When Jennifer Lopez and fiancé Alex Rodriguez showed up at a New York strip club in early 2019, Lopez kept a low profile, but asked the strippers to head her way. One of them offered her a lap dance. “I was like, ‘No, I just want to talk to you,” Lopez recalled in a recent interview, sitting in a room at MOMA while Academy viewers watched her buzzy turn in “Hustlers.” “I hadn’t really been to strip clubs, so it was a whole new experience for me. I just asked them what it was like, when they come in, what their day-to-day was like, why they did things. Did they enjoy it?” Then she sat back and watched.
Lopez’s research for “Hustlers,” director Lorene Scafaria’s sizzling depiction of the real-life strippers who wound up drugging private clients and draining their bank accounts, has been well documented; it’s fueled endless tabloid stories and late-night talk show anecdotes. However, sensationalist headlines obscure the daunting work ethic and creative vision that permeates her oeuvre. She’s a gifted actress and a wealthy celebrity who paved her own way. So why does it seem like she’s always taken for granted?
It’s hard to imagine three letters in the English language that command greater pop culture currency than “J. Lo,” but the person they represent often doesn’t get her due. With “Hustlers,” Lopez’s performance has landed some of the best acting notices of her career just as she turned 50. In a matter of weeks, she scored best supporting actress nominations from the Golden Globes, the Independent Spirit Awards, and SAG, providing serious ammo to the prospect of her very first Oscar nomination.
All of this unfolds as Lopez gears up for a February performance at the Super Bowl — the latest reminder of the massive star power that often outshines the more intimate side of career. Her insane work ethic compels her to juggle multiple creative challenges; others who achieved her level of success might well take a break.
“I do the movies because I love acting, and I love making movies,” Lopez said. “I don’t ever think about not doing it because it’s difficult. It was difficult from the beginning when I started.” By the time Lopez sang that she was still “Jenny from the Block” in 2002, the world had already begun reducing her to a brand.
“What’s interesting about Jennifer,” said Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Lopez’s producing partner at Nuyorican Productions, “is that she does so many things, that she gets marginalized by each. She’s judged a little harsher. But that has actually fueled her to continue.”
Despite some speed bumps, Lopez has been a bankable actress for decades, and the most profitable Latin performer in the business. From the early days of “Selena” and “Anaconda,” she powered through the genre-shifting feat of sci-fi abstraction in “The Cell” to romcoms “The Wedding Planner” and “Maid in Manhattan.” She overcame the infamous “Gigli” with “Shall We Dance,” “Monster-in-Law,” and “The Back-Up Plan,” rejuvenated her public image as an “American Idol” host, juggled a series of entrepreneurial ventures and fashion endorsements, all while cranking out profitable albums, weathering three public divorces, and mothering two children.
The scale of Lopez’s productivity often obscures the human at the center of the cyclone, but even superstars can be brought down to Earth by their movie roles, when there’s no intermediary between the face and the camera lens.
Lopez was a revelation in “Out of Sight,” playing the savvy cop drawn to the allure of a criminal George Clooney; her capacity to diminish his masculine swagger with a speculative glance confirmed the subtle nature of her screen presence. On “Shades of Blue,” the NBC crime series in which she starred for three seasons, her performance as a single mom and NYPD detective scored higher marks than the show itself.
She’s never dipped into massive franchises or sequels, although she inhabits such a unique position in the industry that studios often don’t know where to place her. It’s a wonder she hasn’t appeared in a Marvel movie, considering the pressing need for the MCU to address its lack of Latinx representation.
“The truth is, we haven’t been invited,” said Goldsmith-Thomas. “If we were invited into the Marvel franchise and there’s a great character, why not? They’re great stories. But we come at everything a little sideways. It’s been the road less taken, but maybe that’s the defining factor.”
Say what you want about the J. Lo concept — sizzling outfits and storybook beauty, snazzy dance moves often set to overproduced beats, and schmaltzy narrative conceits galore — but when she gets in front of the camera, she puts in the work.
“It’s just about getting people to believe in the story and in you at that moment, that you can deliver something special and unique,” Lopez said. “I don’t care about all that other stuff.”
The throughline in Lopez’s movie career is being seen in a man’s world, and taking control of that gaze for her own empowerment. It’s there when she yells at Jack Nicholson in Bob Rafelson’s “Blood and Wine” and the way her character juggles the chaos of instant fame in “Selena,” both released in 1997. Sometimes it outshines the entire movie, as when she plays an abused woman who learns Krav Maga to take out her abusive ex-husband in the cheesy 2002 thriller “Enough.” It’s the essence of “Out of Sight” and “Maid in Manhattan.” And it’s front and center of her stunning introductory scene in “Hustlers.”
When Lopez first surfaces at the strip club, she holds the room. Gliding down the pole to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” — a hit released the same year Lopez broke out with “Selena” — Ramona makes it rain from every direction, as a starry-eyed Destiny watches across the room. The scene ends with a brilliant punchline, cutting away to Ramona on the roof, decked out in a fur coat and smoking a cigarette with a look of utter contentment on her face. It’s a dazzling paean to feminine prowess.
Yet Lopez found it daunting to get in front of the camera with hundreds of cheering male extras, having only rehearsed her dance at home with an instructor. “It was really scary,” she said. “To be dressed that way for the first time ever in my life and do what I was about to do…” She laughed. “I had to put that aside and just become the actress.”
Scafaria said she framed the scene around Lopez’s outsized presence. “There’s a theme of control throughout the movie,” she said. “There are moments where Ramona is totally in control. I’m not sure it was me. I feel like Ramona wanted the camera to be where she wanted it to be. We put her in control and gave her that power. … Of course, Jennifer is just so intoxicating.”
Lopez took a producing credit on the project, and offered notes on the rough cut. “The second cut was a little bit better, but it still felt like it needed to ramp up all the excitement that happened at the end and how things start going wrong,” Lopez said. However, she was especially keen on having Scafaria behind the camera.
“I think with a man it would have been a very different stripper movie,” she said. “Men look at strippers very differently than women do. Lorene understood it and had a lot of empathy and really wanted to understand this world. I don’t think a male director would’ve been able to handle that type of sensitivity.”
Lopez leaned into her support for women directors with the just-wrapped “Marry Me,” a musical romcom about a pop star directed by Kat Coiro. “I do think as women producers, we have a responsibility,” Lopez said. “There are so many amazing women directors, and they just don’t get the chances that all the men do. When you think of directors, right away you think of this guy in a suit — those are the oldest images.”
She added that her team spoke to a range of directors for “Marry Me,” including some men. “You have to kind of shift your thinking to realize there’s a slew of women directors out there who are just as confident and wonderful and have different takes,” she said. “At least take the meetings and hear what they have to say.”
Lopez intends to become one of those women. She has discussed the possibility of making her directorial debut with “The Godmother,” an STX-produced biopic in which she plans to star as the late Colombian drug lord Griselda Blanco, but she’s reticent to overcommit. As a filmmaker, “I’d have to take out a good amount of time to do what I envision doing,” she said. “I’d have to take out at least a year.” Make no mistake though: She really wants to direct. “As a producer and lead actress on a lot of these movies, I’m always collaborating,” she said. “It’s just a natural next step.”
Lopez described her career aspirations as a synthesis of Rita Moreno and Barbara Streisand, which sounds about right. “Rita Moreno was in ‘West Side Story,’ she was Puerto Rican, she won an Oscar and an Emmy and a Tony and a Grammy,” said Lopez. She absorbed the Streisand fandom from her mother while growing up in the Bronx. “Watching her career over the years, watching her sing and act and direct, was very inspiring to me,” Lopez said. “One of the pictures I have in my mind is her in the middle of the New York street directing a big scene for ‘The Mirror Has Two Faces.’ I see her pointing next to the camera but she’s dressed like this crazy person. I saw that and was like, ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’”
In the meantime, Lopez supports new voices via Nuyorican. “We have a team of people at our production company, young people telling us this or that short film is really good,” she said. “I’m not sitting at home just seeing what documentary is on Netflix tonight, but whatever gets flagged to me, I watch.”
Lopez likes to get into the room to pitch projects and often finds herself expected to multitask. That was how she wound up starring in “Shades of Blue,” which she initially intended to support as a producer. “We went in and pitched it to the head of NBC at the time,” Lopez said. “I’m describing the character and what it’s going to be, how it’s about morality and crime. He asked if I was playing the character. I said ‘No, no, I’m just producing. He said, ‘If you play it, I’ll put it on for 13 right now.’”
She agreed, even though she had just signed on to a months-long residence in Las Vegas. It ran three seasons, ending just in time for her to shoot “Hustlers” and go on a summer tour. “I was like, ‘OK, I’m done,’” she said. “I needed to go back to movies, to go back to touring.”
Goldsmith-Thomas said she and Lopez move so fast that potential projects often have short windows of opportunity before the pair move on. They missed the chance to do a live version of “Bye Bye Birdie” for NBC earlier this year. “I loved the idea, but it had to come together at the right time,” Goldsmith-Thomas said, adding that it was unlikely the project would move forward now. But they have learned to keep their options open. “I don’t think we ever take a movie because it’s a surefire commercial bet,” she said. “You go by your gut and hope other people like it. You only own your own truth.”
Lopez’s undeniable secret weapon, Goldsmith-Thomas draws on her prior experiences with Julia Robert’s nascent career. “There’s a misogyny attached to romantic comedies by calling them ‘chick flicks,’” Goldsmith-Thomas said, referencing the most famous credits in both actresses’ careers. “It’s the one kind of universal movie that appeals to all audiences.” Working with Lopez across multiple eras, Goldsmith-Thomas said, “I think we’ve felt we needed to prove ourselves over and over.”
In fact, when I mentioned our interview to some peers, it often yielded smirks and derision — the critic and the pop star, the highbrow geek out of his element. “What was she wearing?” one person asked, while another implored: “Does she look 35 even though she’s 50?”
A few days later, Lopez hosted “SNL,” resurrecting her famous Versace dress in an endearing opening number that also found her bragging about her age. “People try to write you off,” she told the crowd, wearing a outsized tux she’d tear away moments later. “It’s all BS. … They tried to count me out so many times. But I’m still here.” She grinned and soaked up the cheers.
It was a sanitized variation on her big “Hustlers” moment, and a reminder of just how well Lopez can play to many different kinds of rooms. “It’s all about what you can sell,” she told me in our interview, “but it’s also about what you can make people believe in.”
Additional reporting by Kate Erbland.