• Golden Globe Awards

Jennifer Lopez, 1997: Becoming “Selena”

Jennifer Lopez started her career as a dancer, then transitioned into movies when Gregory Nava cast her for a supporting role in Mi Familia (1995), then for the leading role in Selena (1997), the biographical movie about the Tejano singer, which earned her the first of two Golden Globes nominations. She was directed by Francis Ford Coppola in Jack (1996) with Robin Williams, by Bob Rafelson in Blood & Wine (1997) with Jack Nicholson, by Oliver Stone in U-Turn (1997) with Sean Penn, by Steven Soderbergh in Out of Sight (1998) with George Clooney.  This is what she said to the journalists of the Hollywood Foreign Press in the first two of our many exclusive interviews with the actress/singer. This month she costars with Owen Wilson in the romantic comedy Marry Me (2022) – perfect for Valentine’s day.
Jennifer Lopez was aware of Selena before being cast to play her in the movie, but only discovered how beloved she was by her fans once she traveled to Texas: “I listen to Latin music, so I knew some of her hit songs and I had seen her on Spanish television. But I had no idea of how big the Selena phenomenon was until I walked into that room for the press conference after I got the part, and everybody was screaming. Then, when I went down to Texas, I really got a taste of what it was like; once I was in contact with Selena’s fans, I got to feel the love that her fans actually felt for Selena. 33,000 people showed up, unpaid, and stayed out all day for our filming. That’s when I felt what it felt like to be Selena, to be in that position, to feel that love, that hope, all of those things. Then it was so easy to play her because every moment and every sentiment in the film for me was real, nothing was pushed or fake, so I had no problem with it.”
Despite the fact that the actress had already worked in a movie directed by Gregory Nava, Mi Familia, she still had to audition for the role of Selena: “It was because of Selena’s family, they really wanted to find the right person, so they had an open casting call in five cities. Greg called me and said that he was writing the script, which was a very big secret, and anybody who didn’t audition was not being considered. ‘I’ve got to weed out the people who are not going to be able to handle it, so it’s going to be a tough audition.’  And it was, we did three very long scenes, I had to do a five-and-a-half-minute concert, performing like Selena. So, it was tough, a full-blown screen test that took nine hours.”
Lopez was eventually chosen to play Selena, and not because she was a singer, since the voice of Selena was used in the soundtrack: “They must have seen something in me that was very similar to Selena’s core personality, which is that we’re both happy people since she was known for that trademark smile of hers.  If you see her on stage, you’d always catch her laughing and smiling, there was that joy and that naturalness that she had. For me, it would have been nice to do the singing, but it was the right choice for the film. I believe her father Abraham sold the movie to Warner Bros with the condition that they would use Selena’s voice, so that was built in from the beginning, there was never a question whether or not we would use her voice.”
Jennifer Lopez’ background is Puerto Rican, but she was born in the United States, as was Selena, who was born in Texas of Mexican parents: “My mom and dad were born in Puerto Rico, my mom (Guadalupe) came here when she was two, my dad (David) when he was six. We lived in New York, me and my two sisters, one older (Leslie), one younger (Lynda), were born in New York, our first language is English; in fact, we were given a hard time by our Spanish speaking relatives our whole life for not learning the language. The culture is very different between Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, but the growing up Latina in the United States, that’s the same amongst everybody, so there wasn’t a difference between Selena and I.”
She did experience some discrimination at first, as a Latina actress in Hollywood: “I guess on a daily basis, when I was growing up in New York, you feel sometimes that you’re different, especially when you go out into Manhattan and you walk into the stores because the Bronx is a different world. But I’m definitely not going to make up any stories that I was discriminated against a whole lot.  When you do come into Hollywood, all you have to go by before they know your work, is your name, and my name is Jennifer Lopez, and I haven’t opted to change that. So, at first, they would call and say, ‘We have a small part in a film or a television show for a Rosie Perez type,’ and that’s what I wound up going out for all the time, for whatever Latina roles came in. Now that some directors know my work, it’s different, people talk and that’s when you start getting a reputation and that helps.”
It was the 1961 movie musical West Side Story that inspired her to become an actress as a child: “The fact that I was born a big old ham probably had something to do with it, and I was inspired mostly by my mom, because she always wanted to be an actress, and she has a stunning resemblance to Natalie Wood, so West Side Story was a big deal in our house from the time I was born, it was something we acted out and sang in the living room, my mother would always be Maria and we’d be either the Jets or the Sharks depending what scene we were doing. So, my childhood was enriched with a lot of music, movies and entertainment, because my mother was very much into it, there was lots of singing and dancing around our house always, and dance was actually where I made my living before I became an actress. I moved out to LA when I got the Fly Girl job on In Living Color.”
Lopez did succeed in becoming a movie star and she attributed this to her original long-term plan: “From the beginning, since I started in this business, I’ve always planned for longevity, that was the main thing. I always said, ‘I can do anything, and I want my career to reflect that. I don’t want to get stuck in one type of role, whatever I choose along the way.’ And I’ve been super lucky in the fact that the auditions that went well for me happened to be with Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone and Bob Rafelson. My managers and I had a plan from the time when I was nobody, and I’m still nobody, but now I’m working in film. That was always my plan for being in this business, I want to be here when I’m 50, 60, when the looks have gone because it all goes, but I can still be considered for the work that I do and have done.”