As birthday greetings go, it was ambiguous to say the least. ‘Happy birthday to the most timeless man I know’, was actress Jessica Biel’s Instagram post to her husband of eight years, Justin Timberlake, who turned 39 in January.
‘You somehow grow up without growing old’.
For most couples, this could be read as a harmless compliment. For Jessica and Justin, however, there was something more subtle going on.
Just two months earlier, in November, Justin had been photographed at a bar in New Orleans more than a little the worse for wear, not wearing his wedding ring and holding hands with someone he was most certainly not married to — actress Alisha Wainwright, his beautiful co-star in the new sports drama Palmer, which was being filmed in the city.
Jessica, by all accounts, was not amused. She has refrained — some would say deafeningly so — from commenting directly on the incident in public.
But it’s significant that Justin positively galloped onto his own Instagram a couple of weeks after the photographs surfaced to attempt some damage control.
‘I stay away from gossip as much as I can’, he wrote in early December, ‘but for my family I feel it is important to address recent rumours that are hurting the people I love.
‘A few weeks ago I displayed a strong lapse in judgement, but let me be clear, nothing happened between me and my co-star. I drank way too much that night and I regret my behaviour.
‘I should have known better. This is not the example I want to set for my son.
‘I apologise to my amazing wife and family for putting them through such an embarrassing situation, and I am focused on being the best husband and father I can be. This was not that’.
The word around the swimming pools and cocktail lounges of Los Angeles is that Jessica, 38, was not easily mollified, and it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to detect in her birthday message a sideways jab at her husband’s level of maturity.
However, it’s also widely agreed that Justin is a generally decent man who loves his wife and their four-year-old son Silas, and more recent posts from him and Jessica have implied that all is well again.
When I meet Justin in the DreamWorks Animation studio in Hollywood where he’s promoting another new film, Trolls World Tour, he’s understandably reluctant to go into detail about the state of his marriage.
But he does admit that the road to maturity in marriage can be a winding one.
‘I don’t have any secret for growing up except to continue to try to do my best’, he says, a little ruefully.
‘There’s always something to learn, and you have to realise that you have a footprint and you can’t go back and erase it. But you can improve the next path, and that’s all you can really do’.
He and Jessica got together through a mutual friend in 2007, and he has said from the beginning that their marriage is grounded in real life, not Hollywood glamour.
‘Well, you’ve met Jessica, haven’t you?’ he says. ‘When she was talking to you she was probably quite serious about her acting and her craft because that’s what you were talking about.
‘But when it’s just the two of us, I see the same person in private.
‘She’s still serious about her career, but she’s also funny and charismatic and patient and understanding and incredibly passionate.
‘There was nothing starry about the way we got together. We met and got talking, and afterwards I asked our friend if I could call her and ask her out.
The perfect marriage? My mother’s
His own marriage may have had a bump, but Justin says the example he looks to is his mum Lynn, who’s been married for more than 30 years to his stepfather, banker Paul Harless.
‘I think it’s important to remember that you go into marriage knowing that you don’t know very much about it at all’, he says.
Justin’s mother Lynn has been married to his stepfather Paul Harless for more than 30 years. Pictured: Justin as a young boy with mother Lynn
‘But I look at the marriage of my mother and my stepdad, and what makes it work for them is that it’s a team effort.
‘Some days are better than others for all of us, and if we have our good days and bad days individually, and then we’re dealing with someone else’s good and bad days on top, it’s going to add up.
‘My mother is a real ball of fire and I love that about her. But I have also learned things from my stepdad that are equally as important — patience and compassion.
‘Because when you’re living with someone else, those two qualities go a long way’.
‘He called Jessica and she said yes, though I must say I had to be pretty persistent. But I have a fair amount of tenacity and if I want something I stick to it’.
They married in 2012, welcoming Silas into the world three and a half years later.
And it’s Silas he says he’s excited to share Trolls World Tour with.
A sequel to the 2016 animated comedy Trolls, it again features the vocal talents of the core gang of Justin, Anna Kendrick, James Corden and Gwen Stefani, along with some newcomers including Ozzy Osbourne, Mary J Blige and Jamie Dornan.
In the new tale, members of six different Troll tribes, each devoted to a different genre of music, put aside their differences in order to group together to defy the rock tyrant King Thrash and his hardcore daughter Queen Barb who are trying to make the world play nothing but heavy rock.
‘Silas understands that it’s me singing in the film’, Justin says.
‘He’s heard the whole soundtrack and it’s an exciting time.
‘I love the message of this film, which is all about embracing diversity, having people come together from different walks of life, using different forms of music to learn about each other and understand each other.
‘I think it’s a very timely message for people to be reminded that, yes, we’re all different and we should embrace that.
‘And at the same time it’s about laughing and singing and dancing in a way that’s celebratory and not preachy. It’s rare that you get a film like this that feels so happy and yet delivers such a special message’.
It’s a message he says he wouldn’t have minded being given himself when he was younger.
‘It ties into a feeling that I had when I was really young, that I always felt different from other kids somehow, and that made me fearful of what other kids might think of me. I was really shy when I was a kid.
‘I used to walk around with my head down, and my Mom still likes to joke that until I was about eight or nine I only knew what my trainers looked like because that was all I ever saw.
‘What we’ve done with this movie is, hopefully, tell young people who are like I was that, yes, you are different and that’s cool’.
Justin grew up in Tennessee, and after appearing as a child star in Disney TV shows went on to become the youngest member of *NSYNC, one of the biggest-selling boy bands of all time.
His first two solo albums sold more than ten million copies each and he then branched out into acting with roles in films such as The Social Network and Bad Teacher with Cameron Diaz.
He says that his mother Lynn and stepfather Paul have always been careful to keep him down to earth.
‘They taught me to have a sense of humour about myself. My mom in particular taught me not to feel above anyone, that everyone’s the same, and that’s always the way I’ve approached everything.
‘If I’m up on stage, I want everyone to feel like they’re up there with me, and that extends to the way I live my life.
‘I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I’m able to do what I love to do.
‘But if you wake up in the morning every day and look in the mirror and start to say, “Gee, I’m important.”.. well, that’s when you get into trouble’.
And if he’s ever in danger of getting lofty ideas about himself, there’s always the little matter of fatherhood to bring him down to earth.
‘It’s humbling for sure!’ he laughs. ‘It’s amazing and it’s hard, but you just have to realise that the real success of parenthood is getting to wake up the next day and fail all over again! But it’s the thing that makes me happiest, hands down’.
After this film and Palmer he has nothing much planned in movie terms: he admits that since Silas came along, he’s a lot pickier about the projects he chooses.
‘Work takes you away from your family, so if I’m going to work on a project it better be something really inspiring.
‘I’m now at a point in my life where I can be choosy about the things I do.
‘The more I enjoy being an artist and a dad and a husband, each day I find a little bit more of myself and a way to express that.
‘I love my work and I love my family, and that’s a very good place to be’.
Trolls World Tour is in cinemas on Friday 10 April.