In a black hoodie, her caramel hair corralled into a ballerina bun, Jennifer Lopez is giving her dancers a priceless piece of advice. “Part of being a great performer is being aware,” she tells them. That moment, from her documentary Halftime—which narrates her progress toward her 2020 Super Bowl performance with Shakira—crystallizes who she is as an actress, too.
Lopez began her multipronged career, of course, as a dancer, and acting, for her, always starts “in the body,” she says. “Blocking a scene is choreography; even looping is choreography.” When she’s preparing for a role, she thinks about movement before anything else: “the walk of the character, the way they use their hands, the way they choose to move from one place to the other.” That could mean mastering the thigh-bruising art of pole dancing, as she did for her role in Hustlers, or sleeping in Selena Quintanilla’s actual bed while studying to play her in Selena. Whatever it is, she commits—hard. That’s the JLo promise: You’re going to see her sweat, and you’re going to be riveted.
In a town that insists on effortlessness, Lopez was always unapologetic about showing her work. But she had to learn to advocate for herself. When she started out in Hollywood, she had a just-happy-to-be-here mentality. As her cred grew, she remembers “having to fight for different roles” as a Latina, “to be a lead in a romantic comedy—to not play the maid or the housekeeper.”
These days, she is choreographing her own story. With her company Nuyorican Productions, she has produced projects including Hustlers, the Netflix film The Mother, and TV series like The Fosters and Shades of Blue. “I want to tell the gamut of stories,” she says. “Uplifting, empowering stories, and entertaining stories, and gangster movies. I want to do everything that men do. I want to do all of it.” She doesn’t like the notion that women only want to see love stories or romantic comedies. “I think that’s insulting.” Women, she points out, “have been leaders of countries. We have run empires; we have done all of these things throughout history, and we should tell all of those stories.”
Another story she’s been telling all along is her own. Her forthcoming, highly autobiographical album This is Me…Now (a sequel of sorts to 2002’s This Is Me…Then) will be accompanied by a Prime Video film. When I tell Lopez that just reading about her tireless schedule is enough to tire me out, she just laughs and promises: “Wait until next year. Next year is the real doozy.”
On mentoring other actors
“When people ask me, ‘How do I do this? How do I get into this?’ I think to myself, ‘You’re not going to do this.’ Because if you’re going to do this, there is a drive within you that will find a way and you don’t need anybody to tell you, ‘You should do this, or you should do that.’ That’s not how it goes. It’s just knocking on the wall and finding a way. When people ask that question, I go, ‘This person probably is looking for a shortcut.’ There is no one sure way to become an actor or start making music. People fall into it in different ways, in their own time.
“But I do like mentoring. I like sharing the experience that I have. When I work with younger actors and I see them banging their head up against the wall, really trying to make this moment work, it’s just like: The most important thing you can do right now is relax. Let’s just be, let’s just live. You start off and you have all of these ambitions: ‘I’m going to be the greatest actor of all time and I’m going to do this and I’m going to do that.’ You can and you will, but how you become that is to relax into it and understand that you know what you’re doing and that you’ve put in the work. The more relaxed, the more aware I can be, the better.”
On making projects for and about women
“You want to make great movies, at the end of the day. You want to make great television. And that should hit everybody. But at the same time, telling stories from a woman’s point of view does draw more of a [female] audience, or they relate to it more, or they get more fanatical about it and obsessed with it because they can feel that it’s not from the male gaze. They can feel the difference. With all the great women producers, directors, and actors who are taking more control of their careers and creating their own material, we’re in a very exciting time for women in Hollywood.
“People were laying the groundwork for this for a long time. It’s just that sometimes it takes time to move these mountains and these old ideas and paradigms and shift them to a place where there’s real change. We have been able to stand in our own power and say, We’re not going to be taken advantage of. We’re not just on the corners of life or on the outside of the stories. We are the stories.”
What she wishes she knew before breaking into Hollywood
“I really came in blind. I knew that I had a love of singing, dancing, performing, and acting—that was my big dream. When I entered into it, I didn’t know any of the logistics of Hollywood or how it worked or what I should be looking for. I learned everything as I went along.
“One of those things was to be more particular with my choices. And I didn’t have that luxury, being Latina. I didn’t get called in for everything someone who wasn’t Latina would get called in for. I got called in for very specific things. As I started getting more leads here and there, I should have pulled back. I took that mindset with me instead of going, ‘I should only work with certain kinds of directors that I really want to work with. I should choose this material in a different way.’ I just wasn’t as particular as I could be, I think. And if I [could] start over, I think I would’ve done that. I would’ve known that the director is really the helm of the project when you’re acting. Just like in singing, the producers you work with are very important. I knew that with music, but I didn’t quite understand it as much when I was younger about directors.”
The current state of women in Hollywood
“There are still a lot of obstacles in the way. It’s not everything you would want it to be, but at least you can see a diverse cast in a movie where the leads are of different races and genders and things like that. And I think that’s encouraging, that we fought for that. I like to think that having been able to break into certain things, that I didn’t settle, knowing in my heart that I was just another girl and I could tell a story of any woman.
“One of the things I’ve learned, too, is that we have to take ownership. We can’t sit around and wait for people to hand us roles. A lot of actresses right now, they produce their own movies and develop their own material, and I think that’s key as well.”
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On the growing number of roles for older women
“It has changed a lot, and I think it’s appropriate. As you get older and you have more experience, you become a richer human being and you have more to offer. The idea of, ‘There’s nothing really valuable about watching a woman over 30’ is so ridiculous, it’s the opposite of right. It just makes me laugh.
“People have realized that women just get sexier as they get older. They get more learned and more rich with character. All of that is very beautiful and attractive, and not just physically, but on the inside, the beauty that you gain as you get older, the wisdom you gain.
“I see myself working [as long as] I want to. I don’t know what that age is. It might be 70, it might be 80, it might be 90, I don’t know. But I know that it’s there for me if I want it and I want to create it. That has always been the mindset that I’ve had: to never let anybody put me in a box because of where I was born, where I’m from, what age I am, anything like that. Those boundaries don’t exist for me.”
What’s next for her
“I want to keep evolving. And whether I’ll take the helm and direct my own film at one point is a possibility. I’ve talked about it. I’ve been offered to direct a couple of things, and I’ve turned [them] down, just because of time constraints and things like that. I can’t tell you, ‘I’m going to direct three movies, and I’m going to do this, and I’m going to do that.’ But I can say that I will keep evolving as an artist and as a performer and producer and in all of the ways to create the projects that I decide to be involved with—and I hope that that never stops.”
Hair by Jesus Guerrero at The Wall Group; makeup by Scott Barnes at SixK.LA; manicure by Tom Bachik for Tweezerman; set design by Din Morris; produced by Dana Brockman at Viewfinders.
A version of this article appears in the December 2023/January 2024 issue of ELLE.
This story is part of ELLE’s 2023 Women in Hollywood portfolio, our annual celebration of the women we loved watching this year. Click the link below for all the cover stories.
ELLE Fashion Features Director
Véronique Hyland is ELLE’s Fashion Features Director and the author of the book Dress Code, which was selected as one of The New Yorker’s Best Books of the Year. Her writing has previously appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, W, New York magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, and Condé Nast Traveler.