The big news from the second half of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival? That would be Picturehouse forking over a reported $6 million for El Cantante, a biopic about the late salsa star Hector Lavoe. Directed by Leon Ichaso (Piñero) and produced by Jennifer Lopez, the movie traces the legendary Puerto Rican singer’s rise to superstardom in the 1970s, and his slow, painful fall, which ended with his death, in 1993, of AIDS. The film marks the first on-screen collaboration between real-life husband-and-wife Marc Anthony and Lopez, who costar as Lavoe and his feisty spouse Puchi (born Nilda Roman Perez). Two days after Cantante‘s splashy red-carpet premiere in Toronto, Lopez teetered into the Intercontinental Hotel lounge on fierce Marc Jacobs heels to chat with EW. Marc Anthony sat nearby.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did it feel to premiere your movie here in Toronto, where the stakes can be awfully high?
JENNIFER LOPEZ: I was really nervous. I actually never felt that type of nervousness before a premiere. I remember waking up that morning we were flying into Toronto, I was like, ”Oh my God!” My stomach was sick, you know? But I think it was also because this is the first film I ever produced. So the stakes were a little bit higher for me on every level. This is my project, my baby that I’ve been working on for four and a half, five years now. So it was exciting. It’s a great film festival, obviously very prestigious. That they accepted our film is a big deal.
How did El Cantante become the first project of your company, Nuyorican Productions? I read that Puchi herself requested you.
[Nods] She wanted me to play her. David Maldonado, who was Hector’s road manager for many years, and actually Marc’s manager for the first part of his career, was the one who decided he was going to try to write a script out of Hector’s life. So [David] interviewed her over a year and wrote the script, and [Puchi] was like, ”Okay, I want Jennifer Lopez to play me.” So they got it to me. The minute I got it, I was like, ”I would love to do this.” I wanted to meet her, but she wound up dying three months later, which was really weird.
Yeah, the movie’s closing credits say she died under ”mysterious circumstances.” Was she murdered?
No, no. She had kind of a freak accident: She fell on the street and hit her head. This is what her grandson told me, and he was there. That family is plagued with horrible tragedies. It’s like they were cursed or something. It’s horrible. I hate to say that, because I don’t want them to feel that way. [In the span of a few years, the Lavoes’ teenage son died from an accidental gunshot wound, Puchi’s mother was stabbed to death, and Hector fell from a hotel window.] He was able to interpret all that stuff that happened to him. Which really made him like every other person — he suffers with a lot of pain. It wasn’t like he was some privileged star living the high life. He was really just a regular guy who had a lot of hardships in his life, and people could relate to that.
Was Puchi from the Bronx?
Yes. And I knew people like her. I was lucky — I had about 11 CDs of her interviews, so I could hear her voice, hear the way she laughed, and I could hear when her voice changed. I went over those [recordings] and took notes over and over and over again. All of that was so important — like, where she got quiet, where she got sad, how she handled when she talked about something difficult.
You’ve played a real-life person before —
Which was, of course, your breakout role. How did it feel to return to more dramatic material?
It felt great. You know, I started in drama, working with Oliver Stone in U Turn, and so many of my earlier projects were like this. So after doing a lot of romantic comedies, which I love as well, to get back to something to really sink your teeth into was very exciting. So I was like, ”Okay, here we go! Let’s do it!” [Laughs] This is part of what I do. People forgot that for a little while, [with my] having the pop hits and all that kind of stuff. People forget that you have that type of depth of emotion. [Laughs]
It must have been a big responsibility playing this woman who asked you to play her.
It was hard. I was actually a little bit scared as we were coming up to it, because I had lived with the script for so many years. Some people liked Puchi, and some people hated Puchi. The most important thing was that she had such a strong personality. She was such a ball-buster; she was so strong. And the fact that she loved him was what I really wanted to get across. That for 20 years they were together. So that was a challenge — they weren’t here to tell us, It was like this or It was like that. So I had to really decipher those tapes, and what I came up with was that they had love, they had a loving relationship, they needed each other, but it was dysfunctional in many ways.
She sure was a firecracker.
Yes, she was. She tells a story on one of the tapes about how she got a new car, a Mercedes. And [Hector] was like, ”Let me take the car for a ride.” She was like, no, because she knew he would disappear. She was like, [speaks in Puchi’s thick Bronx accent] ”My new Mah-cey-dees, my brand-new Mah-cey-dees!” Sure enough… she gets a call from the police. He had crashed the car, and he was in jail. And she said, ”I don’t know him — leave him there.” And he was like, ”Goddamn it, Puchi! Come and get me!” They let him out a few days later. She knew that he was gonna be at somebody’s birthday party that night, so she shows up with the cake, and he’s like, ”What are you doing here!?” She said, [in Puchi’s accent] ‘I’m doing the same thing you’re doing here. You came here to sing, I came here to dance.” [laughs] That was her answer! That was the dynamic that existed between them.
How did you enjoy playing that type of relationship with someone you know quite well? [I gesture to Marc Anthony, who is seated on a nearby couch]
I mean, Marc and I have worked together so many times. We met working, because we did a song together. So it was second nature to us. But it was great to be able to work on something this special together. But I have to tell you that I called him four and a half years ago for this. We’ve been together for two and a half years now. When I got the script, I was like, ”Nobody can play this but Marc Anthony.” I always had a tremendous respect for him as a singer, but also as an actor, because I had seen him do Paul Simon’s Capeman on Broadway. I had seen him in other little parts, and I was just like, This guy is the real thing. So he just does what he does. And we do what we do, and we do it together. It works in a weird way. It works well. [Laughs]
He said at yesterday’s press conference that the movie made him realize that your relationship is nothing like Hector and Puchi’s.
Yeah, he said he realized how sane our relationship was. It was kind of a wake-up call: As crazy as you think you are, and as bad as you think things that can get sometimes, with Puchi and Hector, it was like, God, they made it for 20 years! Come on! Surely we can argue about the toothpaste and get through it! It was that type of realization. We also say in the movie: These two people weren’t sitting there in therapy talking about their feelings. It was just, a lo bueno, a lo malo — for good or for bad. They were just there, living their lives, trying to do the best they could. And I like that. I like that there’s not tons of answers. You get the story, but you don’t get the real ”Oh, this is why he was like this!” or, ”This is why she was like this.” It was what it was. It was good, it was bad, it was beautiful.
What are you doing next?
I have Bordertown coming out next, probably early next year. It depends when they release this film. I finished my Spanish album [Como Ama Una Mujer]. The [first] single will be released within the next six to eight weeks. And my English album, I’m halfway through it right now.
Are you taking a break from movies?
I’m attached to things, but you never know what’s gonna go next. I think I’m gonna do this movie with Don Roos. It’s something that he wrote. It’s called Love and Other Impossible Pursuits. I’m very excited. He’s fantastic. When he knew I was coming [to Toronto], he actually e-mailed me. He goes, ”How are you doing? Are you nervous?” I was like, ”Yeah!” He saw the film because before we decided to work together I wanted him to see it. And he was like, ”It’s the best female performance in five years — don’t worry about it!” I was like, ”I love you!” [Laughs]