By the time Justin Timberlake began receiving recognition as an actor, he was already a musical megastar, with millions of albums sold on his own and with NSYNC. Now, after memorable appearances in The Social Network and Inside Llewyn Davis, he's landed his first Oscar nomination — for a song.
"Can't Stop the Feeling!" is the peppy disco-pop number that led the promotional campaign for Trolls, the 2016 animated feature in which Timberlake voices a paranoid, joyless troll named Branch. The tune's nomination for Best Original Song came as a happy surprise to the singer/actor, who also executive produced the film's soundtrack.
"I always felt like I would have to write a song about misery and self-loathing to bring out raw emotions to ever have an opportunity to be nominated for an Oscar," he says. "It's serendipitous, but I do feel like the world could use a little bit more of it. It's hard to make a song that actually gets people's asses up and makes 'em dance."
Hear the rest of Timberlake's conversation with NPR's David Greene — including his story of meeting the members of Earth, Wind & Fire in the studio to re-record "September" — at the audio link.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene in Culver City, Calif. And I went Hollywood this week, you know, caught up with a guy at The Beverly Hilton before he was going into a lunch for Oscar nominees.
Do you like these kinds of lunches?
JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: I don't know. I've never been to one of these sort of things. So...
GREENE: An Oscar lunch.
TIMBERLAKE: An Oscar luncheon. You know, it's like they just put the - they just throw the eon at the end to give it the pomp.
TIMBERLAKE: It's a lunch.
GREENE: Like, it can't just be a lunch.
TIMBERLAKE: It has to be a luncheon.
TIMBERLAKE: That feels slightly intimidating.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BYE BYE BYE")
NSYNC: (Singing) Bye, bye, bye - bye, bye.
GREENE: Intimidating? For him? Yeah, that is Justin Timberlake. He became a star as a kid on TV in "The Mickey Mouse Club" with Britney Spears. And then there was his boy-band era with NSYNC. Come on. Some of you played his music at parties. And that makes his role in the movie "Trolls" seem kind of out of character. In addition to being executive producer of all the music, he is the voice behind this little, animated, joyless troll named Branch.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TROLLS")
ANNA KENDRICK: (As Poppy) I think everyone deserves to be happy.
TIMBERLAKE: (As Branch) I don't do happy.
GREENE: Playing a little paranoid troll who hates singing and hates dancing and really hates hugging - what was that like?
TIMBERLAKE: It's basically just me before my coffee in the morning.
GREENE: Say more about that.
TIMBERLAKE: Well, you guys don't wake up cranky in the morning?
GREENE: I wake up cranky. No, I wake up really cranky.
GREENE: Of course, what's got him at this Oscar luncheon is this. The "Trolls" theme, "Can't Stop The Feeling" is up for best song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T STOP THE FEELING")
TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) I got this feeling inside my bones. It goes electric, wavy when I turn it on. All through my city, all through my home...
GREENE: I read a piece, maybe about 10 years ago, where you talked about - that your mom became your best friend when you realized who you wanted to be.
TIMBERLAKE: I said that?
TIMBERLAKE: That's a lie. No, I'm kidding.
GREENE: I mean, like, you're - I mean, you're an actor. You're a musician. You're a husband. You're a father. Like, have you...
TIMBERLAKE: Most importantly.
GREENE: Are you who you wanted to be when you were a younger age?
TIMBERLAKE: Listen. That sounds like a young man full of confidence and no experience if I said that.
TIMBERLAKE: Like, in all of my humility, having a son - or child for that matter - it's like - do you have kids?
GREENE: I don't.
GREENE: You're making me want them, though. I can see...
TIMBERLAKE: What happens is you relearn who you are. And you realize that who you thought you were is not who you are. But it breaks you open to, like, this whole different level of empathy and compassion and patience and, you know, humility.
GREENE: In the boy-band days, were you dreaming of this moment of sort of having a career in stone in the same line of work but...
TIMBERLAKE: I think that, because I grew up with a very musical family, my father being very musical and my mother also being a really adept tap dancer - I think that those things - because it's, like, the thing we all do with our parents, where they're like - we know we got these things naturally from them. So we run as far away from it as we possibly can.
GREENE: (Laughter) Uh-huh.
TIMBERLAKE: Like, I think that I would, like - acting was something that I could take seriously. Like, music, when I was younger, came genetically - I feel like - and thanks, Dad - you know, came a little bit easier to me. So I don't think I took it as seriously.
GREENE: Well, you've gotten the acting thing down. I mean I think of "Inside Llewyn Davis." I think of "Social Network." Like, you've had roles that have really been buzzed about. And so here we are at the Oscars, getting an award for music. And I guess I wonder - when you're sitting there, like, is a part of you going to be saying, like, I'd love for, at some point soon, to be recognized here in this space for my acting?
TIMBERLAKE: I don't - honestly, like, I am - I'm kind of shocked that "Can't Stop The Feeling" got nominated for an Oscar. Like, it's...
TIMBERLAKE: Yeah. But I - also, it makes me so happy because, you know, I always kind of felt like I was going to have to write a song about, like, misery and self-loathing, you know, to bring out these raw emotions to ever have an opportunity to put in a movie that would, you know, be nominated for an Oscar, for instance.
GREENE: Something so cheery and fun wouldn't...
TIMBERLAKE: Well, yeah. And a song about, like, unabashed happiness, you know - I don't know. I guess I'm more or less, like - it's serendipitous. But I do feel like the world could use a little bit more of it. It's hard to make a song like this that actually, like, gets people's asses up and makes them dance.
GREENE: Some of the covers on the soundtrack...
TIMBERLAKE: Sure. Uh-huh.
GREENE: I mean, I - like "September" and Earth, Wind & Fire.
GREENE: Like, I was going crazy.
TIMBERLAKE: That was probably, in my opinion, as, like, a fanboy of R&B music...
GREENE: This is what you can do when you're, like, the executive producer of a movie soundtrack. Like, I want that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEPTEMBER")
TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) Do you remember the 21st night of September? Love was changing the minds of pretenders while chasing the clouds away.
The band Earth, Wind & Fire - and their other friend fire - came into...
TIMBERLAKE: No. Philip Bailey and Verdine White and, like, the whole band came back into the studio and recut it with me.
GREENE: They came in to do this with you?
TIMBERLAKE: Yes - let me - like, I don't - like, I don't know. I'm, like, I don't know why everybody's letting me do this, but I'll do it. Like, I'm sitting in the studio with, you know, Philip Bailey. I, like, grew up trying to emulate his voice. And I'm getting to reproduce the song. And they told me that they hadn't cut it since they first cut it in '78, maybe. I could be way off.
GREENE: That must've been wild.
TIMBERLAKE: Wild. Wild. Like, I get chicken skin even talking about it. But, like, it was a moment where I was like, whoa.
GREENE: I know you're going to - we're catching you before an Oscars lunch. Ryan Gosling is going to be there.
TIMBERLAKE: Excuse me. Luncheon.
GREENE: Luncheon - I'm so sorry.
GREENE: (Laughter) Yes, that's right. I don't want to...
TIMBERLAKE: Don't lose the eon, man.
GREENE: Yes, I'm so sorry (laughter).
TIMBERLAKE: Get it right, dude (laughter).
GREENE: But one of your fellow "Mickey Mouse Club" members, Ryan Gosling, is also nominated for the...
TIMBERLAKE: And, by the way, rightfully so. I mean...
GREENE: Is there a "Mickey Mouse Club," like, alumni handshake or something that goes on?
TIMBERLAKE: (Laughter) I don't know. I don't know. I don't know. Maybe we should come up with one.
GREENE: Justin, thank you. It was a real pleasure meeting you.
TIMBERLAKE: My pleasure. My pleasure.
GREENE: Thanks for the time, and best luck at the Oscars.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T STOP THE FEELING")
TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) I got this feeling inside my bones. It goes electric, wavy when I turn it on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.