Features and Columns · Movies

The Experiences that Helped Jennifer Lopez Become ‘Selena’

Between access to her family and a fateful press tour, Lopez was given a unique look into the late singer’s life.
Jennifer Lopez Selena
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on March 30th, 2021

Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we look at Jennifer Lopez’s Golden Globe-nominated performance in Selena.

If you grew up in southern Texas during the early 1990s, you probably have a strong memory of where you were when the news broke that Selena Quintanilla, the “Queen of Tejano music,” had been murdered. I remember sitting in front of the television before school, seeing throngs of fans already in mourning as it was revealed that the president of her fan club, Yolanda Saldivar, was responsible for her death. With her actions, Saldivar tethered herself to Selena’s life in a way that threatened to hijack our memory of the late singer.

But Selena, whose music helped bring the Tejano subgenre to a huge audience, was so much more than how her life ended. She was on the precipice of global stardom, and her father, Abraham Quintanilla, wanted to make sure that her memory would live on. As he saw numerous unauthorized biographies go into production following Selena’s death, he became proactive in retaining control over his daughter’s legacy and quickly began producing an official biopic of her life. He wanted to show the world who the real Selena was, behind her performances: an effervescent young woman, with a passion for music, life, and family, who was tragically taken from the world far too soon.

The biggest challenge for the film, simply titled Selena and written and directed by Gregory Nava, would be casting an actress able to fill the multi-talented shoes Selena left behind. Luckily, they found Jennifer Lopez.

Found might be a strong word, though. Selena was Lopez’s star-making turn, but she was far from a fresh face in 1997. Her first career was as a dancer, appearing in regional theatre and world tours before landing a gig as a backup dancer for New Kids on the Block. She got her first major exposure on In Living Color as a Fly Girl, the comedy series’ in-house dance ensemble who’d bust a move between sketches. She was scheduled to go on tour with Janet Jackson when Lopez decided it was time to refocus her career and branch out into acting.

After a few forgettable television shows and movies, Lopez’s first substantial film role was in Nava’s My Family. The role landed her an Independent Spirit Award nomination, but more importantly, it introduced her talents to the director. From there she booked roles in the Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson vehicle Money Train as well as Francis Ford Coppola’s Jack. These gigs helped bring Lopez more national recognition, but they relied mostly on her affability and charm, a far cry from the emotional and physical range she’d show in Selena.

Despite Lopez’s history with Nava, she was still put through a rigorous audition process that required multiple screen tests and had her mastering some of Selena’s trademark songs and dance moves before being offered the role.

It’s difficult to imagine another actress in 1997 being more qualified for this tremendous role, but Lopez’s casting caused major controversy at the time. Understandably, many advocacy groups took offense that Selena, a Mexican-American from South Texas, was being played by an actress of Puerto Rican descent from New York. They felt that the only way to truly honor Selena’s legacy would be by casting an actress who had the same cultural heritage as the late singer.

“After we announced that Jennifer Lopez had been selected to portray Selena, I started getting calls. ‘How dare you pick a Puerto Rican to play our beloved Selena.’ It kind of freaked me out,” Abraham Quintanilla recounts during a retrospective making-of documentary for the film’s DVD release.

This is strikingly similar to an experience the real Selena had when she was first establishing her career in Mexico. Selena wasn’t a native Spanish speaker and had to record her Spanish-language songs phonetically which gave executives at her record label pause as she embarked on her first press tour of Mexico. They were worried that because of her lack of fluency, Selena would be seen as an outsider and rejected by her international audience.

What happened in real life is exactly what you see in the film. Any fears that she wouldn’t be welcomed instantly melted away as the foreign press were utterly charmed by the singer’s down-to-earth magnetism. As Abraham Quintanilla recalls in the liner notes for Selena’s final studio album, Dreaming of You, “We were terrified because Selena didn’t know Spanish that well, and when we came in, there were thirty to thirty-five reporters. Selena came in there and hugged each one of them. By the time she got through, she had them in the palm of her hand.”

Lopez also had to convince audiences that she was the right fit for Selena. As she remembers in the making-of documentary, “The minute I got the part, I had to do this big press conference, which I never had to do for any part that I had ever gotten. There was tons of controversy over the fact that I wasn’t Mexican. I just knew that it was going to be about proving that I was the right person to do it.”

Like Selena before her, Lopez was able to effortlessly charm the press with her winning charisma. “The Mexican press was going to be difficult, we knew this,” says casting director Roger Mussenden in the making-of documentary. “When Jennifer went to the press conference in Mexico…she won them over exactly like Selena did.”

Lopez did extensive preparation to become Selena, but it’s arguably this experience that helped her truly transcend into the character. Unlike many other actors portraying public figures, Lopez had the unique opportunity to experience something Selena had, first-hand. She funneled Selena’s resilient spirit directly into her captivating performance.

She was also supported by having access to Selena’s family, who helped her better understand the relationship the singer had with her siblings. As Lopez remembers, “The dynamic of who she was was so shaped by her family and the fact that they were very close. They shared so many intimate things with me, like albums, and video tapes, her make-up box, how she smells. There was something about my spirit and her spirit that were similar.”

This experience of getting to truly know the Quintanilla family is a major reason Lopez’s Selena feels so lived-in and realistic. She was able to uniquely understand what Selena meant to the people who shaped her life, which she could then use to inform a performance that honored those relationships.

Even though Lopez put in the work to accurately depict Selena, to her family, it was as if she had always been destined to play the singer. As Selena’s sister Suzette remembers in the making-of documentary, “I felt like she was a lot like my sister. I had a sectional, and Selena would always come in and prop her feet up a certain way, and I had to throw her a little blanket and she had to cover herself. I freaked out because Jennifer did the same thing.”

Lopez’s experience with Selena’s family allowed her to inhabit a deeper level of authenticity that we rarely see in a posthumous biopic. That she was able to make such a profound impact on Selena’s family is proof to the power of her performance.

While Lopez’s experience spending time with Selena’s family allowed her to deeply understand her character, she’s truly at her most alive during the film’s concert scenes. Lopez is able to fall back on her innate strengths as a performer to fully embody Selena’s on-stage presence. From the biggest stadiums to the smallest rodeo stages, Lopez has a vibrant energy that fills whatever space she’s in. As the film’s ending credits intercut real footage of Selena’s concerts, we see how flawlessly Lopez has captured the raw vitality that Selena brought to the stage. These musical moments give Lopez the opportunity to immortalize, on-screen, the full spectrum of Selena’s talents.

And ultimately, that’s all that Abraham Quintanilla wanted to do with Selena. The film was a way for him to immortalize his daughter so that her true legacy could live on. But through Lopez’s performance, he got something even more special: the chance to see his daughter perform one more time. Jennifer Lopez was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance as Selena, but even if she hadn’t been lauded for the role, it wouldn’t have mattered. Selena’s family was proud of the work she did. And that’s the best award any actor could ask for.

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Jacob Trussell is a writer based in New York City. His editorial work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the author of 'The Binge Watcher's Guide to The Twilight Zone' (Riverdale Avenue Books). Available to host your next spooky public access show. Find him on Twitter here: @JE_TRUSSELL (He/Him)