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In ‘Palmer,’ Timberlake embraces stillness of a broken man

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This image released by Apple shows Justin Timberlake, left, and Ryder Allen in a scene from Palmer. (Apple via AP)

NEW YORK – Justin Timberlake turns 40 this week and seemingly has the energy of a teenager, recently performing a new song for the inauguration celebration, welcoming a second son with wife Jessica Biel and starring in the new Apple TV+ film, “Palmer.”

Timberlake plays Eddie Palmer, a former high-school football star whose bad decisions land him in prison, with few options when he gets out. When he returns to his grandmother’s house in a small Southern town to try to build a life, he meets Sam, the charismatic 8-year-old boy next door who’s bullied for sometimes dressing like a girl and enjoying dolls and tea parties.

When Sam’s mother leaves town, Palmer reluctantly steps in to care for the boy.

Timberlake’s had star turns in films like “Friends with Benefits” and “Inside Llewyn Davis,” but “Palmer” marks his time as a solo film headliner. Since childhood, he’s mostly been known for his singing and dancing.

“Palmer” called for Timberlake to tone down his exuberance and play an intense, quiet, broken man living in a town where everyone knows his story.

“Twelve years in prison I think will make you a little numb… we’ve seen stories about the trauma of incarceration and so that played a part in how I wanted to portray this character,” Timberlake said in a recent interview.

“My idols are Newman and Brando and Dean ... actors that were able to contain and almost struggle with releasing their emotion. More specific to Eddie, I think that that’s that type of guy, and I knew those type of guys growing up, and you know, my grandfather was that type of guy … just grew up in a different generation,” Timberlake said.

Director Fisher Stevens said he and Timberlake talked a lot about “stillness and trusting” while shooting the film. “Because I’m an actor, there is a certain instinct to do, to perform. So we had to fight against that and we did it together. And I think he really started to enjoy it, frankly,” Stevens said. “But I don’t think it was organic to him. I think it’s a testament to his abilities as an actor.”

Timberlake’s energy impressed Stevens, who noted the star rehearsed on nights and weekends.

“He’s kind of a remarkable person, if you think about the fact that he has been famous for so long, has made it in many different (areas) music, dance, acting … you know, when he got to the set every day, he was a grip, he was a gaffer, he was one of us, man. He was everybody. And he never left the set.” Stevens said. “He was friendly with everybody. And I was kind of like, ‘Wow, how is this guy so well adjusted?’”

Timberlake’s 8-year-old co-star, newcomer Ryder Allen, said he learned a lot from watching Timberlake transform from fun guy on set to a somber Eddie in their scenes together. “In the first scene, it was really shocking to me because the way he just went from that is just pure, pure acting. I was amazed by it.”

Timberlake and Allen bonded over weeks of rehearsals, and their affinity shows on screen, particularly when Palmer begins to show authentic parenting instincts, carefully giving Sam advice and throwing him a birthday party.

“I said, whoever the kid is that we find, he has to be able to improv with me, because I think that’s where we’re going to find those little gems and those nuances to where you really kind of feel like you’re just watching people try to figure it out instead of ... feeling like you’re watching a movie.”

Sam stands out at school because he’s different, but he teaches everyone around him — including Palmer— important life lessons. “It’s about never losing hope, and acceptance and that you need to accept yourself,” Allen said.

Timberlake appreciated the film’s examination of masculinity. Palmer was raised with a more “stereotypical idea” of what it means to be a man and has to expand his mindset. “That an 8-year-old boy can completely change that and heighten the perspective of a man like that. And in turn, that’s the thing that gives him meaning. That’s the thing that gives him self-worth. That journey was really important to me.”

“We all have these labels. Right? And this movie, we started the conversation. It shatters labels. And that’s kind of why I wanted to make the film,” Stevens said. “I think everyone will enjoy this movie. Everyone will be moved by this film. And it doesn’t matter where you live. It doesn’t matter who you voted for. It doesn’t matter what you believe ... because it’s about human emotions of human beings that are both just trying to make it, and they find each other and they give each other so much.”

Timberlake and Stevens said they wanted to tell this story because its message is so relevant now.

“If a guy like this can find redemption in his acceptance of something that he knows absolutely nothing about and that in turn, that can give him self-worth and self-love, then, I mean let’s let that be a theme for this year, and the years to come,” Timberlake said.