Jennifer Lopez: The Wow
Remember when Jennifer Lopez was an actress? Her success as a pop star has eclipsed her acting career to the point that you probably don’t remember that her first record was met with skepticism. Another actress trying to sing. Now she’s viewed as another signer trying to act, but really, Lopez can do both. Twenty years ago, when she graced the cover of Movieline’s annual “sex” issue wearing nothing but a fur and jewelry, Lopez’s acting career was just taking off. Following Selena and Anaconda, Lopez was just breaking into the ranks of movie stardom, but she was already a fully formed diva. At the time, the actress was promoting Oliver Stone’s neo-noir, U-Turn, which no one gave a damn about. But her next movie, Out of Sight, would establish Lopez as the real deal. In this interview from before she was Jenny From the Block, J-Lo dishes about her costars, her directors and her husband.
Arriving exactly on time for my interview with Jennifer Lopez, I am escorted through the interior of a luxurious Beverly Hills mansion where she’s staying, out onto a sun-drenched terrace. There, as if I had strolled onto the set of Imitation of Life, I find all 66 caramel-colored inches of Jennifer Lopez lying face down on a poolside chaise. Her bikini top is slightly loosened, her nether regions are towel-draped, and a masseuse is kneading oil into the precipitous peaks and valleys of her formidable body. Her skin glints as if it were flecked with 24-karat gold. I park myself on a nearby chaise, and Lopez greets me with the slow, languid smile and half-mast gaze of someone not entirely anxious to surface from a better-than-life dream. “Hi, Stephen,” she says. “I’ll be with you in a second.” Then, responding to the masseuse’s skillful ministrations, her lips part in sensual abandon, and she turns her head away, sending her hair cascading over the side of the chaise.
This classic Hollywood star tableau has, of course, been orchestrated by Lopez for my benefit. She knows that I know that she knows that I know the whole scene is deliberate, right down to the supporting players–assistants, various friends, family–arranged here and there around the pool, ready to do a star’s bidding. Included in this artfully arranged backdrop is model and restaurateur Ojani Noa, Lopez’s husband of roughly a year, who, in a muscle T-shirt and sunglasses, is splashing water into the pool from a garden hose. “Sweetie, Steve and I won’t be able to hear each other,” says Lopez, as she turns and finally begins to ready herself for something other than rubbing. Issuing one last, voluptuous “Mmmm,” she rises slowly from her chaise, grins at me, adjusts her bikini top, tightens the towel around her midsection, rakes her fingers through her hair, and slides onto an adjacent lounge chair for our chat.
That Lopez has dared to try and pull off such a time-honored Hollywood gambit as Rising-Star-Interviewed-By-The-Pool is in keeping with her overall strategy of playing Big. Big is Jennifer Lopez’s forte. In the flesh, this girl packs a startling, sloe-eyed, tawny, womanly allure reminiscent of vintage-era movie voluptuaries. Ava Gardner and Linda Darnell spring to mind. To match such visual opulence, Lopez comes diva-sized in style, self-regard and ambition–for which she makes no apologies.
Nor should she. Lopez is right this second popping Hollywood’s thermometer like no other new girl in town. In the space of only two years, she muscled out of TV flicks and sitcoms and into showy feature roles with Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes in Money Train, with Robin Williams in Francis Ford Coppola’s Jack, and with Jack Nicholson in Blood and Wine. She chased those with a star turn in the title role of Selena, and came through with a big box-office success in Anaconda. Then she followed that up by taking the role Sharon Stone almost played in Oliver Stone’s noir item, U-Turn, after which she landed the lead opposite George Clooney in Out of Sight, the upcoming sexy action thriller directed by Steven Soderbergh. As that picture wrapped, she was back in the news for winning the lead in Kiss the Girls director Gary Fleder’s next project, Thieves.
“So, what’s your theory about why you, why right now?” I ask her as an opening shot.
“Because I’m the best,” Lopez declares, laughing in delight at her own chutzpah. “I feel I can do anything–any kind of role. I’m fearless.” A fearless Hollywood actress? Can I actually be hearing right? “I work really hard,” answers Lopez. “I’ll just get better as I go along because I’m open to getting better. If you have the goods, there’s nothing to be afraid of. If somebody doesn’t have the goods, they’re insecure. I don’t have that problem. I’m not the best actress that ever lived, but I know I’m pretty good.”
Lopez’s theory of nothing-to-fear-but-fear-itself is more elaborately worked out than it sounds on first hearing. “I have the ‘stardom glow,'” she confides warmly. The what? “See, I grew up watching real movie stars–Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe. Glamorous women like those are why I wanted to get into the business. And from the time I first started off as an actress, each day I had an audition, I’d wake up, do my hair and my makeup, look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘I have the stardom glow today.’ A lot of people go into meetings and auditions all nervous. No! You’ve got to have WOW! I tell my actress friends this all the time. I walk into auditions going, ‘What’s gonna make me different from all the other girls here?’ They’re looking for the next star to walk into that room. It’s about being alive, open, electric, confident. That’s the ‘wow.’
“My older sister and I both started out in musical theater,” Lopez continues. “She has a great voice and she had more of a chance of making it than I did. But she couldn’t take the rejection. You have to get up there and say, ‘You like me?’ And if they say, ‘No,’ it’s like, ‘OK. Fuck you! Next? How about you? Do you like me? Or you? Or you?’ Eventually somebody will say ‘Yes’ and that’s your opportunity to shine, to turn on the star glow.”
Lopez is faster, funnier and prettier than Anthony Robbins, and she outdoes even him as a one-person self-motivation/fan club/cheering section. This bravura is quite charming in person, not to mention refreshing after all the false modesty that masks egomania in Hollywood. But the real reason Lopez can get away with her Bigness routine is that she is good. Self-styled, premeditated divadom is rarely accompanied by genuine acting ability, but Lopez brings talent, and more, to the party. She made an incandescent, heartbreakingly accessible Selena and, in U-Turn, she packed a volatile vulnerability and a jeez-what-will-she-do-next? jolt into her femme fatale, not to mention pitch-perfect Apache cadences.
Oddly enough, Lopez did just about everything an actress could do to avoid taking a U-Turn. Bad blood left over from a casting session she’d had years ago for Stone’s never-filmed Manuel Noriega project left her unwilling to talk to the director about any project. “The minute I began reading this long, four-page scene,” she recounts of her earlier meeting with Stone, “he started walking around the room. Then he began rearranging the furniture. I’m like, ‘What is he doing? This is so rude.’ Well, he rearranged his entire office, and when I finished, the casting director said, ‘Oliver?’ and he turns and goes, ‘Oh–um, OK. So you’re a regular on that TV series? And I go, ‘Yeah.’ And I left. I told my manager, ‘I’ve never been treated like this and I never want to work for Oliver Stone.'”
Flash forward to the set of Anaconda in Brazil. Lopez’s agent called just after she’d learned she’d bagged the lead in Selena over some 22,000 other hopefuls. “I told him, ‘You guys know I don’t want to work with him.’ Click!” Back in L.A. from Brazil, Lopez got another request from Stone. “I’m one of those people who usually sticks to something I’ve said, but I got to thinking, ‘Well, he called himself and he wants to make amends. I have the upper hand here because I don’t care about this movie. I’ve got Selena and I’m getting a million dollars for it.’ That’s the best way to deal with these bigwigs. I just went in there and we hit it off and I flirted with him, got tough with him and he just loved it.”
By the time Lopez reached home, Stone had already phoned her agent, saying the role was virtually hers, adding, “Jennifer Lopez is like a tall drink of hot cocoa.” Then Sharon Stone weighed in. Lopez recalls, “She was interested and so I heard they were going to play that out. But then she wanted a lot of money and they came back to me.” With a triumphant grin, she adds, “The first day we were on the set, [Oliver] said, ‘I’m sorry about the Sharon thing. When a major player calls, you have to play it out. But you were always my first choice.’ He was just trying to make me feel better about it, like he wanted me to be really confident, and I thought it was nice of him to care. He’s like that. He has a soft, vulnerable side.”
Soft and vulnerable, huh? “What did you learn about Oliver Stone’s sensitive side from being directed by him?” I ask. Letting out a hoot, Lopez observes, “That he’s a wild man. He doesn’t hide anything when it comes to sex in his life. He loves women, he has a lot of sex. He loves talking about how he sleeps with women. Like he’ll come onto the set going, ‘Aggghh, I was up fucking until four in the morning until I passed out.’ Oliver is a great guy, highly sexual, and he was so good to me making the movie. Oh, and something else–I’m attracted to scent and he smells really great, like spicy lavender. You know what those expensive purple candies smell like in your mouth? The ones nobody has here but you can get in New York and Europe? That’s what he smells like.”
Lopez worked hard for the opportunity to follow up U-Turn by starring with George Clooney in director Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, an edgy adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s on-the-run action romance between a prison escapee and a female Fed marshal. “I have this attitude–and it won’t change no matter how big I get–that you have to fight for things you want,” says Lopez in explaining how she won the role. “You can’t expect things to be handed to you on a platter, even if you can fill theaters week in and week out. Because there’s always somebody like me ready to kick down the door and steal the job right out from under you. One of the smart things George did was to screen-test everybody, because he knew he’d had trouble with the women in his movies, where maybe there wasn’t as much chemistry as there could have been. Universal was pushing for Sandra Bullock because they said she’d put people in seats. George and the director met with her, but they were like, ‘If Sandra really wants it, she’s gonna have to test for it.’ She wouldn’t test, and her agent, who is also my agent, supported that. If I was Sandy, I’d say, ‘Well, I’m gonna show them that I can do it. I’ll read with them, make them offer me the part, then make them pay out the ass.'”
Lopez herself made them pay when she landed the role. The flat-out outrageous $5 million she asked for ended up to be an only fairly outrageous reported $2 million. “I want to make as much or more than Demi Moore when it’s my time,” she declares. “I think George Clooney’s getting $10 million for this movie. [Universal] thought they were going to get me cheap from the beginning, but I kept telling my agent, ‘No, no, no! Keep asking!’ When my agent called me saying, ‘What should we say to them?’ I said, ‘Say, Who’s going to break their ass to promote this movie while George is on ER? Say, Anaconda is now over $100 million worldwide and why do you think girls between 18 and 25 went to see it more than any other action movies–because of Ice Cube?’ The head of Universal called my manager, saying, ‘You guys are not looking at the long run.’ You know, whatever excuse they can give to keep another dollar in their pocket. I don’t take it personally, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to fight for what I feel. We are looking at the long run, they’re not. Eventually, they’re going to pay. People don’t believe it yet, but right now I’m very underpaid.”
Now that Lopez has edged up to what she calls “the bottom of the A-list of actresses,” how does she view the women with whom she’s been in contention for roles? Like, say, Salma Hayek? “We’re in two different realms. She’s a sexy bombshell and those are the kinds of roles she does. I do all kinds of different things. It makes me laugh when she says she got offered Selena, which was an outright lie. If that’s what she does to get herself publicity, then that’s her thing. Columbia offered me the choice of Fools Rush In or Anaconda, but I chose the fun B-movie because the Fools script wasn’t strong enough.”
Cameron Diaz? “A lucky model who’s been given a lot of opportunities I just wish she would have done more with. She’s beautiful and has a great presence, though, and in My Best Friend’s Wedding, I thought, ‘When directed, she can be good.'”
Gwyneth Paltrow? “Tell me what she’s been in? I swear to God, I don’t remember anything she was in. Some people get hot by association. I heard more about her and Brad Pitt than I ever heard about her work.”
Claire Danes? “A good actress. Her emotional and inner life are available to her, which is a good start. But I feel like I see a lot of the same thing with every character she does. She’s not that way in U-Turn, though.”
Winona Ryder? “I was never a big fan of hers. In Hollywood she’s revered, she gets nominated for Oscars, but I’ve never heard anyone in the public or among my friends say, ‘Oh, I love her.’ She’s cute and talented, though, and I’d like her just for looking like my older sister, Leslie.”
Madonna? “Do I think she’s a great performer? Yeah. Do I think she’s a great actress? No. Acting is what I do, so I’m harder on people when they say, ‘Oh, I can do that–I can act.’ I’m like, ‘Hey, don’t spit on my craft.'”