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A & E
Jennifer Lopez skillfully rides tidal wave of publicity

Thursday, December 12, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

NEW YORK -- Let's crawl down the tunnel behind the filing cabinet into the head of a celebrity. Somebody's already used John Malkovich, so we'll take just a tiny tantalizing taste of what it's like Being Jennifer Lopez.

"I have always described myself just as an artist who expresses herself in different ways," says Jennifer Lopez, "and that would be with song and dance and acting and designing and all the different things that I love doing."

Official Movie Site

On the first morning of the first day of production of her movie "Maid in Manhattan," paparazzi descended in full force, making it impossible to work. That afternoon, as she was filming in the relative seclusion of the Bronx, the kids got out of school and found out J. Lo is "in the house" -- and pandemonium erupted. One day into filming, one day behind schedule.

Director Wayne Wang calls it "my first Beatles experience. They surrounded us, screaming, pushing our cars. The cops had to come and save us. It was 'A Hard Day's Night' in real life. I was not prepared for it. No one in the production was prepared for it."

But he doesn't blame Lopez.

"When I first met her, she was very down to earth, and that surprised me -- very tough, very direct but very down to earth. There was not an entourage around," he says. "When she comes on set, she's prepared, she's ready to work. She never flubbed even one line."

Lopez keeps her poise months later, doing interviews to promote the finished film. Reporters ask not just about the movie but also about her personal life, a phenomenon that, in her own words, is at "a fever pitch right now" because of her recent engagement to Ben Affleck, matinee idol du jour.

A reporter from People magazine asks about the sparkling rock on her finger, which must have been shaken loose from some grand hoard of the rings. It's the only question to which she draws up short, offering to send the woman a copy of her interview with Diane Sawyer announcing the engagement.

Then there's the parade of people, ranging from sycophants to co-stars to director, who shake their heads in wonder at "how does she do it?" How does this 32-year-old Bronx native put aside the demands of being an actress-singer-dancer-sex symbol-cover girl-video goddess-teen idol-fashion plate-bride-to-be long enough to focus on any single one of those functions?

"That's the trick, and it's a trick that I actually learned a while ago," Lopez says. "When I'm working on a film, I'm working on the film. You know what I mean? I don't want to be bothered with anything else, I don't want to be called, I don't have a cell phone. You know what I mean? So I can really kind of block out everything else. When I'm working on music, same thing. I don't think during the making of my whole album I took one phone call. You know what I mean?"

We're getting the general idea.

But might there be different identities for different needs? Jennifer Lopez the actress. J. Lo the pop star. That kind of thing.

"I think that would be dangerous," she says, breaking into a laugh. "Who IS that over there? You know what I mean? I'd have to call in the doctor.

"I always see my career as one whole thing. You know what I mean? I have always described myself just as an artist who expresses herself in different ways, and that would be with song and dance and acting and designing and all the different things that I love doing.

"I think there are times when, if I'm doing a movie or different things I have to do with movies, I'll dress more appropriately for that. Or if I'm doing a concert, I wouldn't actually wear what I'm wearing to the Oscars. So there's different sides to it, but I don't think of it as separate."

There are times she might want to, especially when the madness of celebrity life takes over.

"It's at kind of a fever pitch right now, which is kind of strange. But I've gone through my period where it was just so surreal and weird and it made me feel like a panda in a zoo. ... I've learned to realize that along with my job -- which I happen to love -- this is part of it, you know? And you have to learn to adjust to it and deal with it. You have to, or you won't be happy."

So how does Jennifer Lopez get away from it all?

"I don't necessarily want to get away from it all. You know what I mean? I enjoy what I do. I really love it. It's fulfilling to me as a person. ... What I do need once in a while is just a vacation, like anybody else who works really hard at what they do and loves what they do and drives themselves to the point of exhaustion. You just need to rest sometimes."

There's little rest for her character in "Maid in Manhattan." She plays Marisa Ventura, a chambermaid at the swanky Beresford Hotel in Manhattan (an assumed name for the Waldorf-Astoria, which hosted the movie shoot and the interviews but didn't want to be identified in the film).

A single mother who lives in the Bronx and takes public transit to work each day, Marisa thinks about moving into a better job at the hotel but doesn't act on it until her friend and colleague Stephanie (Marissa Matrone) files an application in her name.

But Stephanie also talks her into trying on a wealthy guest's dress. But when Chris Marshall (Ralph Fiennes), a handsome young political hopeful with a womanizing reputation, spots her in the fancy clothes, he mistakes her for a guest. After a walk through Central Park, she tries to melt back into anonymity, knowing the relationship means nothing but trouble. But he won't stop looking for her and where Chris Marshall goes, paparazzi follow.

Lopez knows something about that, and the irony is that the goal of a chambermaid is to be as invisible as possible to guests, while J. Lo is one of the most visible women in the world.

"I've seen so many pictures of her. She's all around us," says Natasha Richardson, who plays the rich guest whose dress is "borrowed" by J. Lo's character in the movie. "I don't know how she does all the stuff she does. It's a huge machinery."

Bob Hoskins, who plays the hotel's head butler, came to think of her as a daughter, which also describes the relationship between their characters.

Stanley Tucci, who plays Chris Marshall's harried political manager, calls Lopez a "nice person." But when it comes to the celebrity trappings that follow her, he says, "The bigger the bubble, the farther away I stand."

It's a far cry from Lopez's early years growing up in the Bronx, which she hasn't forgotten, judging from her choice of movie roles. Marisa Ventura is another in a growing list of everyday women whom Lopez has portrayed on screen: the waitress-turned-battered housewife in "Enough," the street cop in "Angel Eyes," the title character in "The Wedding Planner."

"Who you are and where you're from kind of manifests itself in everything you do. I lived 20 years in the Bronx, and that's who I am. That really shows itself in the different things and the choices that I make. It's just what I happen to respond to."

She insisted on Marisa living in the Bronx and on including a scene with the character's mother, who warns her she's bound to fail if she tries to better herself and reach beyond her place.

"For somebody like me who had very big dreams and a lot of aspirations and a lot of passion for what I wanted to do, being where I was from and being Puerto Rican, it was really, 'What are you thinking about doing? This is crazy. You obviously will not succeed in that business and obviously will have wasted your life.' And then you go proving yourself little by little. But a lot of people will be beaten down by that."

On the contrary, Jennifer Lopez seems to thrive on the attention, the work, the hoopla. You know what I mean?

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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