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Justin Timberlake doesn't watch a lot of TV but wants you to watch 'The Phone'

April 21, 2009 | 12:51 pm

Timberlake Justin Timberlake likes to make people squirm, and now MTV’s paying him to do it. Tonight, the network will premiere “The Phone,” a competition reality show blending elements of a citywide scavenger hunt with a Jason Bourne-style story. Timberlake serves as an executive producer.

Here’s how it works: Contestants get a call from a mysterious British voice, natch, who in the first episode instructs them on how to stop “a crazed bomber” and win $50,000. Explosions, (faux) drownings and hanging off the ledges of very tall buildings ensue.

But, but, you say, Timberlake hates all those reality shows running on MTV! What’s he thinking? Well, that’s true. He did. But that was two years ago. And seeing as he's now producing reality show, he’s had a change of heart.

Before we get to “The Phone,” tell me why you thought it would be a good fit for MTV:
It made sense. We cast young contestants and wanted people who watch MTV to watch the show. Obviously, the format of the network has changed, and I’ve had to come to grips with that …

MTV airs more reality shows than music videos, yes. It’s been that way for a long time, and you’ve been pretty outspoken about it.
Originally, we didn’t know which network was going to bite, and MTV came along and they were so gung-ho about it, and, you know, I have a long relationship with them, so I had to be like, ‘OK, so I’m going to have to take my foot out of my mouth now.’ I was the guy two years ago who did make that comment.[Specifically, during the 2007 VMAs, he said: "Play more damn videos. We don't want to see the Simpsons on reality television."] But, honestly, shortly after, I thought, ‘Maybe I need to lighten up?’ Maybe the music video is supposed to exist on the Internet and nowhere else. I accept the bullet, and I will bite it.

Do you watch a lot of TV?
You know I don’t get the opportunity to watch a lot of television. I do watch a lot of 'Sports Center.' That’s my show. My hours, when I’m working, will go from sunup to sundown. And when I’m not working, I’m probably outside on a golf course, so … no, I really don’t watch a lot of television (laughs).

Timberlake2 “The Phone” is the first series you’ve produced. Talk about why you’d want to get into TV seeing as how you’re not watching a whole lot of it.
It’s never really about the genre or focusing too much on the medium for me. I think it's more about having things pop up that you feel like you can lend your creativity to. And if you can have a stake in it, it’s obviously worth it. ‘The Phone’ came up and my team and I thought we could make it something special for American television. [The format already exists in Holland on Dutch television.] I just got really inspired by the idea.

How so?
Since I was a kid I always loved the idea of a scavenger hunt. One birthday my father did a scavenger hunt for me to find my birthday present all over town, and it was awesome. I love stuff like that. This show is like a scavenger hunt plus a spy movie where, to win, you have to face your worst fears.

How did that work when you were casting? Did the contestants know what they were getting into?
It’s kind of like the David Fincher film ‘The Game.’ We asked potential contestants a series of random questions to be on the show, but I don’t think they knew their answers were going to be so integral to what they'd be doing on the show, which is like a very physical scavenger hunt. We cast people who are gamers, people who weren’t going to sour up or become too afraid of the challenges. It is a physical show, and you also have to use your noodle. A lot.

What are the major differences between the Dutch version and your version of the series?
Ours is more stunt driven. The Dutch version also didn’t prey on people’s fears as much as we’re doing. In the premiere, which takes place in Seattle, you have the contestant who’s afraid of heights. Of course, we want to try and get him up on that Space Needle. [The producers and I] had fun going back and forth on what we could to do to scare the living … out of people, to force them to have to think in extreme situations. Thus far we really haven’t had anything that we’ve vetoed.

What’s going on on the music front? Are you working on a new album?
Well, I wrote and produced a song for T.I. and then did a couple of songs for Ciara, for her new record. Did some preliminary stuff with Leona Lewis. Produced a remix for Kings of Leon. I’m just doing things here and there. I have be honest, though, I kind of like this time right now because committing to a music project for myself means committing two years, probably more than that. Right now, things can pop up and I can work on a project and it doesn’t take six months to write and put it together. … The only way to put [an album] out, I think, is when you have something new to offer. When I’m there, it will probably come pouring out like the first two did.

— Denise Martin

Photo credit: Getty Images / Associated Press