Film

“My Best Years Are Ahead Of Me”: Jennifer Lopez On ‘Hustlers’ And The J-Lo Renaissance

“People are so ready to write women off at a certain age..."

Jennifer Lopez 'Hustlers'

Jennifer Lopez is a pop cultural icon, there’s no other way to put it.

Able to straddle the line between film, television and music for more than 30 years, she’s someone hitting her stride at 50. Now post-Hustlers, she’s likely to become an Oscar nominee.

It’s hard to look directly at Jennifer Lopez. It’s like staring at the sun. That’s the thing they never tell you about interviewing your heroes: you end up making weird, furtive glances in order to avoid gawking at them openly. Especially if they mean something to you, the way Jennifer Lopez means so much to any mixed-race woman of a certain age.

She’s an icon, straight up. The 50-year old is more than just a film and television actress. She’s more than just a music star who has sold some 80 million records worldwide. She’s more than just the accidental inventor of Google Images, by the mere wearing of that green Versace dress. She’s more than just a fly girl.

Since first bursting on to the scene as a versatile Latina star in her twenties, Lopez has created a brand on being more, more, more. So when she walks into a suite at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills to talk about her latest film Hustlers, all of that context is carried with her.

She’s not just another actress spruiking a project, she’s J.Lo.

Jennifer Lopez, Oscar Nominee

As streetwise stripper Ramona in Hustlers, it’s extremely likely she might soon be Jennifer Lopez: Oscar nominee.

“I knew it was something really good for me to sink my teeth into… It was a great role for me”

“I liked the script from the minute I read it,” she says, eyes bright with excitement. “Let’s forget the script and the story for a minute, just the idea … it’s women producers, it’s a woman director, a woman writer, starring women, woman editor, you know what I mean? I just thought ‘this is going to be something amazing, this is going to be a great thing’. This is a gritty movie, this is not a fluffy movie, it goes dark, it has great characters, it is told well, it is shot well. I knew that it was going to be something special in the way of filmmaking.”

Did she know it was going to be something she could build a veritable Oscar campaign around? Something that would see critics labelling her the awards season favourite almost immediately after the film’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September?

“I knew it was something really good for me to sink my teeth into,” Lopez says, more careful than coy. “And when you get selfish and take all that away and go ‘okay is this a good role for me?’ It was a great role for me.”

It was also a dangerous role.

It’s the kind of role Lopez more frequently played at the start of her career in movies like U-Turn, Blood and Wine and even Selena. The part of Ramona is prickly, complicated, messy, likeable and inherently unlikable at the same time. It’s a risk and one that few people who have reached ‘icon’ status the way she has are willing to take at this point in their career.

Hustling

“This is what this country is: a strip club,” Ramona says at one point during Hustlers. “You’ve got people tossing the money and you got those doing the dance.”

Based on the true story of a troupe of strippers who scammed Wall Street bankers following the Global Financial Crisis, Hustlers is a tale that isn’t unfamiliar to Lopez. Getting her start as a back-up dancer for Janet Jackson and famously as a fly girl on In Living Colour, the lure of being able to make more money exotic dancing was always there, just on the periphery.

“People are so ready to write women off at a certain age… But I just feel like my best years are ahead of me. The more I learn and the more I live … the better my work gets, and I feel that”.

“You know, there were some girls in my dance studio that did strip on the weekends in Jersey,” Lopez reflects. “They were like ‘you should do it!’ I was like … you know, you have to cross a line to be able to do that for yourself.”

She’s the first to admit she didn’t expect to take on this kind of part at this moment in her life, having celebrated her fiftieth birthday in July.

“I could never see myself doing the things that she did, so there was an extra level to the unapologetic way she lived her life,” Lopez says of Ramona. “She understood the game was played a certain way and if you’re not gonna play it, you’re gonna get taken advantage of and I’m not gonna get taken advantage of. I’m gonna get mine. That was a little bit more harsh, maybe, than my point of view.”

Criminal

Adding another degree of difficulty was the physicality.

Arguably Hustlers seminal scene is a four-minute pole routine Lopez performs to Fiona Apple’s ‘Criminal’, one that she had to perform herself as the budget was just “too limited” to afford a body double. “I’m athletic,” Lopez smirks, “but I’ve never done acrobatics like that … the strength it requires.”

Her Hustlers co-stars Constance Wu, Lili Reinhart, Keke Palmer, Lizzo, and Cardi B — who has a real-life background as a stripper to draw from — didn’t have a moment like that. It was Lopez who had to carry it as the head of their unofficial girl gang of criminals.

“When I spoke to Cardi the first time about doing the movie I said ‘I just started learning how to pole dance, it’s really hard’ and she goes ‘it took me years, I’m great at it but it took me years to learn’. I was thinking to myself ‘my God, I only have seven weeks and I’m supposed to be the best one?’.”

Working with Cirque Du Soleil’s Johanna Sapakie, Lopez had a pole built in to each of her homes in New York, Miami and Los Angeles so she could practise at any time. The process — along with the bruises — is documented in a video she posted on her YouTube channel, because yes, Jennifer Lopez is famous for being one of the hardest working people in Hollywood.

The Value Of Work

Yet she also knows the power of showing your work.

The type of work Jennifer Lopez has been doing for three decades in the industry mightn’t necessarily be valued in the same way as, say, her male peers. But gendered classifications aside, that doesn’t diminish its importance to people like her Hustlers co-stars Keke Palmer and Constance Wu, who note Lopez as one of the first examples they saw of a woman of colour in mainstream pop culture.

“I would always be professional,” Palmer says, citing Selena as a seminal film for her growing up. “(But) that did not stop me ever from letting her know how that influenced me, I never held back on that, letting her know ‘girl I’m living for you, come on now, you’re J.Lo! Don’t ever forget ‘cos I respect you’.”

For Hustlers writer and director Lorene Scafaria, there was no one else who could encapsulate Ramona. “Jennifer Lopez jumped off the page,” she says. “It couldn’t be anyone else … Ramona just was Jennifer Lopez. That edge was really fun to see again.”

Something Dangerous

Scafaria said part of what’s so compelling for audiences about Lopez’s portrayal is they’re getting to see her in “something dangerous for the first time in a while”.

For Lopez, who also produced Hustlers with several of her female producing partners, she’s all about making dangerous choices … even if they’re not overt. When she exploded on to the scene as a bonafide actress and movie star in the nineties with films like Anaconda and Out Of Sight, pursuing a music career simultaneously was considered a dangerous move.

I think it’s a great time for women too, where we’re coming into our own and unafraid to say what we think and stand up for ourselves

It was openly critiqued at the time as a mistake. Then her debut On The 6 came out in 1999, fusing R’n’B, pop and Latin influences and becoming one of the biggest albums of that year. It sold more than eight million copies worldwide and spawned hit singles If You Had My Love, Waiting for Tonight and Let’s Get Loud.

She was key in taking the concept of the ‘remix’ mainstream thanks to collaborations with Ja Rule and one of the best-selling remix albums of all time, J To Tha L-o. When she dropped her second LP – J.Lo – and birthed the moniker forever, she became the first woman to have the number one album and the number one movie in the country at the same time (rom-com The Wedding Planner).

Just because those moves were successful, that didn’t make them any less dangerous. She — a young, Latina woman and the daughter of immigrants — was occupying spaces previously filled by thin, white women. Lopez was taking up real estate in the pop culture conversation that up until that point had been largely dominated by the Gwyneth Paltrow’s, the Julia Roberts’, the Nicole Kidman’s.

In an era of ‘heroin chic’ and wispy blondes, she dared to proudly show a different body type in the pages of Vanity Fair, which is still looked back as the moment “J.Lo’s ass changed the world”. Her mere existence, let alone the bold defiance of it, was a political act.

“I’ve always been trying to push that,” she says. “I’ve been doing romantic comedy leads since I was in my 20s, you know what I mean? Hoping that changes and moves the needle a little bit. ‘Cos those are always traditionally a certain type of actress who plays those roles, right? Even with Constance (Wu) and the success of Crazy Rich Asians, we wanna keep moving towards everything being what it really is rather than some make believe thing. And I think we’re in it, I think we’re there.”

The Dreamer

Lopez refers to herself as a “dreamer” and for many, she epitomised a different kind of Hollywood dream.

The power of a brown woman as the sweet but sexy heroine winning over a rotating roster of Hollywood’s most eligible white bachelors isn’t to be scoffed at: whether it was George Clooney, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes or Alex O’Loughlin.

She was also an action chick — Money Train, Enough, The Cell — and she was a bounce back chick, resilient after public break ups (Ben Affleck, Marc Anthony) and public flops (Gigli, Jersey Girl). Audiences felt like they grew with her, not grew up with her: Lopez has always been a grown-ass woman in the public consciousness and never viewed through a girlish lens, regardless of her age.

She has persevered, with show business having to seemingly adapt around her until Lopez exists in a Hollywood where a movie like Hustlers can earn $US100 million domestically in three weeks.

“I think it’s a great time for women too, where we’re coming into our own and unafraid to say what we think and stand up for ourselves,” she says. “I feel like it’s been happening for a while. But again, when do we get there? Will it ever be enough? You know what I mean? How long is that gonna take until it’s really, truly equal? I don’t know, all we can do is keep moving in kind of the right direction and keep forcing the issue.”

The Cup

The entire interview, she has been punctuating each sentence with a sip from what can only be described as a slushie cup like you would get from 7/11.

And yet, it’s nothing like something you would get from 7/11: it’s decorated in crystals, with ‘J.Lo’ spelled out in red and orange stones and stars wrapping around the cylinder.

“I got one of these a couple of years ago for my birthday from a friend of mine,” she explains. “And since then, everyone just gets me one now… It has become a thing, I can’t go anywhere without it. People are like ‘where’s your cup?’ They’re amazing, they make you feel happy.”

A low-key way to reinforce her diva image? Sure, but what she doesn’t say at the time is that she got all the key members of the cast and crew on Hustlers their own cups as well, to encourage them to drink water all day.

“She made me one!” Constance whispers excitedly at one point.

It’s the softer, more “nurturing and caring” side of Lopez that people don’t usually see, says Wu. They see the superstar. They see the Latina icon. They see the green dress. They see the diva. They see the business woman. They see the rom-com heroine. They see the woman who can resurrect a fallen sporting icon just by her mere proximity to him. They see the pop star defying time at 50-years old.

“People are so ready to write women off at a certain age,” Lopez says, contemplative. “But I just feel like my best years are ahead of me. The more I learn and the more I live … the better my work gets, and I feel that. Even as a singer, even as a performer, even as an actress, even as a producer, I’m able to bring something new and better every single day. It’s a great thing to be able to say that at this point in my life and career.”


Maria Lewis is a journalist, screenwriter and author of The Witch Who Courted Death, It Came From The Deep and the Who’s Afraid? novel series, available worldwide.