Film Scouts Interviews

Jennifer Lopez on "Selena"

by Henri Béhar

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There are some actors who give you pause. You don't know who they are, they appear on the screen, and you go "Hold it! Who's THAT?" Forest Whitaker as a pool hustler in Martin Scorsese's "The Color of Money" was one such case. Jennifer Lopez is another. She was seen opposite Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes in "Money Train", in Coppola's "Jack" opposite Robin Williams and her swishing hips all but stole a couple of scenes from Jack Nicholson and Stephen Dorff in Bob Rafelson's "Blood and Wine". Avid tv-watchers spotted her in "South Central", and a few remember her as one of Rosie Perez's "Fly girls" in the series "In Living Color".

Nothing quite prepares you for what she does in - AS - Selena in Gregory Nava's film. Beyond getting the deceased singer's moves right, she creates a character on whose shoulders the entire film practically rests. Lopez is petite - though not really rail-thin - she is remarkably beautiful and looks you straight in your eyes as she talks to you.

FILM SCOUTS: How hard was it to make Selena a character, not an impersonation?

JENNIFER LOPEZ: That was the big thing from the word go.. To make her a real person. If she's not, then people can't identify with her. Being an impersonation would have been a huge mistake. And bad acting. So, I just approached her like I do all my characters: research. Everything I could find on her: interviews, behind-the-scenes stuff, anything. Any little insight into her personality: how she acted differently in performance than she did in interviews, how her English interviews differed from her Spanish interviews... All sorts of shades that were important for me to get there.

FS: Were you nervous about how Selena's fans would react to you?

JL: At the beginning. When I got the part I didn't realize how big this woman was and how many fans she had in the Latin press, in the Latin community both in this country and out of this country. I was a little overwhelmed.

FS: There was some controversy when the casting was announced because you're Puerto Rican and the Tejano community protested. Did that add to the tension?

JL: Oh, yeah. It was a bunch of things. There was controversy about the rumor that the whole open-casting call was a publicity stunt and that the big audition was a fake.

Well, I DID audition.

Another controversy came up in the Latin press about the fact that I didn't speak very good Spanish -- which Selena didn't either!

So I felt some of that pressure at the beginning.

A few days went by, then I said, "This is going to interfere with my performance. I can't get wrapped up in this. I can't read papers. I can't watch news. I have to do this part." So I went about my work.

FS: What was the audition about, what did you have to do ?

JL: First, you came in and read. Then there was a big screen test. We had to do three or four dramatic scenes from the actual movie, and two of her songs.

There's no way you can put a character together for an audition, but you can give the idea of whether you have the required charisma and the ability to do it.

FS: How did you feel standing up in front of that huge crowd at the San Antonio arena for the recreation of the Houston Astrodome concert?

JL: Wasn't that incredible? I felt a lot of love from that crowd. It was a week into production, so we hadn't had the time to feel comfortable and ready. I was the first concert scene we were shooting, and because of the controversy, I was afraid of what to expect.

"70,000 people have tickets. Probably half will show up."

I'm, like, looking. "How many seats does that fill in here?"

"A lot."

"I've got to call my mom and dad."

I had them flown in so they could be with me. So here I am, I'm getting ready to go out, my heart is pounding.

"I dunno, Ma. These are all Selena's fans. What if they start booing?"

"Don't worry, honey. You did a really good job at rehearsal. They're going to love it."

We went out -- and they started screaming and cheering, and it was wonderful.

FS: Were they screaming "Jennifer" or...

JL: Both. Selena and Jennifer. I was dressed like Selena. I looked like Selena. That was one thing we all noticed: they were screaming "Jennifer" too.

FS: You sure got the costumes right!

JL: That was a hell of a thing: there was so many. I had 50 changes in that movie. If you see pictures of Selena, you'll see these are exact duplications of her costumes.

FS: And for the first time in your film career, you didn't have to cover your hourglass form.

JL: Yes! I mean, no, I didn't! In every movie they want you to look as thin as you can look. "How can we make her hips look smaller? How can we make her look a little slighter?"

I'm like, "This is my shape. This is my body. I don't ever go below 120 pounds." I don't have the typical very straight body. I'm hippy. I have a big butt, and you can't hide it.

In "Selena", it was the other way around: "How can we shoot her butt so it looks like Selena's?"

FS: What surprised you most in your research about Selena?

JL: When I first heard Selena had been murdered, I remember thinking, "What was she doing alone?" But that was the kind of person Selena was. She was in her home town, she felt totally comfortable.

It did bother me, though, and I asked her sister Suzette. She said to me: "Look, Jennifer, your best friend from the second grade now works with you as your assistant. Suppose you found out Arlene was stealing money from you, you guys had a fight, and Arlene said, 'Jen, I have the proof I didn't do it.' Wouldn't you go to the hotel by yourself?"

I said, "Yeah."

"Well, that's what Selena did with Yolanda."

That's why I think the way it's handled in the film is great. Yolanda just... crept in, just like she did in the movie. She became a confidante. She took care of Selena. She became that person who was always there for her.

FS: Was there a point after you've done your research and watched every single tape you could get your hands on, when you went, "Enough! Now I have to approach her as a character in a fiction. Sorry, Mr. Director. My apologies, Family. But now, she's mine."?

JL: I knew in doing the homework that that part would come naturally.

FS: For you. But for them?

JL: To tell you the truth, I never stopped watching the tapes up until the last day. There were always things I wanted to check out, particularly for the musical numbers which we were shooting the day before wrap.

Character-wise, I agree with you. Once you think you understand what made her so charming to people, why they always talk about her a certain way, what impressed them about her, and once you find a way to incorporate all that into a character, you just go off and do it. Be free, let it flow.

At first, I was very conscious about Selena's family being there. "What are they going to think? I'm not their daughter..." I guess after the Houston Astrodome scene, they thought I was doing a decent job and they kind of laid back. It was, like, "Go." I felt that from the family, from the public... from everybody.

FS: Did you get different images of Selena from her father and her husband?

JL: When I first got the part, I thought to myself Chris was the real insight into the way Selena was, because he knew her away from the family. But once I met Chris, I felt like I didn't want to bother him; he had a great loss and he's still dealing with it. He's very quiet, as he is in the movie, and very sweet. I just didn't to push that. Greg had interviewed Chris in depth for the film, Jon Seda, became very close to him, so I got a lot of my insight on Chris through Greg, Jon and their relationship. I just did not want to press that button. I thought I was a reminder for him and I just didn't want to go there, you see what I mean? I talked more often with Abraham, Marcella, Suzanne, the rest of the family and friends. Of course, they have different views. Obviously, she was a wife to one person, a lover, and to Abraham, she was his little girl.

FS: You've had quite a year...

JL: I have, haven't I?

FS: Bob Rafelson's "Blood and Wine" came out a month or two ago, "Selena" is coming out this week, "Anaconda" is scheduled for next month and Oliver Stone's "U-Turn" for the end of the year. That one, we know nothing about yet...

JL: Oliver Stone's film has Sean Penn, Nick Nolte and myself. (Pause) It's a film noir. Weird. Good. (Pause) It's set in present day, but it's small town, so it's a little bit out of time. (Long pause)

FS: That's it?

JL: ...I play an Apache Indian. (Pause)

FS: Okay.... There is a lot of talk about Selena crossing over into the American mainstream.

JL: Ah, the crossover thing.

FS: The same thing is now being said about you.

JL: Selena had the ability to do the crossover thing because she was singing in Spanish. I have never acted in a Spanish movie. I was born in the Bronx. "Crossover" is when you cross over from one market to another. I've always been in this market.

FS: There aren't too many movie stars named Lopez.

JL: You're right. Well, if it's convenient for them to say I'm doing the crossover thing, so be it. I prefer to say I'm Latin, I'm an actor, and I'm having some success.

FS: Is that causing a lot of extra-pressure?

JL: Excitement and pressure. Both. Very much. It's exciting because you work very hard to become recognized in this business. I was happy people were getting to know my name, At the same time, you think, "Oh my God, I'm going to be one of those people?"

So you do feel a lot of pressure, everybody wants to talk to you, it's a bit overwhelming.

Then there's the pressure of being Latin and succeeding, too, because I don't want to let anyone down, in a way. Even though you don't want to think in those terms, it creeps in and you feel a lot of eyes are on you.

But you got to keep it in perspective, or else it will interfere with your work.

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