To prep for her role as Ramona, the stiletto-sharp ringleader of a crew of enterprising strippers in Hustlers, Jennifer Lopez was nothing if not dedicated: She trained with a pole choreographer/ aerialist for months and even had portable stripper poles at the ready in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles so she could practice carousel spins wherever she happened to be. And she wore her commitment to the role in bruises earned after every session.
“I have danced all my life and I work out every single day,” says the star, 50. “And I can say without hesitation that learning to pole dance was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done.”
It was all in order to bring a fascinating real-life tale to the big screen. Inspired by Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores” — which detailed how exotic dancers from the famed Manhattan strip club seduced, drugged, and scammed wealthy Wall Street clients out of massive sums of cash — Hustlers (out Sept. 13) is “about greed, power, and the American dream, and what a certain group of women, who worked in a field where they were degraded and discounted, will do to achieve it,” says Lopez, who produced the film with her fiercely loyal Hollywood squad: longtime business partner Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas and manager Benny Medina. (Will Ferrell and Adam McKay were also among the producers.)
But, this isn’t a movie about glitter-dusted Robin Hoods in eight-inch Louboutins sticking it to the one percent. “They’re not heroes, they’re humans,” says Crazy Rich Asians‘ Constance Wu, 37, who plays Destiny, a struggling woman who turns to stripping in order to provide for her grandmother and daughter. The story is told largely through her character’s eyes, as Ramona takes Destiny under her wing and teaches her the art of the steal — spiking men’s drinks and swiping their credit cards. Says Wu: “It doesn’t romanticize what it is to be a stripper or what it is to steal from rich men. It’s an exploration of the origin stories of these women.”
Writer-director Lorene Scafaria, 41, wanted to make the film precisely because its heroines were morally complex. “We’ve certainly seen a million movies about male characters like this and haven’t fully needed them to sit in either camp” as saviors or outlaws, she says. In this way, the women of Hustlers are more like the ethically compromised mafiosos on The Sopranos than the protagonists of most female-driven fare. That wasn’t the easiest sell in Hollywood. Several studios were only interested in the project if Scafaria (best known for 2016’s The Meddler) morphed the story into something far more lighthearted.
Still, the director stuck to her guns. Understanding that any movie about stripping risks coming off as camp, Scafaria says she worked hard to focus on the humanity of her dancers and didn’t judge their work. “Women are constantly sexualized, but when they find a way to profit from it, suddenly it’s a problem,” says Lopez, whose fellow strippers are played by recording artists Cardi B, 26, and Lizzo, 31, as well as Scream Queens’ Keke Palmer, 25, and Riverdale’s Lili Reinhart, 23. “Strippers are painted as throwaways or background characters,” Lopez continues. “Hustlers digs into stories of their lives; the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
Scafaria and her cast — including Lopez — did their homework, visiting strip clubs in New York City to learn as much as they could about erotic dance. “I not only watched the ladies do their routines, I talked to them about what it was like to have a career as a dancer,” says Lopez, who discovered the old working-my-way-through-college stripper cliché happened to be true. “I think it would surprise people that most of these women are students, or young moms just trying to get by in a world that doesn’t offer those on the fringe many chances.”
There was also stripper boot camp. Lopez trained with the movie’s “pole coordinator” — choreographer and Cirque du Soleil aerialist Johanna Sapakie, who previously worked with Madonna and Miley Cyrus. “I was using a completely new group of muscles — it was tough,” says Lopez. “My shoulder and back are still recovering.” Says Sapakie: “Jennifer definitely got some bumps and bruises — we affectionately call them pole kisses. But she wanted to look like an absolute master.” Scafaria admits she shot the film “like a sports movie” because of the muscular acrobatics on display.
Wu committed to pole-dancing classes on weekends between shooting ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, and found a legit tutor in costar (and ex-stripper) Cardi B. “[We filmed] a scene where she’s teaching me how to give a lap dance,” Wu says. “She’s like, ‘Show me what you’ve got!’ So I try. She’s like, ‘Honey, no! This is terrible!’”
Now all that’s left is for audiences to judge whether Scafaria’s tale of women on the edge is, as they say in the trade, a moneymaker. “I hope women see it and love it; I hope men watch it and enjoy it,” says the director. In the end, Lopez wants people to not just ogle but empathize with the Hustlers crew. “Men weren’t interested in getting to know who these women were,” she says of the strippers who inspired the movie. “That would ruin the fantasy.”
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