How Jennifer Lopez Scored the Role of Selena in the 1997 Musical Biopic, ‘She’s the One’

Mother always knows best…both in life and into art. That’s the takeaway from the real Hollywood story of how Jennifer Lopez got the part that made her a Hollywood A-lister. The former In living color Fly Girl defeated thousands of other young hopefuls when she was cast as murdered Latinx singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez in the 1997 biopic, Selenawhich premiered in theaters a quarter of a century ago on March 21, 1997. And as director Gregory Nava revealed to Yahoo Entertainment in a 2020 interview, the real queen of Tejano’s mother, Marcella Ofelia Quintanilla, cast the casting vote.

“I remember Marcella gasping and saying, ‘Oh, she dances just like Selena,’” recalls Nava. “And we went, ‘It’s her. It’s her.’ She has the talent, the desire [desire] and the passion to really channel that beautiful young woman’s mind.” (Watch our video interview above.)

Lopez was one of 21,000 actresses to audition for Selenaa number that, according to Nava, overshadowed the number of performers who coveted the role of Scarlett O’Hara in 1939 Gone with the wind† “It was a very long process, and a very difficult one, because we couldn’t offer the part to anyone. The family wanted to see who was going to play their daughter: I really understood that and so did the studio. So we had an open casting call and was overwhelmed when 21,000 young women auditioned for the part of Selena. Everyone was surprised.”

Jennifer Lopez scored her breakthrough role in Selena, which premiered in theaters 25 years ago. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

Nava eventually narrowed the field to 12 candidates, including Lopez and Constance Marie, who was eventually cast as Selena’s mother. †[Then] we had a full audition with cameras, lights and costumes,” he explains. “I designed a very difficult test where the actresses had to lip sync with Selena’s voice, dance and do dramatic scenes. So we really put them through the mill and they were all made up and stuff.

“After we auditioned, we all sat down in the screening room and watched them – the Warner Bros. executives and the Quintanilla family. There was just no doubt about it: Jennifer Lopez could capture Selena’s spirit. She did things. that no one else did. When everyone else danced they danced like herself Jennifer is a great dancer but she was the one who didn’t dance like her She had studied the tapes of Selena dancing and she used her talent as an actress to use her dancing ability to dance exactly like Selena and imitate her moves. So she got the part!”

Lopez in Selena (Photo: Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Lopez carefully studied the tapes of the real Queen of Tejano in order to portray her in Selena. (Photo: Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Lopez’s faithful portrayal was praised by critics and fans alike when the film debuted in theaters. Roger Ebert described it as a “star achievement” in his glowing review, adding that it evokes “the magic of a sweet and talented young woman”. The following year, Lopez was one of the Golden Globe nominees for Best Actress in a Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy. But Oscar voters partially left her out of the ballot, Nava says, because the studio wasn’t strong enough to win awards.

“I sat with” [former Warner Bros. heads] Terry Semel and Bob Daly, and I said, ‘Let’s do an Academy campaign for Jennifer; that achievement is amazing,” he recalls. “And they said, ‘She deserves it, but the Academy will never nominate her. They will never nominate a Latina. It’s wasted money.’ So they didn’t put money into an Academy campaign, which is a tragedy. Today I don’t think there’s any doubt that she would win.” (To date, Lopez has yet to be nominated for an Oscar, although many felt she should have gotten a Best Supporting Actress nod for her celebrated role in 2019’s Hustlers

Even though it was excluded from the awards ceremony that year, Selena remains an important film both in Lopez’s career and in the history of Latinx performers in contemporary Hollywood. “You have to realize that this was the first major Latino movie to be made by a major studio and Jennifer was the first Latina to actually get that big a part,” says Nava. “So we were pioneers: it’s a groundbreaking film in many ways.”

Selena is currently streaming on HBO Max.

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