[Editor’s note: The following post contains spoilers for “Hustlers.”]
Lorene Scafaria’s fact-based “Hustlers” is crammed with some serious star power, from leadsJennifer Lopez and Constance Wu to a stacked supporting cast that includes Cardi B, Lizzo, Trace Lysette, Keke Palmer, Mercedes Ruehl, Lili Reinhart, and Madeline Brewer, but the girl-powered stripper dramedy also includes one major male star among its ranks. Based on Jessica Pressler’s viral New York magazine story “The Hustlers at Scores,” Scafaria’s third film follows the eponymous hustlers at a Manhattan strip club as they move from pole dancing to glorified pickpocketing during an uneasy time in the American economy.
Set both before and after the financial crisis of the mid-aughts, “Hustlers” entertainingly dramatizes both the high-on-the-hog pre-collapse years at the club and what happens after (read: situations tough enough to make the hard-working ladies turn to crime to survive). In the middle of that shift between very different timelines, Scafaria finds the space for one last celebratory evening at the club, centered around the surprise appearance of a megastar patron. As word spreads backstage, the ladies freak out (Lizzo even screams, “motherfucking Usher is here!”) and run to the stage, all the better to entertain a deep-pocketed and well-known guest.
It is indeed superstar Usher, and as Lopez’s Ramona, Wu’s Destiny, and their friends process his appearance in their crazy world, so too does the audience. Scafaria and cinematographer Todd Banhazl have a little fun with the singer’s initial appearance, following him into the club from behind, only the back of his head visible. It’s not entirely clear if it is Usher or just some lookalike, a playful twist on an already energetic scene. “I was hoping people would go, ‘Okay, she’s saying it’s him. Okay, no, that’s just the back of someone’s head. No, that’s him!,'” Scafaria said in a recent interview with IndieWire.
Landing the “him” in question wasn’t always guaranteed though, even though Scafaria first wrote the script with both Usher and his hit song that plays over the sequence (“Love In This Club,” of course) mentioned by name. “You just kind of wonder, who’s actually going to play this role?,” she said. “I was so desperate for it to be him.”
Having heavy-hitters like Lopez in the film helped make the connection, Scafaria said, and while getting the initial offer to the superstar wasn’t that hard, convincing him he could play the role wasn’t an easy ask. “He had some worries about whether or not he looked the same as he did in 2008, and I was like, ‘You do,'” the filmmaker said with a laugh. “But then he was concerned because his hair is different, so there was a day where I was Googling ‘Usher and hats’ and sending Usher pictures of himself in hats so he knew it was possible for him to step into the role. But then he really had fun with it and he brought his chain from that era, that jacket.”
The scene, complete with Usher and his crew showering the dancers with money as they all happily crowd the stage together, serves as the last great night before everything goes topside. “Hustlers” is framed around an after-everything interview between Destiny and Julia Stiles’ Elizabeth (serving as a Pressler stand-in), and so while both the audience and Wu’s character understand that it spells the end of something wonderful, the joy of it all is infectious. Scafaria — and Usher — felt that too.
“He really knew what we were doing and the kind of celebration we were having there,” Scafaria said. “It was a real treat and that was obviously my favorite day on set. It’s the most surreal scene to shoot, because all the women were up on the stage together during that scene and that’s when I had tears in my eyes, because I was just so excited to see them all celebrated in this way. It looked like a renaissance painting to me, it was so glorious. That was a pretty incredible day.”
“Hustlers” is now in theaters.