SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - The cast and crew of "Runner, Runner" have found an oasis in the otherwise downtrodden La Perla neighborhood. 
 
Up a steep hill -- I shudder to think of how the heavier parts of production navigated the tight and inclined alleyways of an area not designed for car or truck travel -- in what appears to just be the backyard of one of the area's nicer -- "Nicer" being a relative term -- the film has constructed a restaurant. In the background, extras pretend to eat and converse and make signs of mimed laughter, all having a terrific time sotto voce. Even further back, some patrons gyrate, dancing to music that isn't there. 
 
The relative silence is an accommodation for stars Justin Timberlake and Gemma Arterton. They're trying to have an important conversation, darnit. Timberlake's Richie, a former college student who becomes wrapped up in the murky world of off-shore gambling and online poker, and Arterton's Rebecca, a somewhat mysterious woman with ties to this semi-legal world, are having a getting-to-know-you dinner. They may be flirting. She may be trying to con him. He may be trying to work her for information. They may be flirting and conning and working all at once.
 
It's hard to tell, because the tone of the scene keeps changing. Director Brad Furman ("The Lincoln Lawyer") likes doing multiple takes -- More on that and on La Perla in this story -- and with each take he pushes his two actors to improvise both the dialogue and its potential meaning. Nobody who has seen Timberlake on "Saturday Night Live" or on myriad talk shows will be surprised that he's very quick on his feet. With each take, the pacing of the scene changes and the intonation is varied, with most of the spinning coming courtesy of Timberlake. The only interruption comes when a hanging lamp comes crashing down from a tree and forces a cut.
 
"Whoa! That was close," Arterton giggles.
 
Arterton giggles a lot, which she later explains is a tribute to her co-star.
 
"I'm a real giggler, on every movie. That's a giggle. Sometimes I like cackling. It's terrible. I'm known for it. But it is a good feel on the set. It is. And Justin's a funny guy and we make each other laugh," she says.
 
After nearly an hour of takes, I don't quite know which way the scene will turn out with all of the different readings of lines like "We can't do this," "We already have," "But that wasn't this" and "What do you think this is?" but I'm impressed with the diversity of options Timberlake has given the editor.
 
"He's very instinctive," Arterton says of Timberlake. "He works in a very similar way to me and a lot of the relationship was... I'm sure Brad and everyone will tell you, but I didn't realize how many people they were auditioning for this part. I was just like, "I'll just go out for it," you know? But they wanted to get the chemistry right between Justin and the actress."
 
Unlike "Lincoln Lawyer," which already had Matthew McConaughey on board when Furman came on, the director was on "Runner, Runner" first and he was part of the move to alter Timberlake's character when the singer-star became available.
 
"I got really super-excited about working with Justin, because I really believe in him and believe we're going to show a side of Justin Timberlake as an actor that people haven't seen," Furman says.
 
Furman continues, "Look, I'm not negating any of the success he's had or the terrific work he's had, but he's delivering a performance that, in my opinion, is riveting, is grounded, is raw. [It's] very similar, in way, to what I tried to do with Matthew [McConaughey] in 'Lincoln Lawyer,' just really trying to flip it. Putting Justin Timberlake in La Perla, I don't think that's something you see every day. That's not the typical commercial... but I think it's super-commercial, because I think it grounds him in a way and almost humanizes him a way that I think is relatable and gives you an entry point. So, for me, that stuff's exciting."
 
Timberlake's co-star Ben Affleck was already already wrapped when a group of journalists descended on the "Runner, Runner" set last August. Affleck was in the process of finishing editing a little film called "Argo," which was beginning to attract buzz. That left Timberlake with an even larger share of the shooting burden, but he still made time to drop by a sheltered tent between shooting and torrential downpours to chat with the press.
 
In the conversation, Timberlake discusses "Runner, Runner" and explains why he was initially drawn to Affleck's role -- Ivan, the man at the center of the shady online poker empire -- and the changes he made to his own character. Plus, there's a little "Saturday Night Live" talk, even if it happens to be a full year old.
 
Click through for the highlights from the sit-down...
 
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