In Hustlers, Jennifer Lopez gets a movie star entrance for the ages. The kind that stops the film in its tracks and forces audiences to sit up and take notice. We know her character Ramona is the queen bee of the strip club she dances at. But nothing — not even two decades of following J.Lo’s career as a triple threat on screens both big and small — can prepare you for the moment she steps onto the stage and strips to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” The scene is electric. It leaves newcomer Destiny (Constance Wu) speechless, agog at what she’s just witnessed. For when Ramona hits the stage you see why she’s such a pro: it’s not just her athleticism or her seductive demeanor. It’s the control she exerts over the audience and camera alike. We look at only whatever she wants us to look at and you understand how it is she gets so many men to shower her with dollar bills.
“We knew that moment where Ramona is introduced to the world was going to be essential in setting up the rest of the movie and her character,” Lopez told Remezcla. “We had to communicate fearlessness and confidence.” This is a woman who later on masterminds a plot to con Wall Street guys out of thousands of dollars, and gets Destiny and others to join her. Here’s where the choice of song is just too perfect (“I’ve been a bad, bad girl, I’ve been careless with a delicate man”) even though Lopez had another song in mind first. She’d originally suggested dancing to “Wicked Game” — a lyric like “the world was on fire and no one could save me but you” could easily be the film’s tagline, framed as it is by the 2008 financial meltdown and focused on Destiny and Ramona’s close bond. “So I suggested that, and Lorene, in all of her genius, came back and said, “What about ‘Criminal’ by Fiona Apple?” And I was immediately like ‘YES!’ It was perfect.”
Not an obvious stripping song, “Criminal” makes that first encounter echo not other stripper movies (sorry Striptease and Magic Mike) but something more epic. Scafaria wanted to pay homage to an iconic boxing film instead: “We thought about Raging Bull,” she shared. “We thought about treating that movie like a sports movie and treating that scene like a stunt. We spoke about just wanting to capture the strength.” The two also had Attack of the 50 Foot Woman in mind, even if Ramona’s outfit was even tinier than what Allison Hayes wore in that 1958 classic.
Given that Ramona is the J.Lo of strippers in the film, with her wardrobe very much looking like it was ripped from the actress’s own closet circa 2008, it’s no surprise to see her come out in what’s ostensibly the green Versace Grammy dress of stripping outfits. “I was actually pretty nervous to get up on stage in front of 300 men while wearing that,” Lopez shared. “It was the smallest g-string in the world — I call it dental floss! When I’m on stage at my concert, you know I have like three layers of tights and what not to help support me, but this was just me and the dental floss. But I had to go for it, I had to own it, like Ramona would. I think as women, we often have a choice with our sexuality: are we scared of it or do we use it? Ramona uses it fearlessly, and I hope you can see that in the opening scene with her. Her outfit, her attitude — she owned the stage and in that moment, she owned those men. And she knows it.”
And the audience knows it too. It’s a worthy introduction to a character who’s as seductive as she is dangerous, and whose athleticism and sexiness are tied together in truly scintillating ways. There’s no way any one else could’ve played Ramona, for she both depends on and enhances Lopez’s own star persona even as it so clearly shows us how great of an actress she’s always been. “I think what’s really exciting,” Scafaria added, “is to appreciate her as an actor. Because she’s so good. She’s been pitch perfect for so long. And, you know, I love her in romantic comedies. I love her in lighter fare. But I love seeing her gnaw on this bone. I really did. I loved it. And I think she’s so singular and powerful. She has all of those qualities that are so hard to wrap up in this same character: she’s warm, and maternal, but she’s also cold and will cut you. It was so exciting to see her play all of those facets: the warmth, the coolness, all of it. And so I’m excited for people to see her as Ramona and see her in this performance.”
It’s no surprise the performance is building Oscar buzz: this may well be J.Lo’s Erin Brockovich moment. “It is so humbling to even be mentioned in that conversation,” she shared. “It’s honestly overwhelming! I’ve been blessed to have a long career and for this to be happening now, I feel like I’ve already won.”
But if her name is called on nomination morning, there’ll be something else to celebrate: she’ll be the first U.S. Latina nominee since Rosie Perez all the way back in 1994, arguably a historic moment for an oft-underrepresented demographic. It’s a distinction she doesn’t take lightly. “With all that I do, I can only hope to just keep moving things forward for Latinas and women everywhere. I just want us to keep trying, keep forcing the issue, keep moving the needle. Since the beginning, I have always been trying to push for more Latinas in lead roles. I just want to keep moving things forward in the movies to have them look like the world does in real life.”
Hustlers is in theaters now.