that have attracted Timberlake. In his first major on-screen role in Alpha Dog in 2006 — a movie best remembered today for the distinction of dropping the eighth most F-bombs in film history — Timberlake played a goofy, sympathetic stoner who tragically gets involved in the murder of a 15-year-old. At the time, On Milwaukee felt the need to caution in its review of Alpha Dog that "to write off this film because of the fact that Timberlake stars would be horribly wrong." In truth, he ends up being the wrenching moral heart of the story. Likewise, in his latest film, Palmer, Timberlake plays an ex-convict whose rough edges hide his heart of gold; he ends up taking in a young boy after the child's mother abandons him. Though Timberlake has appeared in a number of genres, from rom-com to crime to sci-fi thriller to sports drama, his commitment to troubled nice-guy characters is unusual for Hollywood. Even Mark Ruffalo, who shares a spot on the shelf of sensitive male actors, still eventually played the Hulk.
Instead, Timberlake puts his time into nourishing his interest in acting as an art, and finding filmmakers who will respect it. That doesn't always end in triumph; his highest-rated movie on Rotten Tomatoes is a concert film, perhaps somewhat of a testament to his risk taking. Still, at a glance, his filmography looks like a passport of stopovers with some of the best directors in the business. What makes Timberlake's "film tourism" work — rather than come across as a vanity project — is that he's a good enough actor to actually earn his roles. It's not unusual for him to end up the best part of both mediocre and brilliant movies. "No one had to audition more or work harder than Justin to get into [The Social Network]," Aaron Sorkin told The Agency. "We were putting together a very balanced ensemble cast, and to parachute this international superstar into the middle, we were concerned that it might be a problem." Timberlake, on his own talent, assured that it wasn't.
Still, he's not been faultless in his journey. There's the fact that Runner Runner exists. And Timberlake's judgement can sometimes be questionable: he controversially chose to work with Woody Allen on Wonder Wheel, paid tribute to his former collaborator Michael Jackson in his concert film Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, and had to issue a public apology to his wife, Jessica Biel, after he was caught holding hands with his Palmer co-star Alisha Wainwright — not to mention his role in Janet Jackson's infamous 2004 Super Bowl halftime "wardrobe malfunction." But Timberlake would be the first to tell you that he's still finding his way. Despite 15 on-and-off years in Hollywood, he characterized Palmer to The New Yorker as his "first real 'this is your movie' experience."
If Timberlake wanted to be a movie star, he could have had that experience a long time ago. But he's not interested in milking his reputation as a pop celebrity just to have his name hung in lights on a different kind of venue. Timberlake acts for the love of the art; it's clear in his performances, from his infectious Sean Parker to his man-of-few-words in Palmer. "I don't necessarily crave to be a movie star," Timberlake expanded to MTV in 2010, in yet another quote that let his critics know, firmly, where he stands. "I just want to be an actor."
Eleven years on, it's unquestionable to say that he is.