“I moved the body,” Jennifer Lopez whispers to Drea de Matteo on a soundstage in Queens, New York.
When J.Lo talks about a body, you’d assume she’d be referring to her own world-famous physique. But instead she’s talking about a dead one. Such is her new life now that the 46-year-old pop star has taken on the starring role of Det. Harlee Santos in the NBC drama Shades of Blue.
Moving the body sums up Harlee’s dilemma as a member of a Brooklyn unit that is both protective of the community and deeply corrupt. Life gets more complicated for her when the FBI forces Harlee to spy on her squad (while continuing to be a part of the corruption).
During a break in the shooting, Lopez heads to a red director’s chair and grabs a box of Kleenex. It’s mid-July and she’s battling a summer cold. She’s been working since 7am, and she’s only halfway through a 14-hour day. It’s clear she wants some downtime; her body language says, “Do not disturb.” But then someone forces her to change her mind.
Her producing partner, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, in an effort to praise Lopez, goes overboard. “She juggles everything; she pushes boundaries; she is a great artist, a great actor, a great friend and a great mom,” Goldsmith-Thomas, an exec producer on Shades, says. She then turns her admiration to Lopez’s 7-year-old son, Max, whom she calls a “genius” for knowing everything about the cosmos. A regular Carl Sagan of the first-grade set.
That’s when Lopez gets off the chair.
“You are talking about the same kid who comes up to me and pats my butt and breast and says “Booty? Booby? Mommy?” she says with a laugh.
Turns out Goldsmith-Thomas is not alone in her praise. “J.Lo is not at all what you might think. She’s smart, focused and really good at what she does,” says Jack Orman, a veteran writer-director-producer (ER) and another executive producer on Shades of Blue, who is sitting a few feet away. And clearly she has a sense of humor about herself.
For her first scripted-series gig in more than 20 years, Lopez is starring alongside Ray Liotta, who plays Lt. Matt Wozniak, the corrupt head of the squad (whose deepest secret will be revealed in the third episode), and Sopranos vet De Matteo as Det. Tess Nazario, the only other woman on the squad. They shoot on a Queens soundstage and on the streets of New York City, and they raise the same serious issues being played out in headlines—violence by (and against) cops, police corruption and racial profiling.
When Lopez brought the series to NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt, she was there solely as a producer. “I was never going to act in it,” she says, “until Greenblatt said to me, ‘How are you not starring in this? This is such a great character—you won’t even find this in film.’ And he was right.”
The megastar has become a megaproducer, sitting in on all production meetings and casting and costume sessions. “You needed a strong, tough guy like Liotta,” she says of hiring the Goodfellas star. “He delivers on all levels. He is perfect.”
Liotta almost didn’t take the part because of Lopez’s tabloid reputation as a diva. “My biggest fear was that this was going to be The J.Lo Show,” he says a few weeks later. “They are her producers. Everybody across the board is hers, and I was a little nervous about that. I still rolled the dice. I thought, What is the worst that can happen? It doesn’t work! Then I met Jen and she was open. Not like ‘This is my show,’ none of that from her. If anything, Jen was a cool chick on the set and I was the diva!”
Indeed, behind the scenes, Lopez is surrounded by family: her dad, her sister, her nieces and nephews are all on set, along with boyfriend, Casper Smart, rolling around the perimeter of the soundstage on a hoverboard.
It turns out that Jenny from the Block could just as easily have been Jenny the cop. “I really do know the world that Harlee lives in,” Lopez says. “I lived in the Bronx, and if I didn’t dream of becoming a performer and a singer and I had decided to be a cop, she is who I would be right now. I have those kinds of street smarts. I know what it’s like to walk these streets and neighborhoods.”
On the subway or around the streets of the Castle Hill neighborhood of the Bronx where Lopez grew up, people can tell you about every boyfriend J.Lo has had—especially Ben Affleck. They also tell you she is their hope.
“That someone like J.Lo from the Bronx could make it to where she is now, from all her hard work, it means we could do it too; we could become like her,” says 16-year-old Chantel Lizardo, a dance major at nearby Talent Unlimited High School.
“She’s good for Puerto Ricans,” Mabel Villanueva says, outside a doughnut shop. (Lopez’s parents, David and Guadalupe, are Puerto Rican.)
“I love her because she is beautiful and happy,” Maria Tellez, who does not speak English, wrote on a pad in Spanish.
“I am lucky enough to have a global base. That’s icing on the cake,” Lopez says. “But to walk through my neighborhood and have people on the streets be so loving and embracing is, to me, the biggest success I have ever had.”
All the adoration springs, in part, from her almost fairy-tale journey. As a teenager, Lopez and her mother butted heads. Mom wanted college for her daughter; Lopez wanted to dance. So they had a falling out. “I was sleeping on a cot at a dance studio before I hit it big,” Lopez says. “My life was about pounding the pavement, breaking away from under my mom and dad’s wings and going off and flying on my own. I needed that moment.”
She moved to Los Angeles and got her first big break in 1991 as a Fly Girl on the Fox sketch comedy series In Living Color. That led to her iconic lead role in the movie Selena, based on the murdered Tejano pop star. She then exploded to household-name status, thanks to the triple-platinum-selling album On the 6 and breakout roles in such films as Out of Sight and The Wedding Planner. “All my career, people have been saying things like, ‘Oh, you are starring in that?,’” Lopez says. “‘It’s not usually somebody who looks like you who can do that.’”
Greenblatt was so confident in Lopez’s appeal that he picked up Shades of Blue for 13 episodes and has scheduled it on the high-stakes battleground of Thursday night. “She came from nothing and became this global brand,” Greenblatt says. “They have to cordon off a neighborhood when we are shooting. It is hard to imagine that she is so normal, because once you go through the crazy Hollywood star system, you become something else.”
Shades of Blue is just part of Lopez’s exceptionally busy schedule this year. She has signed a contract at the Axis at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas, where, beginning January 20, she will do 96 shows over two years for a rumored staggering salary of $26 million. She will commute back and forth to Los Angeles to work as an executive producer on the ABC Family/Freeform drama The Fosters and to judge the final season of Fox’s American Idol, which premieres Wednesday, January 6.
“She offers contestants real and valuable insight,” Idol host Ryan Seacrest says. “She shares her smart stories, her work ethic and values and her passion.” And, of course, “she has added glamour to the American Idol stage.”
With the premiere of Shades of Blue, she’s ready for the world to see her less glamorous side. That’s why she’s playing a tough cop, that’s why she’s taken charge as a producer, that’s why she is making the decisions about the tough issues the show has to confront.
“I am happy to be one of the people who are breaking the mold,” she says. “We can’t keep acting like we are in the ’50s. Women are strong. Women are bold. And now it is reflected in our art.”
Shades of Blue premieres Thursday, Jan. 7, 10/9c, NBC.
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