Within the first few minutes of Lorene Scafaria’s crime-dramedy Hustlers, Jennifer Lopez makes her entrance as seduction personified, playing a veteran exotic dancer named Ramona. The global superstar’s familiar face, signature curves, and neon-lit muscles writhe on stage at a strip club to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” exuding sex and power as she holds the gazes of the rapt men showering her with cash.
As tantalizing as it is, the scene isn’t just about enticing the club’s patrons: Lopez cast a spell on someone else watching from the sidelines, too: “I was cheering, ‘Don’t stop! This is f—ing amazing!’” remembers Constance Wu, 37, now tucked away in the corner of a rooftop bar in Toronto, where she and her costar are basking in the glow of critical acclaim following the film’s world premiere at the city’s prestigious international film festival the night before.
“Ramona is supposed to be the most amazing unicorn in the universe,” the Crazy Rich Asians actress says of her character Destiny’s magnetic attraction to the club’s matriarch, but you get the sense that she’s talking about Lopez, too: Over the course of the film’s 29-day shoot, the star would become her cheerleader, friend, and wingwoman, one whose sisterhood and support helped give them both the confidence to forge ahead with one of the most electrifying on-screen pairings of the year.
“I thought it was a scene of love — not romantic love, just love,” Wu says of Destiny and Ramona’s first meeting. “That was easy to fall into, because I’ve admired Jen my whole life. She’s a special person, not just her talent and career, but her soul, spirit, caring, and work ethic. Destiny is in awe of Ramona, and I, Constance, am in awe of Jennifer.”
It’s rare for a “stripper movie” to focus on female friendship, as it’s a subgenre that has (mostly) unfolded through the objectifying eyes of men. Scafaria’s movie is inspired by “The Hustlers at Scores,” a 2015 New York magazine article that chronicled a band of enterprising strippers who drugged and stole from their wealthy Wall Street clients in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. In the film, as Destiny opens up to Julia Stiles‘ journalist character, it’s often hard to tell whether Destiny regrets or still cherishes the sharp turns her life took after surrendering to Ramona’s charms and joining a new, chosen family as part of her strip club sorority.
“I was fascinated by the original story, and I thought it opened up a larger idea of a movie set in this world that has often been relegated to a scene in every other movie or TV show,” observes Scafaria, 41, whose research at various strip clubs exposed her to the lived experiences of women who dance for dollars to pay for school or feed their children — all acts of love she worked into Destiny and Ramona’s backstories. “Between the lines, there’s an interesting friendship story. I felt a kinship to everyone, and I also felt a responsibility to the characters and sex workers and wanted to portray something that felt authentic.”
Ramona might lead Destiny down a path of amoral dealings that burned businessmen on both ends of the spectrum (from family men to power-hungry CEOs), and ultimately led to their arrest, but Wu and Lopez’s warmth easily guides us to the emotional core of the story, their tender connection begging us not to make snap judgments of the ladies’ illicit deeds — at least without also questioning the societal constructs that led them there in the first place.
“Ramona is a little bit of a pimp, so she understands [Destiny’s] weaknesses and she plays on that,” Lopez, 50, says. “That’s the manipulative side on her, and she didn’t expect to wind up caring about her in that way.” Adds Wu: “That’s what this movie is about: the complexity of friendship. There’s a bond between Destiny and Ramona, a mother-daughter element that has a lot of meaning because of Destiny’s [motherless] upbringing.”
According to Lopez, beginning a genuine friendship with her leading lady was vital to unlocking the story for audiences. Enter Wu, who has an inherent “vulnerability that’s beautiful, but not in a way that she can’t be strong,” as Lopez describes, calling the actress “tough and brave on the low” — qualities that, as a producer and star, made Lopez instantly fall for Wu, too.
“When there’s a natural chemistry, that makes it so much easier, and you’re able to paint with many more colors. It becomes like real life, and that’s magic,” Lopez remembers. At their first meeting for a screen test with Scafaria, Lopez felt an immediate spark of intimacy and reflexively embraced her new costar as if she’d known her for years. “It’s an unlikely pairing. We didn’t grow up in the same place, and we’re not from the same background. We’re so different, but that’s what makes it interesting to watch.”
They later spent time at Lopez’s New York City apartment, where they studied the script, and further bonded over “talking about ex-boyfriends” (like old girlfriends) on set. “I instantly felt like her little sister,” Wu says. “I didn’t even say anything, [the chemistry] was psychic!”
That innate connection was all built into the DNA of Scafaria’s script as well, the soul of which becomes obvious in a scene immediately following Ramona’s first dance. A curious Destiny follows Ramona outside for a smoke, where she finds her new idol sprawled across the club’s roof.
“To Lorene, that moment was always the movie. In the script it says: ‘Ramona wraps Destiny in her coat, and Destiny looks like a baby kangaroo enveloped in her mom.’ Isn’t that cute?” Wu remembers. On screen, Ramona — still wearing no more than a glittery piece of lingerie under a massive fur coat — agrees to take Destiny under her tutelage, and literally wraps her up protectively in the soft fur. “She’s warm and cool, maternal and sexy — all the things that make up Ramona,” adds Scafaria. “She’s f—ing Jennifer Lopez.”
Part of the maternal spirit that runs through the film came from Lopez’s input as a producer. She tapped into her nurturing instincts as the mother of 11-year-old twins, Emme and Max, which she says afforded her the patience and empathy required to tell a well-rounded story about caring for a younger woman — but says the story also speaks to caring for all kinds of women, from the good-natured to those who live life as the kind of unapologetically flawed woman on the edge Hollywood has yet to fully embrace.
“It’s a full movie under the guise of a fun, sexy, dangerous world,” Lopez says, savoring the grit that propelled her polished troupe of badass bandidas to become scammers. “That’s life, that’s people. There’s nothing worse than a f—ing one-note character who isn’t complicated. We’re all good and bad sometimes. At the end of the day, if you’re not playing a character like that, you’re not telling a real story.”
As the film’s eclectic cast assembled — including Stiles, Cardi B, Lizzo, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Trace Lysette, and Madeline Brewer — they, too, sensed Lopez’s protective nature. “She was a mama bear from the start. She has that warm energy. She’s very touchy and wants to connect with you. It’s sweet,” says Reinhart, 22, who plays Annabelle, another drifter Ramona recruits into their growing family of conwomen. Brewer, 27, joins the operation as a dancer with an abundance of nervous energy — partially due to the character’s drug-induced mania, but mostly because the actress was legitimately terrified.
“On my first day, I didn’t stand on my mark, and Jen gently suggested that I should probably stand on my mark, so that was a nice intro,” Brewer recounts.
“She was so nervous,” Lopez remembers with a laugh. “I was like, ‘It’s okay! We’re going to be okay, just use that. You’re supposed to be crazy nervous in this scene!’ I wanted to help her. That’s the mama in me. It didn’t have so much to do with the movie, I just wanted her to feel good.”
It’s hardly radical to point out that in Hollywood, men still call most of the shots — and largely decide which stories get funded by big studio dollars. Even getting to that point can be a struggle, like how Scafaria metaphorically danced for Hollywood executives’ dollars herself while shopping the project with Booksmart producer Jessica Elbaum.
“When people read a story like this and [these women] don’t fit exactly within the lines, it’s easy to want to make it fit, like a black-and-white story,” Scafaria says, while Lopez recalls potential distributors wanting to make the tale more accessible, by shifting the focus away from the feminine energy of the central relationships and onto their transgressions. “I think they only saw it as strippers drugging men, as criminals. They wanted the girls to be sympathetic characters who were hurt, and the men as bad guys,” Lopez says. “That’s not the truth, the truth is this. Maybe they saw themselves in it a little bit and didn’t want this story told.”
The project eventually found a home at STX, a studio with strong ties to Lopez and her producing partner, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas (it distributed their 2018 comedy hit Second Act, which, according to Box Office Mojo, earned nearly five times its $16 million budget in global ticket sales). And the film’s scope fits into Lopez’s philosophy for the next phase of her life as an entertainer.
“My life and career are about not letting people put me in their box, but being limitless in that I can do many things, and you don’t get to tell me what those are. I am the only person who dictates that,” she says, grinning with the satisfaction of a woman who knows she’s at the top of her game. “What I seek at this point in my career are movies that work on many levels. The best movies work as a story [and] say something about life and humanity.”
Judging by the film’s enthusiastic reception at TIFF (where many movie critics and public attendees lauded her transformative performance as the best of her career), Lopez could be looking at some awards-season love at the top of the year.
“I hope it happens for Jen,” Wu says. “I think she deserves it for her whole life, really.”
By the time Hustlers’ credits roll, Wu also hopes the strength of Destiny and Ramona’s relationship is the project’s lasting legacy, sturdy enough to transcend their crimes, and change perceptions of marginalized women “tossed away” and left to fend for themselves when they don’t conform to societal expectations.
“There are girls out there with stories like Destiny’s, [girls who] don’t come from much or feel like they don’t fit in and are looking for a friend, but never had one,” Wu finishes, a glint in her eye as if her mind is right back in the club, watching Lopez lead by example as a master of the cold, hard metal of heart and pole. “I hope they see this and have a little hope that there’s a Ramona out there for you, somewhere.”