Sundance: Jennifer Lopez and Viola Davis on Hollywood Diversity, TV Careers and ‘Lila & Eve’

Lila and Eve Sundance

This year’s Sundance Film Festival closes with “Lila & Eve,” a gritty crime drama starring Jennifer Lopez and Viola Davis as two moms who lose their children to crime, and take vigilantism into their own hands. The two actresses, who first worked together on 1998’s “Out of Sight,” share other common ground. Both of the leading ladies juggle television (Lopez on “American Idol,” Davis on “How to Get Away With Murder”) with film careers. They talked to Variety separately by phone this week about their new movie, diversity in Hollywood and why it’s still so hard to get financing for a project with two female leads.

Viola, when did you first meet Jennifer?

Davis: “Out of Sight” was my second film. I was so excited — I thought, “I’ve made it. I’m going to be a star.” I only had three days on it, but we clicked immediately. We were two homies. That meant on this picture, we didn’t have to work on it. I get her. She gets me.

Lopez: Viola was producing the film when it was offered to me. I loved the idea of having two great women characters in a film together. Everybody always talks about “Thelma & Louise” and how amazing that was.

Davis: I completely drew on being a parent, and so did Jennifer. I have a friend, Julie Norris, who in 1988 lost a child to murder. She was a 7-year-old and she was playing in her grandma’s backyard in the middle of the day with her brothers and sisters and cousin. And her body was found and she’d been beaten, raped and strangled, and they found no clothes on her body. So I’ve been speaking to Julie as I was putting the project together. I always wanted to start from a place that’s real. The screenwriter spent two years with mothers of murdered children, and as a result, the experience felt like it was conveyed in a realistic way.

Lopez: I think with Eve’s character, being a mom, understanding what it is to love a child, all of that was stuff I understood as well. I always try to pick parts where I can really contribute the emotional weight that the character requires. I’ve never lost a child, thank God. To love a child is to understand what it could be to go through something like this.

How rare is it to get offered a movie headlined by two women?

Lopez: It’s very rare. You want to hope that things change. They do change, little by little over the years, especially since when I first started. I think independent film is the way we can make movies on micro-budgets with stars putting their weight behind this stuff. There’s a way to get these stories out there, and to prove that there is box office viability in some of this stuff.

Davis: “How to Get Away With Murder” is in like 158 countries, so I’ve been exposed to a wider audience and more people know who I am in the international market, which is what film sales is based on. People forget that when it comes to making a film, it’s not about being talented or writing a great script. It’s about how relevant you are, how bankable you are, and that determines if a film gets made. I couldn’t get a $30 million film greenlit, but something like “Lila & Eve,” which was a $4.9 million budget, it helps a great deal.

Why are people obsessed with “How to Get Away With Murder”?

Davis: People respond to her because she’s a mess. People like to see someone who is a mess. That’s what fascinated me about her. In Annalise, you have someone taking her wig off, taking her makeup off, who’s not a size 2. There are not those great roles in films. More often than not, every review would say, “Miss Davis was underused. She could have been used better.” There are more opportunities for women of color and women over 40 on TV. You have Robin Wright, Kyra Sedgwick, Julianna Margulies. On film, they’d have two or three scenes. They’re extraordinary talented, and they’re not getting a chance to shine on the bigscreen.

Jennifer, you just had a box office hit with “The Boy Next Door,” which opened to $14.9 million last weekend. What do you hope that teaches Hollywood?

Lopez: “Boy Next Door” did really well last weekend against the behemoth that is “American Sniper.” We held our own. That was a $4 million film that more than tripled its budget in one weekend. There’s money to be made here, and it becomes a viable business. My hope is that Hollywood sees you can cast two Latinos in a mainstream film and it doesn’t have to be a Latino movie. It will make money and people will support it, as long as it’s a fun and interesting film. It’s really empowering for me as an artist to think, “Wow, I can find material and produce and get financing and make whatever I want as long as I put myself on the line.”

Viola, did you know your SAG speech went viral?

Davis: I had no idea it went viral. Someone just told me that.

Jennifer, when you first signed on for “American Idol” in 2011, was it because you needed a break from movies?

Lopez: No. I had just had my babies and I wasn’t working a whole bunch. The kids were just about 2 or 3. I could work at home, I could film in L.A., I loved music and I always loved the show. It just seemed like a good fit at the time. I am very much the person who follows her gut. A lot of people told me not to do it, to be honest. They didn’t think it was right for me. I was like, “Yeah. I don’t care. I think it’s going to be fun.” It wound up being a great thing for me and my career.

Do you think you’ll do another season after this one?

Lopez: I don’t know. I take “Idol” one day at a time. I never know what I’m going to do. I might be travelling the world next year. That’s what happened to me last time with “Idol” [in 2011, before she came back in 2013]. They hadn’t decided what’s going on, and I was like, “OK — I’m going.” I love the show is all I can say. We’re in the midst of a great season, and it’s always been a great gig for me.