PARK CITY, Utah — The 2006 Sundance Film Festival was packed with memorable moments and happenings, including a slew of overachieving underdog films, the crush of hard-partying Hollywood stars and the emergence of new names and faces who might just shape the movie business for years to come.
But during the festival’s final weekend, everything began and ended with “Alpha Dog.”
“That’s pretty good,” Justin Timberlake said, moments before the film’s world premiere, when a reporter suggested that he’d walk into the theater a singer and would walk out an actor. Grinning, he added: “I’ve been acting like I could sing for years.”
The media avidly pursued Timberlake around Park City for days as he kicked off his acting career in style — and he obliged, doing interviews, attending screenings, dancing at the film’s afterparty and taking some time to hit the couldn’t-be-fresher powder on the local slopes. “I went snowboarding,” he said, assuring his fans that he can handle himself. “I’m good.”
During his introductory remarks at the “Alpha Dog” screening, director Nick Cassavetes (“The Notebook”) pulled no punches as he prepared the audience for a hard-drinking, bong-toting, trigger-happy Timberlake unlike anything they’d come to expect from the ’NSYNC star.
“You don’t watch this film,” Cassavetes said, half-jokingly. “You endure it.”
Earlier, Timberlake had joined his “Alpha” co-stars to discuss the brutal, emotionally powerful film based on the true story of a drug-dealing thug (played by Emile Hirsch, “Lords of Dogtown”) and a group of young wannabe gangsters in way over their heads.”I met the guy that my character is based on, and it was a trippy experience,” Timberlake revealed. “I spent about three hours in an upstate California prison, and I took a lot away from it.”
“It’s inspired by true events, by the Jesse James Hollywood case,” said Hirsch, whose character in the film is named Johnny Truelove. “It’s about this teenaged drug kingpin in the valley, and all of his friends, and how one of the conflicts [he’s involved with] gets him and all of his friends in trouble.
“Queenpin,” corrected Timberlake, busting his friend’s chops in a manner reminiscent of how the characters in the film treat each other. After the gang cracked up, they all insisted that such brotherly humor was the result of unusual Cassavetes acting and directing techniques that had them simultaneously pumping iron and dissing each other.
“We were working out in the valley, outside, in August,” remembered Ben Foster (“Hostage”). “So we’ve got the heat, and we’re lifting hot heavy things for hours and hours. And the genius of Nick Cassavetes’ direction is creating an environment that allows us to explore our own relationships.”
“I’m a sponge,” joked Timberlake, looking at his co-stars. “I was a clown in the movie, actually.”
The actors then started clamoring over one another to build on the joke, before Timberlake self-deprecatingly repeated the assertion: “I’m, literally, a clown in the movie.”
“He’s got a lot of makeup on, and the nose,” added Foster. “It squeaks when you squeeze it.”
“Justin was just downplaying it about being lighthearted,” Foster continued, settling down from the roughhousing. “Justin also has an amazing emotional depth and availability, which is unusual. He’s one of those rare talents who can access depth and a sense of charisma, and the idea that you can be his friend. It’s not a presentation; it’s who you are.”
Blushing, Timberlake deflected the compliment by screaming, “So hire me!” at any Hollywood execs who might be within earshot.
Growing serious for a moment, the “Alpha Dog” stars insisted that there are some thought-provoking messages behind all the teasing.
“There’s sort of this anarchist theme throughout the film,” Timberlake observed. “In our culture today — I mean, God knows, they tried to blame Columbine on Marilyn Manson. They tried so hard. And it turns out the kids were just crazy.”
“Or just damaged people who didn’t have a way to communicate with either their parents or their friends,” Foster added. “It’s about being isolated, and I think this film also expresses that — although we have a group of friends and people hanging out, there isn’t a whole lot of true communication between each other.”
“It’s fun and games; it’s how kids are to kids,” Timberlake observed. “When you’re young and you’re figuring out who you are in the world, you’re very insecure and very ignorant. I remember the one day that I had when I was a young teenager, and I was like, ’Oh wait, I’m not gonna live forever,’ [just realizing] that life is precious. And you watch these young people throughout this movie and that thought never crosses their minds until they’re in [a serious] predicament.”
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Instead, the characters waste their days hanging around and knocking each other down, both verbally and physically. “That’s why the film is called ’Alpha Dog,’ ” Timberlake said, referring to the term used to describe the strongest animal in a pack. “You could watch it on the Discovery Channel; you see two male animals in the same vicinity and they just fight [to see] who’s bigger, better, faster, cooler.”
This past weekend, there was little doubt that Timberlake, Foster, Hirsch and their fellow collaborators were the alpha dogs at Sundance. As the closing film of the festival, “Alpha” occupied a position of honor that was not lost on the stars.
“It’s great,” beamed Anton Yelchin, who plays an impressionable, kidnapped youngster in the flick. “It’s very prestigious. I guess it’s an important enough film to close off this festival, and people have [been waiting], I’ve heard, to see it. It’s packed inside the theater, which is great. It makes me feel good.”
“Alpha Dog” did, indeed, fill Park City theaters all weekend, through the premiere and into several secondary screenings, and the buzz only grew stronger as scores of moviegoers were turned away for lack of space. Now, the stars are looking forward to the film’s April release.
“I don’t think that we’ve actually seen the range and depth yet of Justin’s musical style, or Justin’s acting abilities,” said Foster. “He brings in an amazing performance in ’Alpha Dog.’ He is a movie star. I’m a huge fan now. I was not expecting a pop star to come in and give such a heartfelt performance. Justin is going to be around for a very long time, and I look forward to seeing his movies.”
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