What's a funky guy like Justin Timberlake doing in a folky movie like Inside Llewyn Davis? He talks to Helen Barlow.
In his brown jumper and trimmed beard, Justin Timberlake looks hilarious as Jim, a dorky early 60s folk singer in the Coen brothers' new movie, Inside Llewyn Davis. It's quite a departure from the tuxedoed style the star has been sporting on his latest 20/20 album and its sequel.
"I talked with Ethan about a look for Jim," Timberlake recalls of working with the younger Coen. "We found a picture of Paul Clayton who sang traditional folk songs. I enjoy looking ridiculous in everyday life, so for me was a lot of fun. I actually liked that beard."
And although he had to learn some songs for the role, Timberlake also had to do something he doesn't often do on stage - stay in one place.
"We studied 60s folk performers like Peter, Paul and Mary and they didn't move a lot," Timberlake notes. "A live performance back then was a lot more reverent and lot more still than it is now."
Inside Llewyn Davis marks music producer T-Bone Burnett's fourth collaboration with the Coens, having helped make a hit of the soundtrack to their last musical excursion O Brother, Where Art Thou? He co-produced the film's music with Marcus Mumford, who performs on several tracks - Mumford's wife Carey Mulligan also stars in the movie as another folk singer, one romantically caught between the straight-laced Jim and the brooding title character Llewyn (Oscar Isaac).
"Marcus and T-Bone worked very closely on a lot of the music, and myself and Oscar were there for a portion of the time," Timberlake explains. "When we got together the first thing that Joel and Ethan set up, which was brilliant, was to put us all in a live room and a recording studio where we worked out all the arrangements for the songs. Then we recorded them as the characters. It was really interesting because how we were singing as the characters became really informative to who the characters were in the movie."
Besides various folk standards, Timberlake's most memorable song in the film is an original - Please Mr. Kennedy is a comedic ditty about an early astronaut having second thoughts about being the first man in space.
View the trailer for Inside Llewyn Davis here:
"With Please Mr. Kennedy I sat with T-Bone in his house in Los Angeles and wrote a song similar to how you'd write an Saturday Night Live sketch. Joel and Ethan basically had the lines, and we came up with melodies that could turn it into a upbeat folk song."
Set in Greenwich Village in 1961, the film depicts a time just before Bob Dylan turned the folk revival on its ear. The title character is loosely based on Dave Van Ronk, an influential New York folk scene figure who was a friend of Dylan's.
For Timberlake, the film was a chance to revisit his own music past.
"Growing up outside of Memphis, my first musical lesson was my grandfather putting an old Gibson [guitar] in my hands and teaching me finger picking, so it actually was helpful one day. For me, this music felt warm and fuzzy. I was learning country songs but there's such a similarity between the storytelling of county music and the storytelling of folk music. I learned how one genre can lead to another.
"I was mostly listening to the radio when I was young and was more interested in the songs. When I felt I had an opinion I started to like a certain style a little bit more. I love music in general and I watch movies that way, too. It's never been about the star performer. I never liked one style of music or one artist over another."
With more than a dozen feature film roles, Timberlake has successfully negotiated the pop star to film star transition. And his involvement in the acclaimed film by the Coen brothers is his most credibility enhancing role since his supporting turn in The Social Network. He says he loved working with the eccentric pair.
"I can't think of a better scenario," he says. "They're sort of laser-focused but with this calmness. They're like this big security blanket. What they've written is already so unbelievably perfect your instinct is not to veer off that path. So what it does is it gives you the opportunity to make a slight physical alteration in certain scenes, to add a beat or small layers here and there. They were laughing during takes, which for me meant I was doing my job, because I just wanted to make them laugh."
Who: Justin Timberlake
What: Inside Llewyn Davis
When: At cinemas from Thursday