This was the plan. Go to the Four Seasons, chat with J.Lo about her new movie. If that blah, blah, blah conversation went well then perhaps sneak in a few questions about all those ongoing pregnancy rumors; ask what advice she might have for the Hollywood Four — Paris, Nicole, Britney and Li-Lo — and if she’s gotten over the shame of “Gigli”; have her share some tips on how to keep your man happy and then find out whether she’s still friendly with all of her high-profile ex’s — Ben and Diddy.
Well, that plan flew out of a 14th floor window when it became apparent that J.Lo, a woman known for her revealing outfits, forgettable films and pop hits had died and we all had somehow missed her funeral.
It was Jennifer Lopez, looking stunning in a winter white silk Dior cocktail dress accented by diamond drop earrings and a few sparkling bangles around her wrists that entered the room with the enthusiasm of a kid who just passed her final exams. And from the moment she started talking about “El Cantante,” a film about the life and legacy of salsa icon Héctor Lavoe that hits theaters on Friday, all that J.Lo stuff became so very 20 minutes ago.
“El Cantante” is that baby everyone has been waiting for her to have.
Lopez, 38, who acquired the project just over five years ago, is unabashedly proud that she’s been able to bring this story to the screen for several reasons. One, not many people outside of the Latino community are familiar with Lavoe, one of the pioneers of the salsa sound that redefined Latin music in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Two, she hired Marc Anthony, years before they hooked up and married, to play the lead. And three, Lavoe and his music was to Lopez what Motown was to urban America back in the day.
It was the soundtrack of her formative years.
“I mean for me, we grew up with the music,” Lopez said. “It’s funny because just like when I did the movie ‘Selena,’ I knew the music and I knew about her but I didn’t know about her. I wasn’t like following her. It was the same thing with Héctor. I grew up with the music and I was like ‘Oh, he did that song?’ It was that kind of thing. It was like the soundtrack to your life. Being Puerto Rican and growing up in New York at that time it was at all the parties, every birthday party, every Christmas. It’s kind of like what it was.”
‘He’s like the quintessential artist’The passion Lopez has for this project is infectious. The fast-talking Bronx native has become like a walking, talking, Wikipedia on Lavoe and his wife Puchi, who she portrays in the film. According to Lopez, the Puerto Rican-born singer who struggled through drug addiction, infidelity, depression, an often combative relationship with Puchi and the loss of his beloved son before dying of AIDS at age 46 in 1993 was the definitive entertainer of his generation.
“For me, he’s like the quintessential artist,” she said. “It’s like a real examination of what an artist is. It’s somebody who was put on this earth, has like this amazing talent — a personality who is funny, who touches so many people. But then again, they have this deep, kind of vulnerable side and they’re meant to suffer a certain amount of pain so that they can put this into the music or the painting of whatever it is that they do and it touches millions of people. It helps them get through their lives.”
This is the first film for Lopez’s Nuyorican Productions and as a New York-born Puerto Rican, the award-winning actress who made her film debut in “Selena,” said she couldn’t imagine a better story to start off with. Lopez, using actual audio recordings of Puchi Lavoe, tells the story from her perspective. The tapes were made shortly before Puchi fell backwards out of a window in 2002 and died.
It was, however, a tough sell.
“It’s tough getting independent films made, but also with somebody that nobody knows,” she said. “In the Latin community he’s so well known. For us it was like, ‘What do you mean you don’t know Héctor Lavoe?’ But at the end of the day we found somebody who believed in me, my company and Marc and the whole idea that we were so passionate about it.”
And whenever the former “In Living Color” Fly Girl felt like she was pushing a boulder uphill, Lopez would listen to Lavoe’s music or watch one of his videos. “At the end of the day it was really about the music that he left behind. He touched people. To this day when you see Daddy Yankee or Fat Joe with a picture of Héctor Lavoe on their chest, you’re like, why? Well, you know why now. He was a tragic figure, but at the same time he was like a Billie Holiday or any one of these great artists who leave something behind. They touch a chord in the lives of humans in a way that’s so hard to kind of pin down. I think what’s so great about the movie is that once you see his life you’ll enjoy the music even more.”
Natural chemistry with husband AnthonyAnother cool thing about the film is watching the natural chemistry between Anthony and Lopez. When Lopez first received the script from producer David Maldonado, the man who would become her third husband in 2004 was the only person she had in mind to play Lavoe.
“They brought in performances that are totally, unusual, wonderful and like you’ve never seen them before,” said director Leon Ichaso.
A beaming Mrs. Anthony, however, said it was all about her man.
“I thought it was such a seamless performance,” Lopez said. “I don’t even feel like you see him acting. It’s so crazy. He just is. Some old actor said, ‘don’t let ‘em see you doin’ it!’ I really feel like he was Hector. That’s it. It was him.”
And even though she was technically his boss, their real relationship helped inform their on-screen rapport.
“The advantages are that you’re just very comfortable together, you know what I mean,” Lopez said. “You don’t have to really put on any airs or anything like that. We could tell each other anything. We could push each other past the limits and know that everything was going to be OK at the end of the day. So, in that sense it was really good.
And the disadvantages?
“I have to say it was a real blessing to be able to do it with Marc,” she said. “When I put him in the movie 5 1/2 years ago, I never thought that we’d be together at this time. Who knew that, but we were and it actually helped. I guess everything is destiny and fate and all that stuff.”
Anthony had fun, too, but said after speaking with some of his Hollywood friends who told him that working with a mate could be challenging, he was prepared to go to war.
“It was fantastic,” said the lithe Grammy Award-winning singer. “I was ready for World War III though! I was ready for Ultimate Fighting Champion. I was like show me the cage! I was working out!”
‘A very challenging role’Although the Anthonys don’t appear to have the contentious relationship that the Lavoes did, Lopez feels that the couple that was married in 1969 shortly after the birth of their son Héctor Jr., genuinely cared for each other.
“I think at the end of the day as much as they were killing each other, they loved each other,” she said. “I mean the door is right there! We all know. We all have been in relationships. It’s like 20 years and nobody can tell you to stay when you don’t want to stay, just like nobody can force you to go when you don’t want to go. It has to be something that comes from you. They would be bad to each other; they would be good to each other. They would lift each other up. She’d pull him out, he’d make her laugh.”
Playing a contender like Puchi, who often got up on stage and threatened to physically harm Lavoe’s numerous mistresses, was rather emotionally taxing for Lopez. She put so much into the role that sometimes she felt a pain in her chest at the end of the day.
“The whole thing was a very challenging role,” Lopez said. “These types of roles don’t come around every day. It’s like ‘Selena.’ To be able to play somebody who actually lived gives you an added pressure and responsibility because people really knew the person. They could be like that sucked (laughs)! That was so not who she was. You have a real responsibility to come to the table with your game right. I guess that was the hardest part but also the best part because it gives you a challenge to really kind of dive into.”
By the end of the interview Lopez, who has a new CD dropping next week, was nearly out of breath. She had been going on about her new baby for nearly 20 minutes with that rapid-fire Bronx-orican brogue that we’ve all come to know and comprehend over the years. And like any new mama, she wants everyone to fall in love with her baby.
“It’s an exciting time,” she said wistfully. “It’s a happy time.”
And it’s a fine time to be born again.
Miki Turner is a freelance TV producer/writer in Los Angeles. She can be reached at .