Oct. 5, 2013 at 12:24 PM ET
It's tough enough to make a career in one entertainment genre, but crossing over is a rare achievement. Singers have spent their lives honing their vocal craft, not focusing on drama lessons, and the talents rarely transfer. Don't believe it? Try sitting through a Britney Spears or Vanilla Ice movie, or partying all the time with an Eddie Murphy album.
Justin Timberlake's years spent singing and dancing with 'N Sync wouldn't seem to indicate that he could make the leap to acting -- nor would his appearance in such films as the infamous 2005 bomb, "The Love Guru."
But as Timberlake himself recently explained to Matt Lauer in an interview on TODAY, it was the 2010 film "Social Network" that really solidified his status as an actor. "I'll tell you what sort of changed things for me was literally when (director) David Fincher hired me," Timberlake told Lauer. "It did open up a huge door for me. And the opportunities started to — started to happen."
Suddenly, the former boy bander is a viable name in acting circles as well as the musical world.
Timberlake appeared in 10 films between 2007 and 2012 (and lent his voice to two more, including blockbuster sequel "Shrek the Third"), holding his own alongside diverse talents including Clint Eastwood, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeff Bridges, Amanda Seyfried and Cameron Diaz. Then, just when it seemed as though his musical career was languishing, out came a two-part album, "The 20/20 Experience," which has sold over 2 million copies in the US since the first part's March release. With two hit singles ("Suit & Tie," "Mirrors"), a MTV Video of the Year win and a smash summer stadium tour with Jay-Z, Timberlake is back big-time in the music world -- just as his movie career is heating up again.
Timberlake stars in "Runner, Runner," which opens Friday, playing a Princeton student who gets mixed up with a corrupt overseas businessman (Ben Affleck) who runs an online poker website. And later this year, Timberlake will be back on screen in a scene-stealing supporting part as a '60s folk singer in the latest from the Coen Brothers, "Inside Llewyn Davis."
Andrew Barker, film and music critic and senior features writer at Variety, says the two sides of Timberlake's entertainment career are unusual but not unprecedented.
"Look at Whitney Houston in the '90s, she was consistently charting hit singles and had 'The Bodyguard' and 'Waiting to Exhale.' There's precedent for it," Barker tells NBC News, adding that Timberlake still has room for growth. "The platonic ideals would be (Frank) Sinatra and (Barbra) Streisand, and obviously Timberlake is not on their level. That's the top one percentile."
Both Sinatra and Streisand won Oscars over the course of their significant film careers in addition to enjoying lasting success with their music. While Timberlake's work in "Social Network" garnered critical acclaim ("Timberlake is phenomenal, a revelation, even," Peter Travers raved in Rolling Stone) and Oscar buzz, a nomination never materialized. Of course, he does have four Emmys -- two for guest hosting "Saturday Night Live" and two for co-writing songs for the sketch comedy's popular digital shorts -- to display with his six Grammys.
But he's also hit some speed bumps at the box office. His star turns in the raunchy romantic comedy "Friends with Benefits" and high concept sci-fi thriller "In Time" were commercial disappointments in the U.S., though fared better overseas
Timberlake, says Barker, is as good as his collaborators are, in both music and film.
"When he works with David Fincher, he's great, when it's the Coen brothers, he's also great," Barker said. "Whereas if he's doing 'Runner, Runner' or 'Friends with Benefits'... He's made some bad movies, but he's never been bad in anything."
"Runner, Runner" opened overseas a week before its U.S. debut, and is expected to lose the domestic box office battle to the Oscar-contending space drama "Gravity," starring Sandra Bullock. Even if "Runner, Runner" underperforms, Timberlake can afford to take it in stride.
"You get to this point, which I've done in the last five or six years, where you become less worried about success and failure," he recently told the New York Times.
If one project doesn't work, Timberlake has more waiting in the wings. Critics already flipped for "Llewyn Davis" upon its world premiere at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and balancing major Hollywood projects like "Runner" with more idiosyncratic work such as "Llewyn" demonstrates his diversity and desire to work with first-rate collaborators. (Timberlake told Lauer that working with the Coens, the Oscar-winning team behind "Fargo" and "True Grit," was a "bucket list" moment.)
Plus, there's "The 20/20 Experience 2" to support -- an album he describes as the "hotter, older evil twin sister" of its predecessor -- and another massive tour kicking off Oct. 31. That's enough to guarantee this "man of the moment" status won't disappear overnight.
Looking ahead, the question becomes whether Timberlake can possibly remain equally prolific in both movies and music, or if he'll eventually have to pick a favorite. Barker believes the decision will be entirely up to Timberlake.
"He's got two huge albums, two films and two giant stadium tours in the span of a year," Barker said. "I assume he'll want to kick up his heels at some point, so it'll be interesting to see where he really focuses his energy next."