Out of the fish bowl

J.Lo turns back on tabloids to push pix straight from the heart

J-Lo turns back on tabloids to push pix straight from the heart

“I always feel like I’m just starting out,” says Jennifer Lopez. Maybe that’s because the Bronx-born actress has never come up against a creative challenge she wasn’t willing to tackle.

From her breakthrough performance in 1997 biopic “Selena” to her latest dual role, as first-time producer and star of two upcoming films that draw on her Latino heritage, Lopez has relied on her laser-like focus and all-consuming drive to carve out a niche-defying, multihyphenate career on her own terms.

“I don’t think people have any idea how hard Jennifer has had to work to achieve what she has achieved,” says “Selena” director Gregory Nava, who cast Lopez in her first starring role in “Mi Familia” and reunited with the actress for the upcoming “Bordertown.”

Observes Nava: “Nothing was given to her. She’s created this by the strength of her personality and her will to succeed. Jennifer believes strongly in herself and is very positive. She’s been like that from the first movie I made with her.”

Cecelia Holloway, Los Angeles president of Women in Film, says it’s these qualities that earned Lopez the organization’s Crystal Award this year. “Jennifer has done an incredible variety of roles in a very short time,” says Holloway. “She is a great role model for young women in this business.”

Lopez’s readiness for stardom and her ability to deliver the goods opposite formidable co-stars including Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn and George Clooney allowed her to rack up a string of solid performances in her early films: “Blood & Wine,” “U-Turn” and “Out of Sight.” She convincingly got inside the mind of a serial killer in “The Cell.” When Lopez crossed over into romantic comedy with “The Wedding Planner” in 2001, she became the first woman to have the No. 1 movie and a No. 1 album (“J.Lo”) in the same week.

Audiences have been smitten with her chick flicks. “Maid in Manhattan” took in $94 million domestically, and last year’s “Monster-in-Law” racked up $82.9 million at the box office. “I love romantic comedies,” says the actress. “I think the reason they work for me is a combination of having the ability to be really real and have some funny in you.”

Success in one genre has always been reason enough for Lopez to try something else — even if those films don’t always earn kudos from critics or fans. The actress says she rarely reads reviews: “I criticize myself enough. I don’t need other people to do it for me. You’re not going to please everybody all of the time, but that’s not what you’re here for. I’m here as an artist to express myself — that’s all.”

Of her choice of roles, she explains: “You never know if a movie is going to be successful or not. All you have is the experience of making them. At least I want to feel when I walk away that I grew a little bit during this whole thing and I learned something new about the process, about life or about myself.”

Lopez says that’s exactly what happened with her two upcoming films, “Bordertown,” due out later this year, and “El Cantante,” currently in post-production. Her production company, Nuyorican, is producing both. “When you have a passion for a project beyond acting, it’s a totally different experience,” Lopez says. “There’s a different level of intensity.”

“Bordertown,” produced in conjunction with Nava’s company, El Norte, is based on actual events. Lopez stars as a reporter investigating a series of unsolved murders around the factories on the border of Juarez and El Paso, which now number in the hundreds. “Greg came to me and explained what was going on down in Juarez,” explains the actress, who also has a song in the film. “Once I knew, I felt like I had to be involved. It became something I had to do — to bring this issue to the surface.”

Simon Fields, president of Nuyorican, who first met Lopez when he cast her in “Shall We Dance?,” says the actress brought a gritty realism to her role. “This is a movie where women are being exploited and murdered. You want people to feel for them, so it’s very easy to sink into sentimentality,” he says. “Jennifer allowed us to carve out a harder, tougher character for her. She didn’t want to go for the easier, biggest scene. She was able to do things in the smaller moments, which is difficult for an actor who’s also the producer.”

Lopez has high hopes for the film. “I just saw a cut of the movie a couple of weeks ago with my husband (singer Marc Anthony) and a girlfriend. She called me a few days later and said, ‘What are we going to do?’ That’s exactly why I wanted to do the film. I want people to know about this.”

Getting “El Cantante” made was something of an obsession for Lopez. “Last year I said to my partners and my agents: I make this movie this year or I die. Not another year goes by. Finally, Dec. 5, we started shooting, so we just made it under the gun,” she laughs.

Lopez was introduced to the story of salsa king Hector Lavoe more than four years ago by the musician’s wife, Puchi, who wanted Lopez to play her in the film. “I knew of Hector and I knew Marc Anthony — who I wasn’t with at the time. I said (to him), ‘Listen, I’ve got this script…,’ and he said, ‘He’s my hero! Are you kidding me? I have to do this,’ ” says Lopez. “Then I got the right director and who knew? Two years ago we got married. By the time we’re doing the movie we’re married, but we’d been developing this for many years.”

It’s not the first time one of Lopez’s films will generate attention because of the intersection of her personal and professional lives. But a lot has changed since then, she says. Her highly public coupling with co-star Ben Affleck (“Gigli,” “Jersey Girl”) fueled an endless stream of tabloid stories in 2002 and ’03 that threatened to all but eclipse her career.

“That was really a tough time, being on those magazines all the time,” says the former US Weekly cover girl. “I said: ‘I don’t want this. How do I change this and get the attention off this stuff and back onto what it was in the beginning — the fact that I was an actress doing interesting projects and a singer making music?’ ”

Lopez found a solution, she says, due in large part to her husband’s influence. “He’s an ultra-private person. He lived his life in a totally different way than I did. I just didn’t know any other way. I only had one way of being me,” she says. “He helped me see you can still do what you love, be successful, and your life doesn’t have to be that way. I needed to learn how to put up those boundaries and say, ‘This is OK and this is not OK.’ It wasn’t easy, but I did it.”

With the focus back on Lopez’s film and music career as well as her burgeoning empire, which includes multiple clothing lines and fragrances, she is busier than ever. She’s in talks to star as Sue Ellen Ewing in the bigscreen version of the ’80s TV sudser “Dallas,” but says: “Nothing is set. It would be great if it all came together. I watched it when I was young. I think it would be fun.”

She’s also producing “Reggaeton” — inspired by the hip-hop/Caribbean music craze that originated in her native Puerto Rico — with Sony Music, as well as a reality dance show for MTV.

In the meantime, film remains at the top of Lopez’s long list of priorities. “Women are the ones who go to movies,” she says. “We keep the industry alive — we’re the ones that drag our men to movies. They’d much rather stay home watching the game. I feel like it’s my responsibility as a producer and an artist to create those kinds of projects. That’s what I want to do with what I have and the time I have here.”

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