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Jennifer Lopez’s Journey From Backup Dancer to Lead Actress

J.Lo came into our lives as a Fly Girl on ‘In Living Color,’ shot some iconic music videos, and became a movie star after ‘Selena’

Mario Zucca

On The Big Picture podcast’s most recent edition of Career Arc, Sean Fennessey and Amanda Dobbins discuss Jennifer Lopez and the roles that transformed her from Fly Girl to multifaceted megastar. In the following excerpt, they discuss her breakthrough performance and exactly how she transitioned from a backup dancer to a leading lady.

Listen to the full podcast below. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

Sean Fennessey: The first time a young me probably saw her is almost 30 years ago, when she was just the Fly Girl on In Living Color, dancing her heart out. And it’s been a fascinating career. But J.Lo is interesting for a breakthrough moment, because I think for different kinds of people, she’s had different kinds of breakthroughs. Amanda, what is your signal moment for Jennifer Lopez?

Amanda Dobbins: So I get to do personal breakthrough in addition to the objective breakthrough?

Fennessey: Let’s do both.

Dobbins: Let’s do all of them. My personal J.Lo breakthrough was the video “If You Had My Love,” which played nonstop on TRL in 1999.

Fennessey: So this is after she has emerged as a film star?

Dobbins: Yes, but I was 14, and did not see Out of Sight in theaters, so for me, J.Lo is suddenly on MTV honestly, 10 times an afternoon. I recently rewatched it. It’s really screwed up; she’s within the video machine, and there’s a guy who is watching her on eight different security cameras. It’s a really voyeuristic experience, and I was uncomfortable. It plays differently now. But that is certainly my personal moment with her. I think if you’re going for objective moments, there are a few. There’s obviously Fly Girl. There is obviously Selena, which we should talk more about. And there is the green dress.

Fennessey: Oh, I hadn’t even thought of the green dress.

Dobbins: I think in a lot of ways, the green dress is the moment. I don’t even think it’s apocryphal. I think Google has confirmed that Google Images was created because so many people were Googling “Jennifer Lopez green dress” trying to find a picture of it that they were like, “Maybe we should have a tool in order to service this.”

Fennessey: This is extraordinary. I just Googled “the green dress,” and the first return of course is “Green Versace dress of Jennifer Lopez” from Wikipedia. And when you pull it up, you get a number of photos of J.Lo’s dress, and even that right-side box with all the descriptions and the connected links, and it says, “The American recording artist and actress Jennifer Lopez wore an exotic green Versace silk chiffon dress to the 42nd Grammy Awards ceremony on February 23rd, 2000,” which of course is essentially in celebration of the song and the album and the video that you’re referring to. “Is this a more significant event than any movie or song she’s been a part of?” is such an interesting part of this conversation.

Dobbins: It has its own Wikipedia page. It had technological implications, it had fashion implications, it had celebrity implications, movie implications, music implications.

Fennessey: We can come back to that one a little bit, because my personal breakthrough is just the year of 1997. It’s after she’s a Fly Girl, it’s after Money Train, and it’s before Out of Sight. But in 1997, she’s in four films, and they’re all completely different, and they’re all fascinating. She’s of course the star of Selena and gives a great performance. Selena was screened in my high school in Spanish class. Isn’t that strange? That was the first time that I saw it.

Dobbins: No, it makes a lot of sense. That movie was a response to just a huge event. I rewatched it last night, and with all respect to the memory of Selena, who is just extremely talented and important, the movie itself is maybe the most hagiographic biopic that I have ever seen, and I say that as someone who loves a good old-fashioned biopic. But Jennifer Lopez is astonishing in it.

Fennessey: She’s a total movie star in Selena. That’s probably the best remembered of her films. She also appears in a movie called Blood and Wine, which starred Jack Nicholson, a kind of steamy thriller that I remember at the time being a pretty good movie and a little bit of a comeback for Bob Rafelson, who made Five Easy Pieces and a number of classic films in the ’70s. She plays the femme fatale, which is a role that she’s cast in a lot in this period. Then she’s also in Anaconda, which is of course an all-time great good-bad movie, or bad-good movie, depending on your definition of the thing. I think she’s perfectly credible as a woman fighting a giant snake.

Dobbins: Yeah, she has to wear a really unfortunate khaki vest. It’s tough.

Fennessey: Yeah, yeah. Not the most flattering thing in the world. And then the fourth film is U Turn. So in one year, she’s already worked with Bob Rafelson, Oliver Stone on U Turn, and a giant snake.

I can’t say I would recommend U Turn. It’s an attempt to blow up the noir fiction storytelling style, and it’s got a great cast and it’s got a lot of personal style, but Jennifer Lopez’s character is really in the most retrograde, woman-manipulating-every-man-in-the-movie kind of part. It doesn’t work well. But in 1997, to have that many roles signals an arrival. And it’s probably no mistake that the movie that comes right after that the following year is going to be an important part of this podcast. Is there anything else you want to say about Selena?

Dobbins: Rewatching it, I was struck by the fact that Selena is pre–Jennifer Lopez’s pop career. And we’re so used to seeing pop stars go to the movies and try to conquer a second medium. They’re often playing singers or borrowing their first pop star persona and borrowing that stage presence, and that image and everything you associate with Madonna or Lady Gaga is present on the screen. And Jennifer Lopez doesn’t have anything to borrow from in Selena. She’s borrowing from the real-life Selena, but she’s just a megastar instantly onstage, and she’s so comfortable, and the musical numbers were the obvious highlight of that movie. I will admit to just fast-forwarding through to them at one point. I was just like, “I would like to see Jennifer Lopez perform again.” It’s hard to create that kind of both screen presence and stage presence. It doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people, and she’s so instantly comfortable. It’s amazing.

Fennessey: One thing that I’ve been thinking about as I reflect on Hustlers a little bit, and I had never really thought of her this way, and shame on me for that, but she’s actually in this great lineage of Hollywood glamour queens who are multitalented. She’s in the lineage of Judy Garland and of Barbra Streisand, of people who want to conquer everything. Now, obviously we know she’s also attempting to conquer social media and clothing and fragrances and jewelry and style, and she is taking on everything, and that’s one of the reasons why I think we’ve kind of forgotten what an effective actor that she can be. What makes her a good movie presence in your mind?

Dobbins: There is a physicality to her that I was thinking a lot about. And obviously she’s incredibly beautiful, and her physical body is just a real marvel, and she does use that in her performances. But—

Fennessey: Allow me to say, she is the hottest person alive, and has been for 30 years.

Dobbins: Right, and she’s a trained dancer, and she tangos with basically everyone in all of her movies. I watched her dancing with Jack Nicholson in Blood and Wine last night, and I also watched part of Shall We Dance, which, the less we talk about the better. She’s not a close-up actress in my opinion, or those aren’t her most effective scenes. But when you can see her moving in the world and reacting and actually using her physical presence—think of the bar scene and then the sex scene from Out of Sight. She’s using her body in a certain way, but when they are both kind of undressing one by one, it’s not awkward, but there’s vulnerability in it.