'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Justin Timberlake ('Trolls')

THR Justin Timberlake_160711_THR_SWRT_JustinTimberlake_0172 - THR - H 2016
Miller Mobley

"I always test my music on my friends, and the reaction that I got from them was like, 'You have to put this out now,'" says Justin Timberlake of his song "Can't Stop the Feeling!," which he wrote and performed for DreamWorks Animation's Trolls (in which he also voices a principal character), as we sit down in his bungalow at Hollywood's Chateau Marmont to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's "Awards Chatter" podcast. RCA, Timberlake's record label, agreed with his friends, and DWA OK'd releasing the song in May, well ahead of the film's November release, in the hope that it would become one of the songs of the summer and fuel anticipation for the film. "We had wanted it to work inside the plot, but we couldn't make it so theatrical and literal that it didn't work on its own, because we wanted it to work on its own, as well," Timberlake explains.

And did it ever. The sunny, disco-infused jam about happiness proved to be the best-selling single of 2016 and one of the biggest hits of 35-year-old Timberlake's illustrious 25-year career. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It since has reached No. 1 in 17 other countries. It was nominated for the best original song Critics' Choice Award and is nominated for the best original song Golden Globe Award and the best song written for visual media Grammy Award. In January, it may well bring Timberlake his first best original song Oscar nomination.

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Timberlake, widely regarded as one of the greatest all-around entertainers in the history of show business — a first-rate singer, dancer and actor — was born in Memphis, "home of the blues, birthplace of rock 'n' roll," and raised middle class in rural Tennessee. His mother, "a really good tap dancer," and his father, "a really good singer," divorced when he was young, and he split his time between them. He already was an avid class clown and church singer when he discovered a vinyl of Queen's "A Night at the Opera" at his father's place, spending a full night listening to it on a loop and deciding that he wanted to spend his life making music like that. Both parents encouraged his passion, and his mother took him to the mall when he was 10 to participate in a nationwide talent search for TV's Star Search. He got picked, so they went to Orlando in 1993, where he performed, for the first time, in front of the world. He lost in the first round, but the wheels were in motion.

On the car ride back from Florida to Tennessee, Timberlake and his mother were staying in a motel and watching the TV when they heard about an open-call audition for The All New Mickey Mouse Club, so they changed their plans and headed to that. "They were trying to find triple-threats," he says, and out of 15,000 applicants, he was among the roughly 20 who were picked to head to Orlando to appear on the show; others included Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Ryan Gosling and Keri Russell. "We were really young," he says, noting that, over the course of two seasons before the show was canceled, they had a lot of fun together and got an invaluable education in how to perform in front of both a live studio audience and a camera.

"It was weird," Timberlake says of the period immediately after Mickey Mouse Club, during which he was trying to figure out his next move, while also going through puberty. "Music came easier to me, so I didn't take it as seriously," he explains. "I wanted something that was challenging, and I found acting and everything that I could explore with that to be more challenging." Therefore, he and his mother began making plans to go out to Los Angeles during pilot season — plans that were interrupted when another kid named Chris Kirkpatrick, who had the same commercial agent as Timberlake, reached out about starting a boy band together. Timberlake already had been writing music with Mickey Mouse Club friend J.C. Chasez, so the three decided to give it a shot. That meant another trip to Orlando, where they and their parents — joined by Joey Fatone and Lance Bass and their parents — met with the manager Lou Pearlman, who "had a proven track record" with The Backstreet Boys and wanted to fund and manage them as well. Thus, in 1995, NSync was born.

It took three years before NSync released any music. "[Pearlman] let us kind of form ourselves and find our identity," Timberlake says, adding, "The first thing we wanted to be was an a capella group." But in 1998, when they released their first, self-titled album, it exploded, selling 11 million copies and making them — especially Timberlake — the obsession of teenyboppers the world over. "It was a jarring change for me personally," he says. "I look back at that time and it was like nothing could go wrong. We were all kids in a candystore. I mean, I bought my first house before I bought my first car." He adds, "But I do think the thing that centered us was we really cared about being good." Over the ensuing three years, the group played a ton of shows, put out two more albums (three if you count a Christmas special) and charted a plethora of hits ("Bye Bye Bye" "It's Gonna Be Me," "Tearin' Up My Heart," "This I Promise You" and the list goes on).

But after putting out their third album in 2001, Timberlake says, they amicably decided to go their separate ways. "We had all come to a place, I feel like, where I think people wanted to try different things, you know," he says. "It's that thing like when you get out of high school and you're like, 'What do I want to major in in college?' Except we were like in the biggest group in the world at the time. I just remember saying, 'I want to continue,' but I knew I had something that I wanted to do that, quite honestly, I didn't think any of them would be interested in doing. At that time, I don't think they were interested in making that type of music. I wanted to make something that was different from what we had done." He adds, "I think the world of those four guys."

In 2002, Timberlake released his first solo album, Justified, which he put together in partnership with Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo and Timbaland. It included "Cry Me a River," which proved to be the No. 3 song of the year, as well as "Rock Your Body," and firmly established him as a force to be reckoned with. Four years later, his second solo album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, was an even bigger hit, thanks in no small part to "Sexyback." But after its release, Timberlake didn't put out additional music for another seven years, until 2013's The 20/20 Experience. He explains, "FutureSex/LoveSounds was such a statement for me — you know, three or four No. 1's in a row — and it felt like I had to walk away from it for a second because I didn't want to get poisioned by outside influences. And the other thing that seemed so pure to me was exploring drama and comedy as an actor."

That same year, Timberlake appeared in Nick Cassavetes' Sundance drama Alpha Dog, Richard Kelly's 2006 comedy Southland Tales and Craig Brewer's 2006 drama Black Snake Moan, more than holding his own alongside a host of top young actors. He also made — in partnership with The Lonely Island, for Saturday Night Live — a hilarious parody of the music videos he used to make: "Dick in a Box," which became one of the internet's first viral sensations and brought him an Emmy for best original music and lyrics. Timberlake's cred as an actor was strong enough that, not long after, David Fincher, the most exacting of directors, cast him as internet entrepreneur Sean Parker in the 2010 drama The Social Network.

Many questioned his casting, and not for the first time  — "I think that I maybe subconsciously have used skepticism and criticism and other people to fuel myself and to validate myself," he confesses — but the film landed a best picture Oscar nomination and proved beyond any doubt that Timberlake is indeed an actor. Since then he's generally been cast in big parts in popcorn movies (in 2011 alone, he starred in the comedy Bad Teacher, the rom-com Friends With Benefits and the sci-fi thriller In Time) or smaller parts in dramas (such as Clint Eastwood's Trouble With the Curve in 2012 and Ethan and Joel Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis in 2013). But he's hungry for more — he'll be starring in a Woody Allen comedy in 2017 — and says he's every bit as happy when he's acting as when he's singing.

For Trolls, Timberlake got to do both. Jeffrey Katzenberg, who then was the head of DreamWorks Animation and whose 2007 film Shrek 3 included Timberlake as a voice actor, urged him to join the project as both a voice star and the executive producer of its music, meaning he would curate a number of pop-song covers and come up with four original songs of his own. He agreed to do it largely because he and his wife, Jessica Biel, have a young child who might enjoy it — Silas Randall Timberlake is 2 — and because he was excited about what he could do with it. "I felt like, 'We're not gonna treat this like it's just a kids' musical. We're gonna treat this with the same care that Grease was treated with,'" he recalls. He had recently reconnected with Max Martin, the esteemed Stockholm-based songwriter-producer with whom he'd last partnered during the NSync era, as well as Denniz Pop, and he suggested a collaboration on Trolls. "The more we investigated doing this together, the more we were like, 'You know what? We'll have a lot of fun doing this.' And it felt like less pressure."

"Can't Stop the Feeling!," which Timberlake co-wrote with Martin and another Swede, Karl Johan Schuster (aka Shellback), posed the project's greatest challenge. "It had to fit into a specific place, a specific mood, a specific type of melody and sentiment and with a lyric that could talk to the character moment," Katzenberg recently said. "It's inconceivable to me that it worked." Timberlake acknowledges that "it was a real challenge. I've never had to go in and write a song with that much pretense." He adds, "We knew we had to write a song about capturing the feeling of happiness and how it's accessible for all of us — all you have to do is look in the mirror or turn on your favorite song. There's so many different ways to do it. Internally, we all have it."

Timberlake knows of what he speaks, especially of late. "My life has changed a lot in the last three or four years," he says in reference to becoming a husband and father. "Having a child — it just changes you. I used to feel like when I would go to sleep, 'What did I achieve today?' And now I feel like when I go to sleep, 'What did I appreciate about today?' That's obviously a different place to be. And, to be honest, what it does is it reinvigorates you in a totally different way. And the funny thing is, I feel like I'm just coming into my own. I really do." He adds with a smile, "I'm excited. I want to make a ton of movies, and I want to make a ton of music. There's nothing else in the world that I could do."