“Jennifer!” Milo Ventimiglia roars – with a chortle no less – and without hesitation when probed which of his leading female co-stars has better on-set banter; Jennifer Lopez in Second Act or Mandy Moore in This Is Us. “Playing romance with Jennifer, it was a good day to show up at work.” On a brisk winter’s Wednesday evening at Regal Union Square in New York’s East Village, it’s commonplace for the entire cast of Second Act to recycle the same adjectives when asked to describe the 49-year-old heroine; “Funny.” “Hardworking”. “Down to earth.”
“It surprises you just how normal she was, how down to earth she was and how engaged with the work she was,” Ventimiglia tells GRAZIA. “For everything that she does, for everything that she’s a part of, she focuses on the one thing that’s in front of her whole-heartedly and openly as an artist. It was a lovely experience being on set with her.”
Ventimiglia, the actor whose star shot into the mega-fame stratosphere in the wildly successful television series This Is Us, was sort out by Lopez herself to play Trey, the suburban boyfriend of Lopez’s Maya. Much the same as Maid In Manhattan – a romantic comedy which soaked up box office glory 16 years ago – this film is set in New York City, in Manhattan actually. It’s odd at first to watch Lopez’s juggernaut star ride the subway musing “Do you ever look at your life and wonder how you got there? If you made different choices, would you be happier?” As jarring at it initially feels – Lopez now lives in the tallest residential building in the city and could quite literally see her hometown The Bronx from her living room – it’s a welcome wistfulness to see her back on the silver screen. It’s a sentiment co-star Vanessa Hudgens shares. “For me, the thing that made me so excited about working with Jennifer is that it made me feel so nostalgic,” Hudgens tells GRAZIA on the icy blue carpet tonight. “I grew up watching The Wedding Planner on repeat and she’s just the OG of them, she’s charming. You can’t help but just love her on camera.”
Lopez plays Maya, a 40-something woman who has been working in a department store for 15 years. When a degree-wielding man with less experience is awarded the top managerial role at the company, Maya finds herself disheartened. Her best friend Joan (played by Lopez’s real life best friend Leah Remini) helps get her an interview at one of the city’s top skin care companies on Madison Avenue. Maya – along with a couple of white lies about her education and qualifications – scores the job. It’s here she soars. Of course though, this isn’t without complication and revelation.
“It was time I told a story from a female point of view,” says the film’s director Peter Segal on tonight’s carpet. “I was living in a world of male-dominated stories most of my career and this was also a throwback to a movie that inspired me to be a director growing up. That was a Mike Nicholl’s film called Working Girl.”
“Jennifer’s incredibly intuitive, I think she really embodied this character,” Segal continued. “There was a lot of things she could identify with particularly as a person who was told she’d never amount to anything.
“I think she saw something in this character that literally reminded her of Jenny From The Block and she wanted to nail it.”
Nail it she did. As the cast continue to take interviews, the crowd breaks into fits of screaming as Lopez arrives in a huge fuchsia Giambattista Valli. Hustled with questions about her rumoured engagement to boyfriend Alex Rodriguez or how she literally is ageing backwards, Lopez doesn’t give a lot of air time to the tabloids. “Jennifer Lopez is a proper noun. You forget that she’s a person. She’s a human being that has feelings and has mundane feelings about crosswalks and she’s amazing,” says cast member Alan Aisenberg.
“[Jennifer] is someone that you want to look up to; You can’t imagine being her but at the same time she is someone so relatable. I think people see both in Jennifer; who they are and who they want to be.”
It’s Remini, though, who has the last word with a message to all of us. “To women watching this, I say, ‘You don’t have to take big broad steps. Just take small steps toward things that will make you happier – and you don’t need any one’s approval,” she says. “We are so used to asking people ‘Hey, I was thinking about leaving. But is that crazy of me to think about moving to a different state?’ Most of your friends are like, ‘That’s nuts, why would you do that?’ Or you know, ‘I was thinking of leaving this relationship that I’m unhappy in’ and the live-inside-the-box advice is ‘No, it’s stable, stay in it.’ Or somebody who has a big dream. Some people say, ‘You can’t be a singer, you went to college and studied law.’ I just say to those people, you don’t have to make big steps, but take little ones towards your happiness.”
As corny as the script can get, you’ll fall in love with its NYC backdrop and its core sentiment. For it is the human condition to want to believe every day is an opportunity for a second go at something.
Second Act is in Australian cinemas now.
red carpet reporter: Honey DeBelle.