Justin Timberlake wasn’t itching to bare his backside for the world to see. But in a bold display of artistic integrity, and perhaps as an overdue concession to the millions of teenagers reared on *NSYNC, the former boy-band wunderkind, now 30, doffed his boxers for the romantic comedy “Friends with Benefits,” due out Friday.
When Timberlake and co-star Mila Kunis, 27, first read the script, their enthusiasm was muted. (“It was dated and PG-13,” Kunis explains. “It was neither here nor there. I didn’t see the purpose.”) But Timberlake, knowing that director Will Gluck (“Easy A”) planned to sharpen the comedy enough to give “Benefits” the edge it demanded, signed on.
For the Memphis, Tenn.-born pop star, who has earned accolades for memorable supporting turns as a gangster wannabe in “Alpha Dog” (2007) and Napster co-founder Sean Parker in last year’s “The Social Network,” “Benefits” represents the latest milestone in his big-screen career: It’s his first headlining role and, as he puts it, a calculated risk.
“Coming from a small town in the South, presumption is unacceptable,” Timberlake says. “That applies to asking people to accept me as an actor. I was very conscious of not jumping in and doing something simply because I could — that’s never the right reason to make a movie, or an album.
“In a decade, I’ve only put out two albums, when I could have put out six. I’ve been offered lead roles before, but I wanted to do something that felt real and honest. Mila and I both come from families that raised us to be self-aware, to understand that we’re people who get to do extraordinary things, not extraordinary people. So when we choose to do something, it comes from a place of sincerity.”
With that in mind, Timberlake balked at the prospect of tiptoeing around the indelicate realities of no-strings sex, even if that meant stripping for the camera.
No stranger to comedy — he co-stars in “Bad Teacher” and won an Emmy for a lewd “Saturday Night Live” short — Timberlake wanted his and Kunis’ bedroom mishaps, filmed over two weeks between the sheets, to be as laughably and unflinchingly awkward as an R rating would allow.
He got his wish. “The movie had to be frank ’cause that’s where the comedy comes from — situations that we’ve all been in,” says Timberlake, who covered his privates with a sock, not a box. “It had to be something our generation could relate to. We couldn’t beat around the bush about what’s honest.”
Friends with Benefits
Starring Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, Patricia Clarkson, Jenna Elfman, Bryan Greenberg, Richard Jenkins
Directed by Will Gluck
Written by Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, Will Gluck, Harley Peyton
Running time 1 hour 49 minutes