Justin Timberlake: I'm a mediocre folk singer!

The pop-star-turned-actor and "Gatsby" co-star discuss their folk-singing couple in the new Coen brothers film

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published May 21, 2013 11:45AM (EDT)

Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake arrive for the screening of "Inside Llewyn Davis" at the Cannes Film Festival, May 19, 2013.   (Reuters/Jean-Paul Pelissier)
Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake arrive for the screening of "Inside Llewyn Davis" at the Cannes Film Festival, May 19, 2013. (Reuters/Jean-Paul Pelissier)

CANNES, France – In the Coen brothers’ new movie “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the unquestioned smash hit of this festival so far, Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan play key supporting roles as Jim and Jean Berkey, a folk-singing couple in early-1960s Greenwich Village. Jim and Jean are a bit more clean-cut and success-oriented than their downcast, couch-surfing and considerably more talented friend Llewyn, played by Oscar Isaac in the year’s biggest breakout performance. Llewyn threatens to expose not merely their agreeable mediocrity but also the flaws in their marriage; he has slept with Jean and may have gotten her pregnant. Who’s he going to borrow money from to pay for the illegal abortion? Take a wild guess.

This movie is a delicate balance between comedy and drama, and these characters are, too. Timberlake’s Jim is a genial, basically lovely guy who has the sense that something is changing in New York’s insular folk scene, though he doesn’t quite know what. Timberlake helped compose and arrange the profoundly silly and ludicrously catchy novelty song Jim writes in the movie (“Please Mr. Kennedy”), which will probably earn him more money than Llewyn’s earnest, somber folk-purist approach will earn in a lifetime. Jean, on the other hand, is a ferociously driven woman trapped in the era just before American feminism, when even in the folk-beat world a wife’s role was first and foremost that of servant and helpmeet.

When Timberlake and Mulligan -- who’s also promoting “The Great Gatsby” at Cannes -- met with American journalists over lunch at the Carlton Hotel, a lot of the talk was about their cast-mate Isaac, still a relative unknown, despite quite a few movie roles (in “Sucker Punch,” “Drive” and “W.E.,” among others). That’s about to change. As his co-stars discussed, the gala premiere of “Inside Llewyn Davis” ended with an uproarious standing ovation for the Guatemalan-born Isaac, who opens the movie by singing a brooding folk ballad and is in every scene thereafter. We also got to talk about the Coens’ directing process, the folk-music world and the composition of “Please Mr. Kennedy.” I never got to ask Timberlake about his beautifully tailored gray suit, but it sure was nice.

Justin, do you even like folk music? Did you have any musical background in that field before doing this movie?

Justin Timberlake: I like all kinds of music. And when you think about it, I was raised in Tennessee around country music and all the things associated with country music. And one could argue for the fact that country and folk are closely related, more so than lots of kinds of music. At least when folk singers became songwriters, like Bob Dylan, and began to tell stories the way they told them. So for me, it was warm and fuzzy. And I've known T-Bone Burnett [music supervisor on the film] for a while, so getting an opportunity to work with him on the music, as well as getting an opportunity to work with Joel and Ethan, was kind of like -- "OK, you're going to work with the Coen brothers. OK, you're going to get to do music." That was plenty cool for me, but also to be able to work with Carey and Oscar, it was like everything I could possibly imagine in the same tornado.

How did you find Joel and Ethan Coen as directors?

J.T.: We found them every day! They were there. (Laughter.)

Carey Mulligan: It was the most relaxed environment on the set I've ever witnessed.

J.T. It was the most spoiling experience. They're laser-focused, but they keep the blood pressure right at the same level across the board. In the scene where we sing "500 Miles" together, there were roughly 50 to 100 people inside the Gaslight watching us. Which can be interesting! But they control the set in such a way that they shoot exactly what they need. They shoot exactly what's in the script. They're extremely informative and they want you to play.

C.M.: And you find yourself going home at five in the afternoon -- which is amazing! Not that you want to leave the set. Their manner the whole way is so gentle and calm, nothing ruffles them. It makes for a very easy set.

Was the music actually recorded live for this film, “Les Misérables” style? I honestly couldn’t tell.

J.T.: Apart from the guys in the sweaters singing "The Old Triangle" [an Irish quartet, in the style of the Clancy Brothers], all the performances were live. We're playing a singing couple, so getting to sing as a couple on film -- it all plays into the performance. You learn a lot about these characters through their performances of the songs.

Talk about the process of creating “Please Mr. Kennedy,” Jim’s novelty hit. That looked like it was fun.

J.T.: It was a lot of fun. Joel and Ethan, in the end, milled down the rough edges and put in some punch lines that fit the movie they were making. It was an old song, almost a little bit camp at the time, that was about Vietnam. T-Bone and I were sitting together at his house in L.A., and he said, "Hey, man, let's come up with some ideas for it!" Before I knew it, we came up with this whole song about space travel and how that would seem frightening to someone from Greenwich Village in the '60s -- kind of the antithesis of that scene. I don't exactly know how we got there! We probably went too far into "SNL"-land, camp-land, and then brought it back. He just put it down on a little recorder and sent it off to Joel and Ethan, and they punched it up, threw in a few little jokes.

That song is like a first draft for David Bowie's “Space Oddity.”

J.T.: (Laughter) Yeah, yeah, yeah! Only, like -- whatever the opposite of progressive is. Not the progressive version. The digressive version!

How much did the Coens talk to you about the characters’ back story, about the relationship between Jim and Jean?

J.T.: The Coen brothers, as you probably know, don't like to answer your questions. And that's something I love about their films. The first thing we all did was get together and record the songs. That alone created a fun chemistry between Carey and I.

C.M.: We kind of had a back story that we figured out, which we didn't particularly talk about with Joel and Ethan. They don't really operate that way. You just do your part. They want you to come in and do your job, to do what you think is the right thing. They nudge you in different ways, and then at the end of the day you get a pat on the back, or not. Which is amazing, honestly.

J.T.: I think it's very interesting to have these two characters who are obviously together but who react to Llewyn in completely opposite ways. I remember thinking about what it would be like if Jim wound up having a conversation with Llewyn about Jean getting pregnant -- by Llewyn. He'd react to it like [earnest voice], "Huh -- this is really bad. But what are we going to do?" I find it interesting that there's never a conversation between Jim and Jean. The only interaction we ever have is the kiss when I walk into the scene and the song at the end of the scene.

Talk about working with Oscar, who has to carry so much of the movie.

C.M.: As I said about the Coens, other than that week we had doing the music, which was really informative, we didn't have any rehearsal. Knowing Oscar already and feeling comfortable with him, I knew that he was incredible to work with. He's very varied, he does something slightly different with everything and he always does things with the script that surprise me. He's very empathetic and draws you into the scene very quickly. He's also a lot of fun: He's incredibly hard-working and he takes it very seriously, but he doesn't take himself seriously at all. He has a complete lack of vanity that makes him wonderful to watch.

Carey, this movie is all in the present tense. We don't find out from the script anything about the nature of the relationship between your character and Llewyn, whether it was just the one time or a long-running affair. I mean, I admire that, but I was definitely curious.

C.M.: I think it was just the one time. There's a feeling between them, a connection.

J.T.: The most revealing thing about what you're saying is the look on Oscar's face when he realizes that she also slept with the Gaslight manager -- his name is Nick Porco in the movie. "Are you kidding me? This kid might not have been mine!" It's funny, that's where you wrestle with: Did Jim know, a little bit? Did he suspect something? I think it was just the time. He would have been: Well, you know. Whatever!

Are these characters idealistic in a way we don’t see so much today? That could be one way of thinking about them.

C.M.: Well, I think Jim and Jean are very different; we're polar opposites, actually. I don't think Jean is idealistic at all. I think she gets it, and she's going to find [a way] to be comfortable. She wishes that Llewyn, who is clearly more talented than her, would go on to succeed, but I think she ultimately understands what she needs to do to survive.

J.T.: I made the choice that Jim is someone who does not have as much talent as Llewyn. I feel like you're watching the transition where folk music becomes "folk music," and not just beatnik subculture. I made the choice that Jim could see that, but doesn't have the chops to be a Bob Dylan. He can only go so far with his talent, which leads to the "Please Mr. Kennedy" song. To me, Jim represents the transition: People are starting to find out about our little secret!

What can you remember about your first experience of the Coen brothers as a viewer? What was the first film of theirs you saw?

C.M.: I think I saw “The Big Lebowski” when I was too young to see “The Big Lebowski.”

J.T.: So, like, last week? (Laughter.) I saw "Raising Arizona" on cable. What year did that come out? In '87? So I was six when that movie came out. I probably saw it around '91, and I thought it was hilarious. Then the next one I saw was probably "Barton Fink," and I was like: Wait? Those are the same directors?

Carey, your American accent in this movie is perfect. Sometimes British actors think they have it right when they don’t, but this was totally convincing.

C.M.: Thank you! Well, you always take on the accents of those who are around you. But what happened was I wrapped "Gatsby," got on a plane, landed in New York and started shooting with the Coen brothers the following Monday. So I didn't have a huge amount of time. But Tim Monich, who helped me on "Gatsby," kind of helped me offset the pair of them.

That must have been quite a head-shift, going straight from Daisy Buchanan to Jean.

C.M.: It was great! Just to do a 180 straight away and do something in a completely different world. The environment we were in for "Gatsby" was amazing, but it was enormous, and things take longer when you're shooting that kind of film. This one was very fast-paced. I knew what the shots were going to be, I knew -- it was just very conducive to playing and finding exciting dynamics with other actors. And I got to say "fuck" a lot -- that's always a plus.

What was that like last night, at the premiere? I gather you guys got quite an ovation coming out of the theater.

J.T.: I was really moved, to be quite honest. It's rare that I feel the least bit comfortable watching a movie that I'm in with hundreds of people I don't know. But the Coens are so beloved in our industry, and especially here, so that was amazing to see. More specifically, I just feel happy and proud for Oscar because I feel like his work was vindicated. It was really fun to see. When you feel like someone really threw it down, as we say --

C.M.: Yeah. He's in every single frame and he's unbelievable to watch. I could have watched another two hours of him, and you felt the audience felt that way, too. It was really emotional to watch him soak up what was going on.

J.T.: I had this moment of serendipity -- you're watching a movie about a guy who struggles with success and failure, and what his perception of that is. More that latter question, I think. We can all identify with that, with how personal an experience that is. And knowing how great Oscar is, and how great a person he is, it felt like a little bit of serendipity that -- to see the looks on people's faces, just looking at him and going, "Where did you come from?" It was like, oh, Llewyn finally made it! I don't want to project that onto Oscar, but it felt like a little bit of an ironic moment. He's been doing great work in everything he's done, but this movie was on his back, and I think he hit it out of the park. So to see the reaction and the ovation, I was just really happy.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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