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Justin Timberlake: I'm obviously not the best actor in the world

December 9, 2010 |  2:35 pm

He’s been a boy band phenom, has established his comedy bona fides as a “Saturday Night Live” skit-meister and was even considered, once upon a time in the mid-'00s, as heir apparent to Michael Jackson.

But as we write in a story in Sunday’s Calendar section, as Justin Timberlake makes the transition from music to acting, a new perception of Mr. SexyBack is emerging: leading man.

JT is coming off an acclaimed performance in “The Social Network" and has major parts in two upcoming movies:  the R-rated romantic comedy “Friends with Benefits,” opposite Mila Kunis, and the sci-fi thriller “Now,” directed by Andrew Niccol.

Reached last month on a day off from shooting the Fox film “Now,” Timberlake explained that roles as a singer selling out arenas and an actor starring in movies aren’t as dissimilar as you might think.

"In terms of process, it’s very similar to leading a tour,” he said of leading man duties. “You’re not just responsible for your performance. You’re responsible for leading morale. You’re responsible for the mood on set, the process that everyone has to go through. You’re responsible for everyone’s performance.”

He added: “At the end of the day, when they say ‘Action,’ it’s very similar to when the lights go down in the house. Eyes are directly on you and you’re responsible for making everything happen at that point.”

Set in a not-so-distant future when the gene that governs the human aging process has been turned off, “Now” also stars Amanda Seyfried as Timberlake’s love interest and Cillian Murphy as the heavy.

“The first half of the film is a drama. And then I kidnap Amanda’s character and the whole movie opens up into a wild chase,” Timberlake said. “Cillian's character is chasing us down.”

When it came to finding the right comedic tone for “Friends with Benefits,” meanwhile, JT exercised some of his newfound Hollywood clout with Sony Pictures head Amy Pascal. He recalled reasoning with the studio boss to reboot its script in pursuit of a harder-edged brand of humor,  negotiations that resulted in Pascal granting Timberlake and writer-director Will Gluck (“Easy A”) what the singer-actor described as “authorship of humor and tone” on the movie.

“I said to Amy, ‘I’m sorry but as a viewer, I don’t want to walk into a movie called ‘Friends with Benefits’ and see the PG-13 version,’ ” he recalled. “For me, you can’t have a movie like that without embracing what the title is.”

“We were like, ‘Give us our stab to do our take with it.’ She was totally cool with that. We found a lot of humor with that and it became a driving force.”

Pascal could barely contain her enthusiasm after making three consecutive movies -– “The Social Network,” “Friends with Benefits” and the 2011 comedy “Bad Teacher” -- with Timberlake.

“He’s got charisma. He’s funny. He’s sexy,” Pascal said. “He is self-effacing, he works really hard and sets an amazing example for everyone else. And he’s a star -– unabashedly a big-time movie star.”

That may be the outward perception in the film industry -- at least, to judge from the cavalcade of Hollywood honchos who spoke for our Calendar story. But the entertainer explained he feels he has to “work harder to be an actor” than a singer because music comes so naturally to him. Moreover, he acknowledged his creative limitations.

"I don't think I'm the most talented," Timberlake said. "I don't think I'm the best singer, songwriter, producer and I'm obviously not the best actor. But I found a way to have a voice. Once I have something, then I know that I have the ability to communicate it."

Not that JT is singing, er, "Cry Me a River," about his movie-star status. "Honestly man, it’s fun to feel like the rookie,” Timberlake said. “I embrace it. It’s not dissimilar to how I’ve felt for my whole career. I’ve always felt like the rookie.”

-- Chris Lee

Photo: Justin Timberlake Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times