How Jennifer Lopez scored the role of Selena in the 1997 musical biopic: 'She's the one'

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Mother always knows best ... both in life and in art. That's the takeaway from the true Hollywood story of how Jennifer Lopez nabbed the role that made her a Hollywood A-lister. The former In Living Color Fly Girl beat out thousands of other young hopefuls when she was cast as slain Latinx singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez in the 1997 biopic, Selena, which premiered in theaters a quarter-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 deciding vote.

"I remember Marcella gasping and saying, 'Oh, she dances just like Selena,'" Nava recalls. "And we went, 'She's the one. She is the one.' She has the talent, the ganas [desire] and the passion to really channel the spirit of that beautiful young woman." (Watch our video interview above.)

Lopez also celebrated Selena's anniversary on Instagram. "The movie means so much to me," she wrote. "Selena and her family mean so much to me, and I was so lucky to be chosen to play her."

Lopez was one of 21,000 actresses to audition for Selena, a number that Nava says eclipsed the number of performers who coveted the role of Scarlett O'Hara in 1939's Gone With the Wind. "It was a very long process, and a very difficult process, because we couldn't offer the role to anybody. 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 were overwhelmed when 21,000 young women came to audition for the role of Selena. Everyone was taken by surprise."

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

Nava eventually narrowed the field down to 12 candidates, which included 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 to Selena's voice, dance and do dramatic scenes. So we really put them through the grinder and they were all made up and everything.

"After we did the audition, we all sat down in the screening room and we watched them — the Warner Bros. executives, and the Quintanilla family. There was just no question: Jennifer Lopez could capture the spirit of Selena. She did things that nobody else did. When everybody else danced, they danced like themselves. Jennifer's a great dancer, but she was the one who didn't dance like herself. 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 movements. So she got the part!"

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

Lopez's faithful portrayal drew praise from critics and fans alike when the film debuted in theaters. Roger Ebert described it as a "star-making performance" in his rave review, adding that she evokes "the magic of a sweet and talented young woman." The following year, Lopez was among the Golden Globe nominees for Best Actress in a Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy. But Oscar voters left her off of their ballot in part, Nava says, because the studio didn't make a strong enough awards push.

"I was sitting with [former Warner Bros. heads] Terry Semel and Bob Daly, and I said, 'Let's do an Academy campaign for Jennifer; that performance is amazing,'" he recalls. "And they said, 'She deserves it, but the Academy will never nominate her. They'll never nominate a Latina. It's a waste of money.' So they did not put money into an Academy campaign, which is a tragedy. Today I don't think there'd be any question that she would win." (To date, Lopez has yet to be nominated for an Oscar, even though many felt she should have received a Best Supporting Actress nod for her celebrated role in 2019's Hustlers.)

Even though it was left out of that year's awards race, Selena remains a significant film, both in Lopez's career and in the history of Latinx artists in contemporary Hollywood. "You have to realize, that was the first big Latino film that was made by a major studio and Jennifer was the first Latina to really get a major role like that," Nava says. "So we were pioneers: It's a groundbreaking movie in many ways."

Selena is currently streaming on HBO Max.