This interview was originally broadcast on Oct. 6, 2010.
Justin Timberlake has come a long way from the first time he stepped on a stage at the age of 8.
"My mother sort of makes this joke that she's surprised that I know what she looks like, because up until I ... first stepped onto a stage, all I did was look down at my feet," Timberlake explains. "As soon as I discovered the stage, it brought out a lot in me that I didn't know I had. And it did it at a very young age, and it was one of the most fun things that I could ever do."
The versatile performer has since proven that he can sing — he has produced several hit solo albums, including Justified and FutureSex/LoveSounds — after leading the 1990s boy band 'N Sync to become the third-highest selling boy band of all time. And he has demonstrated his acting chops, performing in both comedic and dramatic roles.
Several digital shorts from his appearances on Saturday Night Live, including "Dick in a Box" and "Motherlover," have become viral Internet sensations, while his performance as Napster founder Sean Parker in David Fincher's The Social Network was lauded by both The New York Times and The New Yorker; in the latter, David Denby wrote that Timberlake's "charm and physical dynamism ... torque the movie even higher."
Timberlake's success on the stage started when he was just 11 years old. He appeared on Star Search, then successfully auditioned for a part on the Disney Channel series The New Mickey Mouse Club alongside future stars Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and JC Chasez, who would become his bandmate in 'N Sync.
"When you're a kid and things like that happen, and it happens so fast, you can't help but feel like something great was happening for you," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "But I look back on it and I think it was more of a fluke than anything."
From The New Mickey Mouse Club, Timberlake went to 'N Sync, eventually performing at the Oscars, the World Series, the Super Bowl and the Olympics — and recording with Aerosmith, Michael Jackson, Elton John and Celine Dion, among others. From there he launched a solo career, releasing hits "Rock Your Body," "My Love" and "SexyBack," which became his first No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 and won Best Dance Recording at the 2007 Grammy Awards.
Timberlake tells Terry Gross that he isn't exactly sure where the lyric "I'm bringing sexy back" came from — and that he occasionally regrets writing it that way.
"People feel like it's an extension of who I am, but ... when I get the opportunity to tell them I was playing a character, sometimes they get it and sometimes they don't," he says. "For whatever reason, when we started recording it, I wanted the vocal to almost slap you in the face. I wanted it to sound distorted. ... Originally the song wasn't going to be called that. ... I thought that was too on the nose. [But] the more I played it for people around me, that's what they called it."
Timberlake says that in spite of his achievements — he has earned six Grammys and two Emmys, among other accolades — he still attributes the bulk of his success to his mother, who made sure he was comfortable and aware of his place in the world.
"I remember her saying, 'If you have the ability to do something, one or two things great, it doesn't mean that you're a better person than anyone else.' And I think I've held onto that," he says.
What matters more to him than trophies, he says, are "comments from people who say, 'You've helped me through a rough time,' or [people] saying that you made them laugh or something — that something you did was great, rather than materialistic awards or things like that."
On playing Sean Parker, the founder of Napster
"All of the actors in the film, we didn't know much about any of these guys. We came to these people as characters. Our first introduction to these people was the really layered and well-researched and specific characterization of them by [screenwriter] Aaron Sorkin. I know he had done a lot of research, but there was a book [called The Accidental Billionaires] that was being written by Ben Mezrich at the same time that Aaron was doing his research for the film, and I know that [Ben] did speak to a lot of people. Their only condition was they got to keep their anonymity. So none of us really asked questions about who or what he talked to, or about, with anyone — but he was very adamant about a lot of the research, even details about what they may have been drinking in a certain scene. ... [It] was all accounted for by his research."
On doing comedy
"I've always thought that there was humor everywhere. As a kid, I grew up an only child, and nothing made me happier than to make my parents laugh. ... I had a Jackson 5 wig that I would wear around, and I would do the dances from the Jackson 5, and my mother thought that was hysterical. Of course, that seed got planted very early, the physicality of comedy. When I was a kid, I would impersonate anything that I would hear. [That's] why I was able to become a musician and a singer. What I was more talented at, more than anything — because I don't think I'm a great singer — I grew up imitating different voices that I heard, and when I was young my mother used to listen to a lot of a Southern rock station in Memphis, and I grew up imitating all of those voices that I heard when I was young."
On the song "Dick in a Box" from Saturday Night Live
"The weird thing about the digital shorts that I've done with Andy [Samberg] and the Lonely Island guys is that we wrote this song in a delirium of no sleep on a Wednesday or Thursday of the week. We recorded it that night, and we were laughing so hysterically — and probably through the delirium of trying to write something so funny, this came out of it. We knew it would be funny on some level, because we were laughing with each other on the Friday we filmed the video. And then on Saturday they edited it, and Saturday night it was put out on television. ... We weren't parodying anyone in particular. I think the style in which we were doing the song was early-'90s R&B, so when we had that as a basis, we said, 'How ridiculous can we make this?' Because then at that point, it's just about making it as funny as possible."
On The New Mickey Mouse Club
"I got a callback and went to a casting camp, where all the kids who were sort of spawned out of that show, we met for the first time. Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera and Ryan Gosling — there were 21 kids who were whittled down from 20,000 [kids] that they had done auditions with all over the country. Out of those 21 kids, seven of us were picked to be the new part of the cast."
On 'N Sync
"Everything that we did was based around a cappella harmonies. That's what we wanted to be in the beginning — an a cappella group. So that is why we put five guys in the group. When we were forming the group, there wasn't a boy-band phenomenon. Nirvana and Pearl Jam were probably the top two acts in the world at the time, so we never knew at what capacity everything was going to work out for us. I don't think we thought it was going to be as big as it became.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Justin Timberlake at age 32 is a multimedia star performer. In movies he's gotten critical acclaim as a dramatic actor in "The Social Network" and elsewhere. On television, he's one of the all-time best hosts of "Saturday Night Live" and has just completed a week of appearance on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon."
In 2011, he landed on the international best-dressed list. And in music, where he first made his mark as a singer, he's released a new album called "The 20/20 Experience." Here's the hit single, "Suit and Tie."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUIT AND TIE")
JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) I can't wait 'til I get you on the floor, good-looking, going out so hot, just like an oven. And I'll burn myself, but just had to touch it. It's so fly and it's all mine. Hey baby, we don't mind all the watching 'cause if they study close, real close, they might learn something. She ain't nothing but a little doozy when she does it. She's so fly tonight.
(Singing) And as long as I've got my suit and tie I'mma leave it all on the floor tonight and you got fixed up to the nines. Let me show you a few things all pressed up in black and white and you're dressed in that dress I like. Love is swinging in the air tonight. Let me show you a few things. Let me show you a few things, show you a few things about love. While we're in the swing of love let me show you a few things...
BIANCULLI: Justin Timberlake got his first taste of pop stardom as one of the young performers on Disney Channel's "The New Mickey Mouse Club," along with Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Ryan Gosling. He hit the top of the pop charts as a member of the boy band 'N Sync then went solo as a singer in 2002.
He's hosted "Saturday Night Live" five times now. When Terry Gross spoke to Justin Timberlake in 2010, she asked him about one of his memorable appearances on that show, in a music video that soon went viral.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
So there's a "Saturday Night Live" song I want to ask you about, and this song is just so famous now. And I can't really say the full title of the song, but this is something that you did with Andy Samberg. And it's a parody of those narcissistic songs and videos in which the male singer thinks that the greatest gift he could give to a lady is his very special lovemaking.
GROSS: So this song and video is about...
TIMBERLAKE: That was very eloquently put.
Thank you, thank you. This song and video is about presenting his girlfriend - I think it was right before Christmas that you did this. So the song and video is about presenting his girlfriend with his manhood in a gift-wrapped box. And it's the kind of song where the singer is singing about how great he is, not how much he loves his girlfriend but really how much he loves himself.
TIMBERLAKE: Right. Right.
GROSS: And this became one of the most-viewed online things. It just went viral. So before we hear it, just tell us about writing this and performing it. It's so much fun. Go ahead.
TIMBERLAKE: The weird thing about the couple of things, digital shorts that I've done with Andy and the Lonely Island guys is that it really - you know, for instance, we wrote this song in a delirium of no sleep on a Wednesday or Thursday of the week.
And then we recorded it that night, and we were laughing so hysterically and like I said before, probably through the delirium of not being able to sleep and trying to write something funny, this came out of it. And we knew it would be funny on some level because we were laughing with each other on the Friday that we filmed the video.
And then Saturday morning, they edited it, and Saturday - or Saturday night, it was put out on television. So interestingly enough, how you described, that these guys were so self-absorbed that there could never be a question in their mind that this wasn't the greatest Christmas gift of all time, and...
GROSS: Aren't there just, like, so many songs, performers who seem to be that?
TIMBERLAKE: Well, maybe it's maybe the song is funny to people because it speaks so much to the male population and how self-absorbed we all are.
GROSS: So did you started performing when you were so young. I mean, if you go on the Internet, people can see you at age 11 on "Star Search," singing a Country and Western song. So, like, whose idea was it to start performing on TV that young? Was it you? Was it your parents?
TIMBERLAKE: I no, I always as soon as I sort of discovered the stage, I think that it just brought out a lot of - a lot in me that I didn't know that I had. And it did it at a very young age, and it was one of the most fun things that I could ever do.
You know, I begged my mother for voice lessons and guitar lessons and anything I could do to sort of - I wanted to be really good at it. I wanted to learn how to do it the right way. I wanted to - I knew that I had a good ear, and my father, my biological father, has an amazing voice, and music kind of runs in my family. But I knew that there was a sort of a right way to sing, and I wanted to learn that.
GROSS: So your grandfather was a Baptist minister, and I think your father now directs a church choir. Did you - was the church your first stage?
TIMBERLAKE: It was. It was, actually. It was - well, my father doesn't do that anymore.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
TIMBERLAKE: But he did at the time when I was very young. But yeah, it was the first time I had sort of stepped onstage to sing, and I don't know if you know much about sort of a Southern Baptist church. But no one puts in a bad performance there, you know.
TIMBERLAKE: It's a very nurturing place to step on the stage and sing because even if you're really bad, people still say amen at the end, and...
GROSS: So what did you sing?
TIMBERLAKE: I can't remember what the songs were. I think there was something from the hymnal that I sang with my father, and I sang the harmony to something that he was singing. And that was my first sort of...
GROSS: Oh, of course. So you learned to harmonize in the church. That would make sense.
TIMBERLAKE: Right. I learned to harmonize listening to a choir sing, you know, three and four-part harmonies. And so that's kind of where I got my ear from. But yeah, like I said, that's a very nurturing place to step onstage because you don't, no one's going to get booed at church.
GROSS: So I watched the clip of you at age 11 on "Star Search" with Ed McMahon, and some really interesting things about that include that you're singing a country song, and you're dressed in kind of, you know, country clothing with the country kind of belt and the hat. And the dancers that...
TIMBERLAKE: I appreciate you reminding me of all this.
GROSS: You're welcome, yes.
GROSS: But, you know, I love, like, kiddie talent shows because what always happens on those is that the children are coached by older people to perform like performers from older generations. And there's always some, like, really weird disconnect to see, like, a 10-year-old pretending like he's Sammy Davis or something, you know.
TIMBERLAKE: Right, right, right, a 10-year-old pretending like he's Alan Jackson.
GROSS: Exactly, thank you, yeah. So what was that like for you, I mean, to...
TIMBERLAKE: Well, it was a very surreal experience. I auditioned for that show in a mall in Memphis, Tennessee, at an open-call audition. And I mean, it was a line, you know, at that time "Star Search" was our version of "American Idol." It was the biggest talent show in the world.
And I got booked on the show, and I was at Disney World, and I was 10, and, you know, I mean, it was like, it was a big deal for me. And I if not for anything, I had a blast at the theme parks, so...
GROSS: Okay, well, speaking of Disney World, you went on to be on "The New Mickey Mouse Club," and what was the audition for that like?
TIMBERLAKE: The Disney MGM Studios, where "Star Search" was filmed, was a double soundstage and next door to the soundstage of "Star Search" was the Disney Channel's New MMC.
So the serendipity of it is I lost the first round on "Star Search," and we were on our way home, and there was an open-call audition in Hendersonville, Tennessee, and it just came on the television in between commercials. And it said open-call audition at this place for the Disney Channel's MMC, and my mom said, do you want to give it a go before we go home? We're just going home.
So I went in and auditioned for it and then got a callback and went to sort of a casting camp of like a week period of casting camp where, you know, all the kids who were sort of spawned out of that show, we met for the first time: Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera and Ryan Gosling.
And there were 21 kids who were whittled down by I think 20,000 that they had done auditions with all over the country. And out of those 21 kids, I think seven of us were picked to be the new part of the cast.
And when you're a kid and things like that happen and happen so fast, you know, you can't help but feel like, you know, something great was happening for you. But I look back on it and I think it was more of a fluke than anything.
GROSS: So after a couple of seasons on "The Mickey Mouse Club," you ended up being in one of the famous boy bands, 'N Sync. Did that feel like a totally synthetic, or did it feel more organic as a group?
TIMBERLAKE: Well, everything that we did was based around a cappella harmonies. That's what we wanted to be in the beginning. We sort of wanted to be an a cappella group, and so that was why we put five guys in the group. And when we were forming the group, there wasn't a boy band phenomenon.
You know, Nirvana was - and Pearl Jam were the, were probably the top two acts in the world at the time. And, you know, we never knew at what capacity everything was going to work out for us. I don't think that we thought it was going to be as big as it became.
BIANCULLI: Justin Timberlake, speaking to Terry Gross in 2010. We'll continue their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2010 interview with performer Justin Timberlake. He's just released his first solo album in seven years called "The 20/20 Experience" and has confirmed that before the year is out, he'll release a companion volume.
GROSS: You've talked a little bit about singing and learning to sing when you were young. What about dancing? Like, did you study dancing? Did you study with break dancers or with more traditional choreographers?
TIMBERLAKE: I wish that I would've taken more - I guess there's still time - but I wish that I would've taken more technical dance. I never - I've taken a couple of technical dance classes, but I learned more how to dance just as a product of watching MTV and being around, like you said, break dancers in clubs.
I really started getting into break dancing very hard and learning the technicality of it. I broke my thumb twice in a row, and I think that's when I said, you know, I think I'm just going to stay on my feet. I'm going to keep my feet below my head as it's intended.
TIMBERLAKE: So then...
GROSS: Were you trying to spin on your head or something when that happened?
TIMBERLAKE: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. My head spun me instead of me spinning on my head. It wasn't a pretty sight. So I think right then and there I decided that I would - that sort of, you know, I find that every time I write music or come up with an idea for a record, that whatever it is that I come up with I feel like I have a specific aesthetic that goes with it, very much like creating a character.
I find that I describe that to people and sometimes they respond to it and sometimes they don't. But, for instance, my last album, "FutureSex/LoveSounds," was a character that I created much like, you know, obviously not the same way that David Bowie would create something like Ziggy Stardust, you know, but, you know, something that aspired to be a character. And...
GROSS: What was the character that you were seeing?
TIMBERLAKE: I don't know. I just saw it as someone who I saw - I guess for some reason I saw some mixture between like 007 character.
TIMBERLAKE: But also an ode to like Fred Astaire, in a way, or Gene Kelly. I think I saw it as an ode to that, but how could I take that and make it sound modern? And so when the aesthetic of it came into play, I wanted to play the part. I wanted to play it.
But it was - I did feel like I was creating sort of a character that could maybe fall into a Kubrick film or a Helmut Newton photo or, you know, I just saw a lot of images in my mind after we had looked back and created it.
GROSS: Well, let's take "Sexy Back," as an example. Your voice is processed on part of that. Why did you want that?
TIMBERLAKE: You know, I, it was a song - not actually even singing on the song, you know, so I remember when...
GROSS: What does that mean?
TIMBERLAKE: Well, I'm more sort of talking in tone, more than singing in that song. And I don't know where that line came from. I sometimes regret it.
TIMBERLAKE: Because I feel like people feel like it's an extension of who I am, but when I feel like when I get the opportunity to tell them that I felt like I was playing a character, sometimes they get it, and sometimes they don't. You know, for whatever reason, when we started recording it, I wanted the vocal to sort of almost slap you in the face.
I wanted it to sound like it was distorted. And so I just got the idea that what if we put it through a simulated guitar amp or an effect like that. It's a very sparse sounding record because there's no - in between the parts that I'm actually performing the record, there's not - there's just the sound of these weird, quirky, computerized gimmicks.
I felt like if anyone ever took dance music and applied a rock-'n'-roll frame of mind to it, with bravado and sort of rock star-ism, that's what we were trying to capture, and it was just a moment. And like I said, I sometimes regret that I wrote it that way but also not because it was a moment, and it was fun, and I had fun writing it.
And when I see people sing it back to me, you know, when you cut to me standing on stage in Copenhagen for 80,000 people, and they're all singing the song, and there's something so unabashed and fun and unbridled about their feeling with that song. So I felt like it was mission accomplished.
GROSS: Okay. So after that great description, we have to hear it. This is my guest, Justin Timberlake singing "Sexy Back."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEXY BACK")
TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) I'm bringing sexy back. Yeah. Them other boys don't know how to act. Yeah. I think you're special, what's behind your back? Yeah. So turn around and I'll pick up the slack. Yeah. Take 'em to the bridge. Come on.
(Singing) Dirty babe. Uh-huh. You see the shackles baby I'm your slave. Uh-huh. I'll let you whip me if I misbehave. Uh-huh. It's just that no one makes me feel this way. Uh-huh.
(Singing) Take 'em to the chorus. Come here girl. Go ahead, be gone with it. Come to the back. Go ahead, be gone with it. VIP. Go ahead, be gone with it. Drinks on me. Go ahead, be gone with it. Let me see what you're working with. Go ahead, be gone with it. Look at those hips. Go ahead, be gone with it. You make me smile. Go ahead, be gone with it. Go ahead child. Go ahead, be gone with it. And get your sexy on. Go ahead, be gone with it. Get your sexy on. Go ahead, be gone with it. Get your sexy on. Go ahead, be gone with it. Get your sexy on. Go ahead, be gone with it. Get your sexy on. Go ahead, be gone with it. Get your sexy on. Go ahead, be gone with it. Get your sexy on. Go ahead, be gone with it. Get your sexy on. I'm bringing sexy back. Yeah.
GROSS: That was Justin Timberlake recorded in 2006, one of his big solo hits. So that's really fun to listen back to.
TIMBERLAKE: Oh good.
GROSS: What was it like for you going solo as opposed to, like, being in a group, you know, being more - having all the responsibility - the main responsibility - on your shoulders?
TIMBERLAKE: Well, I mean it was comfortable. I think growing up as an only child probably had more to do with that than anything. But I had music that I was ready to express, and I don't think it was an extension of the other guys in the group, and so I think it was a natural progression.
There was timing that was involved with some of the other guys wanting - aspiring to do other things, as well, and so there was a little bit of serendipity to that. But also, I think naturally it still would've taken its course that I would've ended up doing solo work just because I think that I had different music inside of me that I wanted to express.
GROSS: So you are so lucky. You were a child star and survived. I mean...
GROSS: Seriously, like the things that you learned as a child star were probably, like, so helpful in learning, you know, like show business and dancing and singing and acting. But at the same time, it ruins so many people, like so many people who are lucky enough to have that kind of early fame never recover. So do you have any sense of what it was that has kept you...
TIMBERLAKE: I think I would just chalk that up to, I would chalk that up to amazing parents, an amazing mother. You know, my parents...
GROSS: I hope she's listening.
TIMBERLAKE: I'm almost positive she's listening right now.
TIMBERLAKE: She's very proud. But I would chalk that up to an amazing mother. She's, you know, my biological parents divorced when I was right - I think right around the time I turned one, and my mother remarried my stepdad when I was five and - right after I turned five.
And so, you know, there was a period of time where I had to get used to sort of a man that didn't - that wasn't related to me by blood. And you know, she always made everything so comfortable for me, and she always spoke to me like I was her peer.
I think the thing that she sort of embedded in my brain is if you have the ability to do something, one or two things great, it doesn't mean that you're a better person than anyone else. And the accolades that I receive personally from what I do are more of comments you would get from people that say your music helped them through a rough time or saying that you made them laugh rather than, you know, materialistic awards or things like that.
And, but just I would chalk it up to a great mother who has always taught me that we all put our pants on one leg at a time, so...
GROSS: Well, Justin Timberlake, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much for being on our show.
TIMBERLAKE: Thank you. I'm such a fan and I...
GROSS: Oh, wow.
TIMBERLAKE: I was so excited to be on the show, so...
GROSS: I'm very excited to here you say that.
BIANCULLI: Justin Timberlake, speaking to Terry Gross in 2010. His new album is called "The 20/20 Experience." Here's an excerpt from one of his appearances last week on NBC's "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," part four of their continuing history of rap medleys. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.