Jennifer Lopez has come close to quitting the entertainment industry. "You just get to those crossroads in your life," she tells NPR's Sam Sanders. The tabloids were full of stories about her, she says, and she wanted to regain control of her career. "Maybe I just shouldn't do this anymore," she remembers thinking. "Maybe I should just stop singing, and stop making movies, and do something else."
But it was a lot to walk away from — since 1986, Lopez has appeared in more than 30 films, released chart-topping songs and albums, starred in hit TV shows and even launched her own perfume. Now — with career doubts aside — she's back on the big screen in the romantic comedy Second Act.
The film follows a woman named Maya who follows her dreams and ends up in the C-suite, despite not having a college degree or the right experience on paper. In some respects, Maya mirrors Lopez's own journey: someone from modest means who makes it big, showing everyone that someone from there can make it.
"I'm a girl from the Bronx who just feels ... really happy to have made it through her own dark forest ..." Lopez says. "[I'm] still growing, and evolving, and trying to be better every day."
Lopez talks with Sanders about her decades of superstardom, her work imitating her life, and about being a boundary-breaking Latina woman in the entertainment industry.
On doubts about "making it"
I think everybody's been at a point in their life ... where they just feel like: Damn, I keep trying, and trying, and trying. ... Maybe I'm not supposed to ... be one of those successful people. Maybe I'm not supposed to have a different type of life. Maybe this is it for me — I grew up on this block. I was born here and this is where I'm going to die.
... [But in Second Act, the protagonist Maya is] given an opportunity to show what she can do. She didn't have the education — the fancy education — and she didn't grow up, you know, around the people that you need to know. And she gets this opportunity to show that her street smarts, her hard work ethic, her heart — all of that is worth something. A lot more than she thought it was.
On "second acts" — both personally and professionally
I had two little twins and got divorced. ... I waited a long time to have kids and when I finally did, when I was married, and thought like, "OK, this is [what my] life is going to be for the next 50 years. And it didn't work out that way. I knew that I had to start examining things. ... What am I not doing right? Where do I need to improve? ...
Realizing that you have to love yourself first — that you cannot look for your happiness or somebody else to fix you — that you have to fix yourself and be your own best friend and stand on your own two feet and be happy on your own. Then you can share a life with somebody. Then you can have a family ... And in doing that — kind of becoming that whole person — all of a sudden your work transforms.
On being affected by negativity
We tend to focus on the negative things people say, not the positive things they say, you know? And for me, it seemed for a long time that there was a ton of negative things being said about me ... I am a sensitive person ... I think people learned that when I was on American Idol — I cried, right?! ... So many different things ... She's married this many times. She's a mess. She can't sing. She can't dance. She can't act. She can't do anything. What is she doing? You know what I mean? ... You need to dig and you need to figure out why you allow that stuff to to affect you.
On her lessons for career longevity
Honestly, find something that you love to do. ... Find your passions and pursue them relentlessly and don't stop. I mean really, I think it's just about working hard. I always tell my kids — my kids are like, "I know you work hard." I go, "No, I don't work hard. I work harder than everybody else." ... Just don't stop. The people who were not successful are the ones who stopped halfway through, somewhere.
On being a woman of color in the entertainment industry
It doesn't come as easy. It's not as "expected." That's the thinking in the world. ... You expect "those types of people" to be like the valet guy or the person working in the kitchen, or whatever. And that's not fair. Because those people work just as hard to give their kids all the opportunities that we have in this country.
On not holding back in a wide-ranging 1998 Movieline profile that made waves in Hollywood
It gave me a lot of notoriety in the moment, and then it made a lot of people in the industry really pissed off. And so when I look back at it now, I go, "You know I never wanted to hurt anybody." I didn't realize that my words could impact people that way. You know, I was a nobody at that time. ...
So I was still in that kind of fan mentality, back in the Bronx. And then you go: Oh, wait a minute. You have a responsibility to present yourself in the way that you are, and not let people interpret it in a way that could be that you're this hurtful, callous person. You're not. That hurt me. That bothered me. So I learned to be more responsible.
A previous Web version of this story incorrectly stated that Ben Affleck had been Jennifer Lopez's husband. They were engaged but did not marry.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Later this month, Jennifer Lopez is out with a new movie, the latest entry in her long career. Altogether, J.Lo has been in more than 30 films. She has had top 10 singles. She's been on hit TV shows. She's even launched a top-selling perfume. NPR's Sam Sanders recently sat down with Lopez. He wanted to figure out the secret to her continued success.
SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: NPR was last on the list for a full day of press for Jennifer Lopez's newest movie. She had a lot to get through - photo shoots, hours of interviews. At one point, I saw her before I was allowed to speak to her, whizzing from one room to the next in a bathrobe. And then, like magic, J.Lo was with me...
JENNIFER LOPEZ: Hi, are we sitting here?
SANDERS: I'll sit right there.
LOPEZ: Thank you.
...Looking refreshed, not complaining at all about her day.
LOPEZ: One of many that we'll have the next few days.
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah, it's a big push for the movie.
LOPEZ: It's go time.
SANDERS: It's go time. It's go time, which you're used to go time.
LOPEZ: I'm used to go time.
SANDERS: You've been on go time for...
LOPEZ: For many years now.
LOPEZ: Yeah, for a lot of years now.
SANDERS: J.Lo has been doing junkets like this for years. That means years of practice making every interview like this one a chance to preach what you could call the gospel of J.Lo.
LOPEZ: The only thing stopping you is you and your actual - the whole path was leading you to your purpose.
Nothing was a mistake.
I am limitless. I can do and make anything happen that I want to make happen. It's just up to me.
I actually do deserve to get this or have that or get paid that or deserve to own part of that.
SANDERS: Eventually mid-interview, she notices how it all sounds.
LOPEZ: I got to stop talking like a motivational speaker.
SANDERS: But you know what? People need that.
LOPEZ: That's not my goal. That is not my goal. I'm just trying to live my life and...
SANDERS: That make-it-work-no-matter-what mentality, it's the theme of her latest movie, "Second Act." In the film, J.Lo covers familiar territory. She plays a driven woman from modest means who proves she can do anything anyone else can and find lasting love in the process. Lopez's character is Maya. She works at a big-box store, and she wants a promotion.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SECOND ACT")
DAN BUCATINSKY: (As Arthur) It's not easy getting a job for a woman your age.
LOPEZ: (As Maya) Watch me.
SANDERS: I'll let J.Lo explain more.
LOPEZ: She wants to progress. She's been at the store for 15 years, assistant manager for six.
LOPEZ: You know, she's about to give up.
SANDERS: She wants - you guessed it - a second act. Through a series of wacky events and some help from a fairy godson, this character Maya ends up in the C-Suite, unconstrained by her education or her gender or her race. This character, like a lot of other Jennifer Lopez film characters, she's pretty colorblind. She could be Latina or not. That's been a feature of J.Lo's film career for a while now.
ISABEL MOLINA-GUZMAN: "Enough" and "The Wedding Planner" and "Jersey Girl" and all these other movies that there was nothing about her that would say to a mainstream audience, oh, this is an ethnic movie.
SANDERS: Isabel Molina-Guzman is a professor of Latina/Latino studies at the University of Illinois. She's also written a book called "Dangerous Curves: Latina Bodies In The Media." J.Lo is on the cover of that book. Molina-Guzman says that maybe the biggest secret to J.Lo's success has been her ability to code switch, giving different audiences different versions of herself.
MOLINA-GUZMAN: She could pull in the ethnic audiences because people know who she is. And then in the music, she could be more urban. She can be more ethnic.
SANDERS: That may have maximized her reach, but it may have kept J.Lo from getting some of the credit she's due as a Latina groundbreaker. And Molina-Guzman thinks J.Lo deserves a lot of credit.
MOLINA-GUZMAN: You know, I think Jennifer Lopez opened up the door to just about every other Latina actress that's out there now.
SANDERS: At first, J.Lo really isn't into talking about how her race or gender might have shaped her career or other careers, but I push her, and then she tells me maybe it has. Maybe a lot of the way the media talks about her body and her presentation - she says maybe it's been a bit racist. Maybe the way you're less likely to see J.Lo as a shrewd businesswoman with her own production company, executive producer credits, in charge of her own empire - maybe that's sexist.
Do you think you got it worse because you're Latina?
LOPEZ: Yep. Because a woman - yep, yeah.
SANDERS: But J.Lo told me she will not define herself with that, just like a lot of the characters she plays in her movies.
LOPEZ: I want to prove to myself that I belong here and that I deserve to be here. So the fun in it now to me is going, yep, see, Jen?
LOPEZ: You were right.
SANDERS: The gospel of Jennifer Lopez - the constant hustle, all the motivational talk - maybe it worked. Maybe she is right. No matter how you see her, in whatever medium, almost 30 years in, Jennifer Lopez is still here. Sam Sanders, NPR News.
KELLY: And you can hear the rest of Sam's conversation with Jennifer Lopez - and there is a lot of it - in the latest episode of our podcast It's Been A Minute.
(SOUNDBITE OF GRAMATIK'S "MUY TRANQUILO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.