Marc Anthony had plenty of warning about the dangers of starring opposite his wife, Jennifer Lopez, in the story of a troubled celebrity couple from salsa's golden era. Fellow actors cautioned him that the marital conflicts in the script were bound to creep into his own relationship as some sort of evil projection on his marriage.
"Everybody said the same thing: 'Oh, working with your wife is going to be challenging,'" he recalls. "'It's a rough script, man, and you're going to have to go to these [tormented] places.'"
Anthony wasn't yet married to Lopez when he agreed to star as the late Hector Lavoe, the beloved but bedeviled salsa singer in El Cantante (The Singer, which opens today). His future wife would not just be his co-star as the sharp-tongued Puchi, Lavoe's co-dependent spouse - Lopez would also be his boss, since she was producing the movie as the maiden project of her company, Nuyorican Productions. The warnings gave him second thoughts about the deal. "Man, I thought I had signed a death sentence," he recalled.
But the singer plunged into the role with passion, bearing an uncanny resemblance on screen to the wiry Puerto Rican he calls his idol. El Cantante shows Lavoe's rise to fame as part of New York's salsa boom of the '60s and '70s and his almost simultaneous self-destruction through drug abuse and paralyzing self-doubt.
Lavoe's talent and bravado made him an instant folk hero for the era's socially conscious Latino youth. Yet his human failings and miserable luck made him a tragic figure who lost his mother as a boy, met heartless rejection from his father as an adult, became hooked on heroin, buried a teenage son killed in a gun accident, contracted AIDS, tried to commit suicide and met an early death at age 46.
This story is told in flashbacks by a world-worn but still feisty Puchi, who is being interviewed after Lavoe's death. Played with convincing New York attitude by Lopez, Puchi recounts her husband's infidelities, his reputation for showing up late (if at all) to concerts, her heroic efforts to rescue him from scary shooting galleries and her blind enabling by sharing his drug habits.
A rough script indeed. How could Anthony and Lopez inhabit such dark characters during shooting in New York and not take some of that turmoil back to their pastoral Long Island estate at night?
"The exact opposite is true," Anthony counters, his voice rising. "On the drive home after a fight scene, we'd say, 'Oh, my God, that was crazy. Babe, we have nothing to worry about.' It shed light on how bad it could be."
Christened Marco Antonio Muniz after a famous Mexican crooner, he anglicized his name when he started to make his mark as a songwriter and session vocalist in New York's underground house music scene. He never dreamed of becoming a salsa singer.
Switching to salsa, a style he considered "so uncool," was a result of "sheer fate," he recalls. One day while stuck in a traffic jam, he heard on the radio a beautiful ballad. He was so moved by the sorrowful song that he got out of the car, called his manager and insisted he had to record it.
It became a smash from his debut salsa album, Otra Nota (Another Note).
El Cantante is the first movie to feature Anthony and Lopez, both 38, as co-stars. It took them almost six years to make it, struggling against Hollywood's historic distortion of Latino themes and the lingering ghost of Gigli, the 2003 box-office bomb that featured Lopez with her previous co-habiting co-star, Ben Affleck.
Supporters are convinced that the actress redeems herself with her turn as Nilda "Puchi" Roman, in a script by director Leon Ichaso, Todd Anthony Bello and David Darmstaedter.
Although Lopez has enjoyed marquee billing in several films, this is the first leading role for her husband, one of the top-selling Latin singers of all time. The starring role signals his intention to move more into acting, at a time when the music industry is in a slump and salsa is a pale shadow of what it was in his '90s heyday.
His advantage is that he's married to his acting coach. In preparing to play Lavoe, he relied on his wife's experience in her first major movie role in Selena, Gregory Nava's 1997 biopic of the slain Tejano singing star.
"Jennifer helped me a lot with that," says Anthony, who had performed with the real Selena. "She studied [the character] to nauseum. I mean, clips, interviews, songs, nuances, everything. And then, she said, 'Forget about it. Let it seep into your performance; don't make it your performance.' I thought that was a very interesting paradigm."
Agustin Gurza writes for the Los Angeles Times.