BEAUTIFUL AND BODACIOUS JENNIFER LOPEZ IS FULL OF SURPRISES, NOT THE LEAST OF WHICH ARE RAGING TALENT AND A TWO-MILLION DOLLAR PRICE TAG. HERE, THE ACTRESS WHO SEEMS TO HAVE BURST OUT OF NOWHERE INTO STARDOM EXPLAINS WHY SHE GETS ROLES SANDRA BULLOCK DOESN'T, DESCRIBES HOW WESLEY SNIPES WOULDN'T GIVE IT A REST, AND REVEALS THAT OLIVER STONE SMELLS LIKE "SPICY LAVENDER."
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 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 promoting this movie while George is on "ER"? Say, Anaconda is now over $100 million worldwide and why do you think girls between the ages of 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."'
Because Lopez in person, is, if possible, more alluring and yet more delicate than on-screen, I can't help but say, "Looking the way you do, I'm guessing certain directors and costars must have been more than casually attracted to you. Who's made the clumsiest pass yet?" Without the slightest hesitation, she answers, "That would have to be a tie between Woody and Wesley [her Money Train costars]. Woody was more playful, but if I'd have gone for it, he totally would have. I'd say, 'Hey, Woody, how are you doing?' He'd, like, stick out his tongue and flick it at me very nasty." Mimicking Harrelson as the world's homiest anteater, she continues, "He was really funny about it. But Wesley - even though I had a boyfriend at the time - went full court press. He was flirting with me - you always flirt with your costars, its harmless - then he just started getting a little more serious. He would invite us all out together and then at the end of the night, he'd drop me off last and try to kiss me. I'd be like, 'Wesley, please, I'm not interested in you like that.' He got really upset about it. His ego was totally bruised. He wouldn't talk to me for two months. I was like, 'What an asshole.' Actors are used to getting their way and to treating women like objects. They're so used to hearing the word 'Yes.' Now, I suppose Wesley will call me going, 'You bitch! How dare you? I didn't like you."' Lopez raucously laughs, "Its time for the truth to come out!"
Lopez says she also blocked a pass made by Stephen Dorff, with whom she made Blood and Wine. What went down? "I thought he was really charming," she recalls. "He said, 'You're the most beautiful girl I've ever worked with,' and I was like, 'Oh, that's so sweet.' And he kept on staring and then he told me, 'Seriously, you're the most beautiful. . . ,' on and on. There was an attraction there, definitely, but not something I wanted to take further. I would flirt with him a little, but I just wasn't into him that way. He got really upset and, toward the end of filming, I said, 'Oh, what, are you not talking to me now? Look, I'm just not interested at this point in my life, but don't pull a Wesley on me!' because I had told him that whole story. He was, like, 'All right, let it go."'
Lopez refers to Jack Nicholson, with whom she also worked on Blood and Wine, as "a legend in his own time and in his own mind - like the rest of us are peons." And how did things work out with her mercurial U-Turn leading man. Sean Penn? "He has a tot of strength and we got along great, actually," she says, sounding genuinely respectful. "He could tell right away I wasn't intimidated to be there with him and Oliver. I remember asking him, 'Why do we always see pictures of you looking like you're ready to hit somebody?' and he goes, 'Because in those pictures, I'm never with my friends.' Working with Sean and Nick Nolte, too, who is a truly amazing, great actor whom I respect so much - that was top of the line. I could never work with better actors." When I ask, "Which of your costars, in a parallel universe, say, would you have a 'thing' with?" she looks up from beneath her thick lashes and says, grinning, "Should I get myself in trouble with my husband? OK, in a parallel universe, Sean. I was engaged when we were shooting U-Turn, and one day he said, If I weren't married and you weren't engaged, would this have been a very different movie?' And I go, 'Yeah! Very different.' So we kind of. . . well, we both had our own lives, so that made a real difference." Given that Lopez has no doubt recalled only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the come-ons she's gotten in Hollywood, I ask her, "What one thing should any woman in Hollywood never be without?" On cue, she deadpans, "Mace."
At 27, Lopez has, clearly, spent years honing the fine art of the tease, the shoot-down and the snappy comeback. Born and raised in the tough-as-nails Bronx by a kindergarten teacher and a businessman, she hails from a whole house of lookers, including two sisters. "When did you first notice guys being attracted to you?" I ask. "I had a very voluptuous body from the time I was 11," she says. "My mother used to say, I'm so worried about Jennifer because she's so sexy. I'm afraid she's going to get pregnant.' The taste in my neighborhood was for voluptuous women, see? I knew guys liked me. Back then, in the third, fourth grade, there were girls who already had tits and boyfriends, they were always kissing in the school closet. Not me. I was more of a late bloomer, like I didn't get into it until seventh grade, 12 years old."
Her first boyfriend, David Cruz, was to become much more than just her neighborhood Romeo. "We started dating when I was 15 and dated only each other for nine years. We were very careful. I'm not saying we weren't having sex, because we were. We lived in the same neighborhood and he'd see me in, like, a weird hat, wearing something I'd cut together from a picture I'd seen in a magazine and I'd be just going to the track to run. I was creating my own style. Everybody would look at me, like I was a nerd, 'What is she doing? What is she wearing?' Because people didn't do that in my neighborhood. People didn't work out or take care of their bodies. If people see you striving for things, it threatens them. I was into, "This two-bit town isn't big enough for me.' My boyfriend would say, 'Jennifer has bigger plans.'"
Plans that, once Lopez got hired in 1991 as a Fly Girl on "In Living Color," began winning roles on short-lived TV series like "Second Chances," "South Central" and "Hotel Malibu," and finally landed Gregory Nava's My Family, didn't feature a nice guy from the old hood? She reflects, "He came out here with me and was here with me the whole time when I first started doing television and breaking into movies. Career-wise, we weren't in the same place. He just didn't know what he wanted to do. But I had a fire under my ass, I was so fast. I was like a rocket, he was like a rock." She laughs at her own turn of phrase, but its obvious that talking about Cruz opens something raw in her, and with that remark, she doses the book on the subject.
Lopez surprised the people around her by hitching herself in 1996 to the striking Ojani Noa a year after she first saw him waiting tables at Gloria Estefan's hip Cuban restaurant in Miami Beach while she was there shooting Blood and Wine. They began dating seriously and, during the wrap party for Selena, Noa popped the question on the dance floor. Now, with her movie star mojo working overtime, does Lopez harbor the slightest regret at getting married when she did? "A lot of people in my personal life said that I shouldn't have gotten married so fast," she admits quietly. "This business is tougher on women who are doing better than men because men are raised to be the supporters. We still live with those sensibilities. Its tough for me because the men I'm attracted to, for some reason, haven't gotten it together. Even my husband, I feel, has a lot of potential but he's not at the point where. . . I mean, even though he has lots of contacts, even though he's doing his own thing, opening a club and restaurant here, whatever business he gets in, he's not gonna make as much money as me. That's something he has to deal with and to live with, which is tough for someone like him. And, see, I'm not a good example because I'm not normal. I sure wasn't normal at 23, when I was on television and making more than my mom and dad. It's hard for me to find normal contemporaries and it's hard for men to deal with. The man I've married is Latin and they, more than any other type of man, are very macho. I always joke with him, because he's like, 'You can see through that dress!' or 'Is there going to be a love scene in that next movie? You're my wife. I don't want anybody to think of you in that way.' Its just a sweet thing. But I go, 'Look, the love scenes, the see-through dresses - all that stuff is good. As long as people like you, they're going to keep coming to see your movies. Do you want that house in Miami - yes or no?' I mean, this is what it's going to be, its part of the business."
I remark to Lopez, "But there's a long, nasty history of husbands and lovers of sexy Hollywood stars who decided that if that stuff is part of the business, they want no part of that business."
"Ojani gets it, though," she persists. "But, I have to say, if you asked him right now, he'd rather have me home washing dishes, with us living in a small apartment, with him making the money rather than me making millions of dollars a year, living in a house that I mostly pay for. It's tough for me to try and show him that even though I make a lot of money I feel I still need him." She's struggling with this one. Her feeling for her husband and awareness of the inequities of their situation are palpable.
I also perceive that although the sassy, swaggering Lopez wants to soar higher, she does, like any other mortal, have her insecurities. What scares her? "I have fear about the weirdest things," she admits. "I've always had a huge fear of dying or becoming ill. The thing I'm most afraid of, though, is being alone, which I think a lot of performers fear. It's why we seek the limelight - so we're not alone, were adored. Were loved, so people want to be around us. The fear of being alone drives my life."
Growing more pensive and uncharacteristically still, Lopez mentions some of the new problems and limitations her growing fame has imposed. Demands on her time. A shrinking sphere of privacy. Being suspicious of people who suddenly want to get to know her. "I have to say that the kind of upbringing I had, getting beat up a little bit, growing up with all different kinds of different people, is the best upbringing for show business," she offers. "The people who grew up softer, who don't have what it takes to really survive in this business - that's why you find so many people on drugs here." Although she stresses that she's battled no such problem, she admits, "It gave me a lot of anxiety when I began to get so much more recognized. It was like, 'What the hell have I done? Have I made a deal with the devil here?' This stuff of people invading your life, like when you're eating at a restaurant or just walking around, it freaks you out. You're like, I don't want that person coming up to me to ask for an autograph.' But if you're stressed, you attract it even more. It's just easier not to fight things so much. Just fucking go with the flow. It's easier to just sign the autograph quick instead of turning it into a bigger thing. Now I step back and go, 'Hey, I'm from the Bronx, I'm tough and I'm not going to let this get to me."'
Other things have gotten to her, though. "Having your life judged in the press is a tough thing," she admits, alluding to the published reports, for instance, that had her contemplating divorce practically days after she and her husband exchanged vows. "It was in the paper and all over the Spanish news reports that he was throwing things at me, that I was throwing him out, that he was asking me for money. I was like, 'Where do these people get these stories from?' My husband's mother actually called from Cuba, where they don't even get news all the time, saying, 'What happened? Are you guys getting a divorce?' Dealing with these things is tough, but nobody sympathizes with you. And when I was on the other side, I didn't sympathize either, because I'd be like, 'What the hell is she complaining about with her Gucci shoes and her Dolce fur?'"
Riffing on how she's been treated by the press, Lopez declares, "There are certain people that are marked for death already. I have my little list of journalists that have treated me unfairly. Like, I was totally happy, totally confident with my work in Selena, but out of the 700 reviews - and I read every single one - I can quote the one who said, "The one thing you don't do when you walk out of this movie is say, 'Who's that girl?' I was like, 'You lying bitch!' When another person from that same magazine came up to me, the first thing I said to her was, 'You tell that other bitch that writes for your magazine that I'm never talking with her again.' I definitely have my list of people that are going to get their justice."
For all her love of playing the Diva, does Lopez ever take to the diva behaviors that make one loathed by costars? She shakes her head in a defiant no, observing, 'Just because I know my strengths doesn't mean I have a huge ego. The one thing I cannot tolerate in Hollywood is this trickle effect of every single person - from the top with your studio guys - pissing on whoever is below them. Nobody can say that I treat people like that ever. When it comes to my work, I am an ogre, because I want it to be so good. I won't do interviews, I don't want people bothering me. I need my time. But that's the only thing anyone can say about me."
When I ask about her career strategy, she says. "I've already started mapping that out. You've got to do your share of commercial movies - romantic comedies, action movies - the $100-million movies, because if you don't you're not going to have the power and Hollywood is not going to respect you. I would also do any small, independent movie that appeals to me dramatically, because it keeps everybody realizing that your acting chops are there. I think some actors are making a big mistake by doing one big commercial movie after another. It just looks like you're for sale. People want to know that you're selective."
Unable to say enough about how swell a time she had working with Oliver Stone, Lopez declares they're actively discussing a rematch. She adds that the director suggested she do a major stage revival of West Side Story with the hope that they could later pitch a movie musical remake. There's a hitch, though: "I would love to play Anita, but, since Maria is the star role, I would have to play her, too." She'd also like to play a character who's neither Anita nor Maria - someone who is, in other words, not Latina. "Oliver was talking with one of his coproducers on this new movie project he's preparing, and they mentioned an actor they think I'd make a great couple with. Oliver talked about the female role in the movie being perhaps for me and said, 'Maybe the character could be Latin,' and I said, 'Whatever you do, don't make the character Latin because you're thinking of me to play it.' When the other producer said, 'Lets make her Greek, let's make her Italian,' I said, 'You know I have the chops to do that, Oliver.' And he took a few minutes to get there, even after I played an Apache Indian in his movie. I've said I want to be the Latina actress, but I also want to go beyond all that. I want to change things. Or at least, I can start that change."
Lopez has no compunctions about admitting she's grasping for the highest rung of stardom she can possibly attain. I ask, "Had you been around in the old Hollywood days when stars were publicized by the studios as the 'It' Girl, the 'Oomph' Girl, and the 'Cherry Blonde,' what would you have named yourself?" "The first thing that came into my head was the 'Butt' Girl because that separates me from everyone else. I love my body. I really, really dig my curves. It's all me and men love it. Some guys like skinny girls, but they're missing out. When a dress is on a woman, it shouldn't look like it's on a coat hanger. So many girls here are so thin - in fact nobody else in Hollywood really has my type of body. My husband calls it 'La Guitarra,' like the shape of a guitar, which I love because that was always my ideal woman growing up. So, call me the 'Guitar Girl'!" Or maybe the Wow Girl.