Jennifer Lopez on "El Cantante"
(from brinkzine.com 8/6/07)
I confess to being a big Jennifer Lopez fan. There always has been a guilty pleasure element to my admiration, which explains why I have seen “Anaconda” way too many times, fast-forward to her hot scenes in “Money Train,” and purchased her erotic music video collection “The Reel Me” (which now has the sharpie notation, “Love, Jennifer Lopez”!). But around the time of “Selena” and “Out of Sight,” I also began to realize that she was evolving into a skilled and very shrewd actress. I use the word “shrewd” in a positive way. She understood that when she genuinely cared about the woman she played and was natural on the screen (as opposed to having New York acting-class affectations) fans would connect to her, Jenny from the block.
Her movie career has stalled in the last few years, but I’m glad to say Lopez is smart enough to acknowledge that it’s time to stretch. Her performance in “El Cantante” is tougher than anything she’s done before. At times you ask, “Is that really Jennifer Lopez?” Her Puchi, wife of the dead salsa legend Héctor Lovoe (played by her husband, salsa superstar Marc Anthony), is riveting and though she is sweet at times, you’re thankful that it’s Héctor and not you who has to fight with her, verbally and physically. That Lopez has ventured into a riskier acting level is a sign of both her maturity (she’s 38 now) and her determination to control her own career. “El Cantante” is the first film she has produced and her character is so memorable and the film is so much better than expectations solely because Lopez wanted just that. She put in the work, and, I believe, then willed her movie to succeed. It has received mixed notices, particularly from Héctor Lavoe and salsa devotees, but I think it’s about as good a musical bio about a drug-addicted singer one can make. It is flawed and I’m sure it leaves out a lot (even if it supposed be only Puchi’s story), but the same can be said of “Ray” and “Walk the Line.” And though Marc Anthony doesn’t deliver an earth-shattering performance to compare with Jamie Foxx’s or Joaquin Phoenix’s, he does okay in the dramatic scenes and is very charismatic singing into a microphone. He holds his own in his many scenes with Lopez. Another plus for the movie is that Leon Ichaso (“El Super” and “Crossover Dreams”) seems more in tune with his subject than the directors of those two other films, and at times it’s like we’re watching gritty cinema verité of the period—or a very early reality television show of a interesting troubled couple. It’s remarkable what this much-underrated director assembled in less than five weeks of shooting.
Perhaps the biggest achievement of Ichaso and his two megastars is that their film really will get people to learn more about Lavoe and t buy his records. From speaking to Lopez, Anthony, and Ichaso (and even costar Manny Perez), I believe that was their noble, paramount goal. It does come across that “El Cantante” is their way of sharing what they love themselves, which makes one root for the film.
Below is a roundtable interview I took part in with Jennifer Lopez in anticipation of the release of her film.
Question: Did you have any trepidation working with your husband?
Jennifer Lopez: No, because we met working. Everybody forgets that the first time Marc and I met we were doing a song together for my first album. And that went well! We just have “that” naturally—luckily—because we always planned doing this movie even before we were together. I got the script five and a half years ago. We weren’t together at the time, but I knew he was the guy to play Héctor Lavoe. So I called him a month later and asked him if he wanted to attach himself to the movie. I didn’t even know I was going to play Puchi. I only knew that I wanted it to be the first film I produced, and I approached him as a producer, not a costar. He said, “Of course, I want to do it. I love this. Héctor Lavoe was my idol.”
Q: What do you think Héctor Lavoe’s legacy is?
JL: He is the quintessential artist in a sense. If an artist is somebody who lives a life in which he transforms his particular art—be it music, painting—in such a way that it touches millions of people, Héctor Lavoe was that. He took what was in his life—the pain and all the suffering, and the good times and the fame, everything about him—and put that into his music. If you look at his repertoire of work and the songs he performed, they were so much who he was. And in turn it was what everybody was because we all go through the same things in different ways. It is a great legacy of music he left behind because everybody still can relate to it. And that’s why I think it was really important to do this film.
Q: What do you want for non-Latino American audiences to take away about Héctor Lavoe from your movie?
JL: One of my greatest joys about this movie is having people watch it without knowing anything about him, and then wanting to know all about his music when it’s over. And that has happened with about ten different people I’ve shown the movie to who don’t speak any Spanish. I’ve shown them the movie because I respect their opinions. They were blown away by the life Héctor lived, but they also wanted to know everything about the music. That’s the exciting part for me. I want the movie to expose him to a wider audience than just salsaphiles and Latin music fans out there.
Q: In making this movie, did you get more of a handle on the history of the salsa community when Héctor was alive?
JL: I didn’t know a lot of the stuff to tell you the truth. Of course, I knew who Celia Cruz was, but I didn’t know she and Héctor and some of the other big names in salsa performed together. I loved learning about Fania Records. I was too young in the seventies, but if asked my mom and dad, they knew. For me it was a real treat to get in there and learn about it and really see what the time was like and try to capture that in a film.
Q: Did you get to talk to a lot of the musicians who played with him?
JL: We did. It turned out that Marc knew a bunch of them already because he was in that scene. They actually had the same road manager, Dave Maldonado, who had brought me the script years ago.
Q: Among all the songs Héctor Lavoe and Willie Cólon wrote, there’s one song on the soundtrack that was written by Nelly Furtado.
JL: And by Julio Reyas. We worked with him a lot of my new album and he wrote many songs on Marc’s last album as well. He’s writes beautiful songs so I sent him the movie and said, “If it inspires you, I’d like you to write something for it. It could be for me, for Marc, for another artist, I don’t care.” He was working with Nelly at the time and they came up with this song for me to sing. We listened to it and loved it, so we decided to put it on the soundtrack.
Q: How did you choose Leon Ichaso to direct?
JL: I met with some great directors, but Leon knew this world and time; he knew these guys in the movie. He said he was a runner for them in the studios. He showed me one little piece of film and said, “This is what the film is going to look like.” I said this was the guy. For me there was just nobody else who could have directed this film, just as no one but Marc could have played Héctor and sung the songs and had the look with the dark glasses.
Q: How was it juggling being the producer and being an actor in your film?
JL: I have a producing partner, Simon Fields. It took us so long to get the script right, to get the right director, to get the financing, to get it up and running and have our principal photography date. So when we got that far, I was very clear to him. I said, “When I’m on the set, I’m an actress only, so you’ll have to deal with a lot of stuff.” I knew that the role of Puchi was very challenging and that I’d have to concentrate on that. Plus we shot in thirty-four or thirty-five days, and I’d have to be changing fifteen times a day as we tried to fit in as many scenes as we could. I had to draw that line once we were shooting the film.
Q: When researching Puchi, did you look at video interviews of her?
JL: No. I had eleven CDs of interviews that she did for the first script that was written. So I got to hear her talk and hear her first-hand accounts of all the stories about her and Héctor. The accent and voice I use in the movie is rough and tough and that because what struck me about her is how she had really “lived.” She had to be a tough lady to survive in that turbulent life. She really would go into crack houses looking for him, she really would take a gun with her, she really would pull him out. We showed that in the movie, but we just touched on what really happened because if we went all the way we didn’t think people would believe it! But they were true and were part of her life. To be the type of person to love somebody that much, to stay with him, to struggle with him, to not be perfect herself—that was what was so interesting about her. It’s so different from my own life. I’m thinking, “If she could deal with all that, surely I can deal with the stuff I have to deal with!”
Q: She wasn’t exactly a saint She was an enabler, although she did try to help Héctor for the most part. What do you think kept such a volatile relationship going?
JL: No, Puchi wasn’t a saint. Marc and I talked about the relationship all the time. Although they weren’t as together the last few years, their relationship lasted between twenty, as we have it in the movie, and twenty-seven years. The more and more you examine the reasons why they stayed together despite everything and as much as they helped destroy each other, you come to the conclusion that they really did have a deep love for each other.
Q: What do you think was the reason for his downfall? Why did he take drugs?
JL: It’s hard to determine the exact reason. With most iconic artists there is a bit of mystery that surrounds them. I think we tried to examine the various things that could be the reasons: losing his mother at such a young age, his father disowning him, his brother dying, his son dying, the tumultuous relationship with Puchi, his dependence on drugs. But we’ll never ever know. That’s one of the reasons I love the scene in the movie where he sings “El Cantante.” That song essentially says: “I am a singer. You guys don’t really care about what I feel or what pain I’m going through. You are saying, ‘We paid our money, sing.’” That song is about his life.
Q: When interviewed in the movie years after his death, the older Puchi is asked whether she had wanted to change Héctor or not, because she knew he loved and depended on her when he was on drugs and because he was successful with his music. She gets angry and doesn’t really want to answer that question. What do you think?
JL: Again, I think she really loved him and if they knew how to have a different type of life they would have. At least that’s what I would like to think. There is a mystery surrounding them, so you never can really know but I think they were trying to figure it out. They did have their foray into Santeria and tried to find something spiritual to hang on to. They tried, they struggled with it. That’s why I believe she did want him to change for the better.
Q: Could their story have been any different, or was it fated to go exactly as it went?
JL: It’s so hard to say. It does seem like it was fated to go that way, but at the same time I wonder how it would have been if they’d lived in a different time in history. Would it have been different? Maybe.
Q: Particularly if there were no drugs around.
JL: Without the drugs it would have been a totally different story. Because they were a big part of his life, and consequently became part of her life.
Q: It’s obvious that some scenes were emotionally challenging.
JL: Yeah. In the first week we shot the funeral scene, the wedding scene, and other climactic scenes where Héctor’s downfall begins to happen. So it was very challenging to jump right in. But it was a good way to start, so everyone knew how serious we were. I hadn’t even met all the actors yet and they walk on the set and see me crying and Marc is all emotional, and they think, “Oh, we’re going to make a serious movie.” It all worked to bring the cast together right away.
Q: The fights between Puchi and Héctor are epic, even physical. Where did all that anger and emotion come from?
JL: I’ll tell you a funny story. We were shooting the scene in which Puchi comes home and sees that Héctor has been getting high with their son there. She puts the gun away and they argue and he wants to leave. A lot of the staging we did was improvised—they just set up two cameras and said, “You two go at it”--and I decided that I was really going to go after Marc in one part of the scene. In the first take, I didn’t go after him, but in the second take I decided I was going to push him. I just want you out of the house, just get out! So I start pushing him, and he didn’t expect it. So he starts struggling with me and grabs my arm. And I say, “Let go of my arm right now!” And we get more into it and the cameras are rolling and he says, “Jennifer!” I’m calling him Héctor and he’s calling me Jennifer. It had been so intense, and when he said that the whole set broke up with laughter. They said, “Do you guys fight like this at home?” “No, not like this…”
Q: How careful were you to not over-dramatize their relationship? Did you go back and forth on the script to tone it down?
JL: Leon took over the script when he came on as the director. He really agreed with what we wanted to do, which was a portrait of an artist and his tumultuous relationship with his wife. We wanted to portray it the way it really was without whitewashing it too much. But we would ask, “Should Puchi be carrying a .22 or should she not?” At the end of the day, such things didn’t matter. It’s just hard to put so much of a life into under two hours
Q: How has producing this movie changed your career path? Do you want to do more movies about subjects you think are important?
JL: I am definitely drawn to projects that are relevant and have something to say. The next thing we have coming out is “Bordertown,” a movie directed by Gregory Nava. It’s about the Juarez murders, the brutal unsolved murders of perhaps hundreds of women that have taken place there since the early nineties. Like a lot of people, I didn’t know what was going on down there, but Greg told me and I think it’s important to bring some light to that situation. We helped produce it and I play an investigative reporter. After that we’re going to produce a script that Don Roos wrote. He’ll direct and I’ll star in it. It’s called “Love and Other Possible Pursuits” and is about family in this day and age. .
Q: Would you do other music films?
JL: Yes, but I don’t have any planned.
Q: The music industry is changing, so where do you fit in?
JL: It has changed but when you love making music, it’s not like you’re going to stop. As challenging as it is right now—and record companies and artists are all trying to figure out where we all fit in with the internet and downloading and all the crazy business stuff—I just want to make songs. I love making English music and Spanish music. And Marc feels the same—when he feels like making records, he will.
Q: Do you and Marc plan on doing another project together?
JL: Now we’re going to tour together. I’ve been on sidelines of two of Marc’s tours, and he always brings an artist or two with him. I have two albums coming out, so this time they asked me. I stayed calm and said, “Okay.” I’m very excited. Otherwise, we haven’t talked about doing movies or music. When we do things, they always happen kind of naturally. So who knows?