Jenny is staking out the block. It’s a soggy November afternoon on the Queens set of Lopez’s new NBC drama, Shades of Blue, and in this particular scene, clad in baggy jeans and a bulky gray overcoat, she deliberately climbs a flight of stairs to a single-family house to broker a deal. “It’s not a gift,” says Lopez’s detective Harlee Santos, handing over a fat bag of hush money. “It’s a payment.” Over the next hour, Lopez methodically nails line after line, all while tilting her head with a practiced precision gained from 25 years of acting in music videos, movies, and TV. One thing is obvious: Lopez certainly knows how to work her angles.
But after starring in last summer’s The Boy Next Door, Lopez wasn’t exactly angling for more screen time when NBC asked her to consider the lead role in the project that she had originally pitched as a producer more than two years ago with longtime collaborator Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas. “I definitely wasn’t looking for an acting role on TV,” says Lopez. “But NBC’s response was really strong, and they were like, ‘How are you not playing this role?’”
Returning to a scripted drama for the first time since the short-lived ’90s crime series Second Chances wasn’t an easy sell for Lopez. “I was like, ‘Oh, s—, here we go,’” she recalls. “It’s a hard gig, the hour drama. But there’s one reason why I did it: The material was so good.”
In Shades of Blue, Lopez, 46, plays a cop who’s part of a tight-knit unit in Brooklyn and faces some morally murky territory when she’s tapped as an FBI informant. Police corruption plays a major role in the show, which Lopez promises won’t tiptoe around sensitive subjects like unarmed shootings and evidence manipulation.
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“It’s called Shades of Blue for a reason, since between right and wrong, there’s a lot of gray area,” says Lopez. “At the end of the day, it’s based on society and what’s happening.” Behind the scenes, Lopez also acts as executive producer, making decisions on everything from scripts to casting, handpicking costars Drea de Matteo, who plays a tough-talking detective, and — the GoodFella himself — Ray Liotta, who takes on the role of Harlee’s bristly boss. “Working with Ray Liotta and the rest of the cast, it’s always pushing the bar and raising it,” Lopez says. “It’s very intense.”
The same could be said of Lopez’s scrupulous attention to styling. As Harlee — a single mom more occupied with school tuition than fashion magazines — Lopez rocks a pared-down look miles from her usual sexy style. “It’s a total make-different,” she says of the cropped ’do she sports. “I thought, ‘Growing up in the Bronx, if I became a cop, what would I look like right now? My hair would still be curly, I’d have cut it.’ ”
Though Lopez has made plenty of other changes to accommodate her small-screen role — she’s moved to New York with her 7-year-old twins for the duration of shooting and flies cross-country to judge American Idol on weekends — she has no plans to ditch music or film in favor of TV full-time.
“I don’t have to give up one thing for another,” says Lopez, whose six-month residency at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas begins in late January. “I’m doing stuff I’ve never done,” she says. “It’s good.”
A version of this story appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1397/98, on newsstands now or available for purchase here.