Jennifer Lopez on ‘Marry Me,’ Fame and Ben Affleck

LOS ANGELES — Of course the fireplace is lit at Jennifer Lopez’s house. It’s a rainy day just a week before Christmas, and her Spanish-style Bel-Air estate is decorated as you would expect: pine garland strewn around the mantle, orange roses on the coffee table, a professionally trimmed Christmas tree in the living room.

It’s like a page from a Restoration Hardware catalog, right down to the star herself, dressed in the couture version of the work-from-home uniform: chunky beige sweater, cream sweatpants, blinged-out Timberlands. Her hair is pulled back in a bun and a touch of makeup highlights her impossibly dewy skin. The giant diamond studs affixed to her ears are the one true giveaway of her status as one of the most famous women on the planet.

Which makes you wonder, does anything happen by accident in Jennifer Lopez’s life? It’s a question to be pondered especially after her newish boyfriend, Ben Affleck, pops in for a kiss and a whispered conversation near a giant gingerbread house that’s iced with the words “Affleck Lopez Family.”

After all, this is a woman who has successfully navigated the treacherous waters of celebrity for close to three decades, endured round after round of public romances and breakups, refashioned herself from dancer to singer to actress to producer. At 52, a time when female stars usually find themselves in an ageist and sexist Hollywood purgatory, she seems to be more relevant than ever.

Her new movie, the sparkly romantic comedy “Marry Me,” long-delayed by the pandemic, opens in theaters and on Peacock on Valentine’s Day weekend. In it, Lopez plays a J.Lo-like superstar trying to negotiate a love life amid the trappings of uber-fame. (Sound familiar?) She will play another bride in “Shotgun Wedding,” due out this summer, before trading the gowns for a role as a deadly assassin in Netflix’s upcoming film “The Mother,” which she planned to finish shooting in the Canary Islands after the Christmas holiday.

At some point the streaming service, which last year signed a multiyear deal with Lopez’s company, Nuyorican Productions, will also release a documentary that chronicles the year she turned 50 and all her disparate worlds coalesced: legitimate recognition for her acting in “Hustlers” (she earned her second Golden Globe nomination and a SAG Award nod), her 2019 international concert tour and the halftime show at the 2020 Super Bowl. The year, she said, “when everything I had worked for in movies, music and fashion just started happening.”

“Marry Me,” which Lopez began working on years ago with Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, her former agent turned producing partner, is in some sense an explanation of what it’s like to exist under Lopez’s spotlight, something she calls “a very specific life.” It is also a high-wire act, a bet that she can revive a genre that’s been left for dead by both the studio system and the rom-com stars of the past.

For Goldsmith-Thomas, Lopez’s decision to go from “Hustlers,” which upped her cred as a serious actress, to “Marry Me,” which aligns more with her earlier success as a stalwart of the rom-com (“Maid in Manhattan,” “The Wedding Planner”), makes perfect sense. “We loved making ‘Hustlers,’ but that doesn’t mean that’s all we should do,” she said. “She had an opportunity to pull the curtain back and make a film about what it was like to live and to love in a glass bowl, to have your mistakes amplified and crucified across all platforms, and to ultimately find your way in spite of it. Add to that the ability to produce, and perform a soundtrack to that journey, and we’d be fools not to make it.”

In “Marry Me” Lopez plays Kat Valdez, a global pop star who intends to marry her boyfriend, also a worldwide sensation (played by the Colombian singer-songwriter Maluma), in front of millions of fans in a televised stunt. Moments before the big “I do,” Valdez discovers he has been cheating on her, calls off the ceremony while onstage and opts to marry the poor schlub in the audience (Owen Wilson) holding a “Marry Me” sign. Think “The Bodyguard” meets “Notting Hill” complete with a soundtrack by Lopez.

The movie is both a frothy pop fantasy and a glimpse into a life few are lucky enough to lead. Any obsessive Lopez fan will surely examine it closely for clues into Lopez’s own psyche, specifically how lonely it can be at the top, where the cocoon of entitlement can often feel like a cage. And they won’t be wrong.

Lopez recalled filming a scene in which her character returns home after the stunt ceremony has gone south, depleted and still in her gown. She turns on Jimmy Fallon, only to see him insult her during his late-night monologue, and she starts to cry. It’s a hint of vulnerability you don’t often see from Lopez and one that took some time for the actress to reach.

“Once you’ve gotten burned a few times, you realize, ‘I have to be careful.’ If things are too deep and you put them out there, somebody might step on your heart,” she said, adding an expletive.

The film’s director, Kat Coiro, admired Lopez’s quest for perfection. “There is a choreography even in her acting,” she said. Yet for the scene to work, Coiro asked Lopez to repeat it a number of times to break down that veneer. The result feels real, or as real as Lopez will allow herself to be.

“I had to remind myself in this movie that this was actually a safe place to let those feelings out,” said Lopez, seated in front of that garlanded fireplace. “They’re making fun of me, that hurts. My instinct was to act like it didn’t.”

Lopez has spent decades trying to find that balance between what the public wants from her and what she is willing to give to them. She still loves doing meet-and-greets with fans after concerts. Coiro, for one, was stunned with just how much time she was willing to give them.

“She’s so ubiquitous that sometimes she doesn’t get the credit she deserves,” the director said. “I think there’s something of that in this film.” When Kat Valdez “talks about never winning any awards, I think that was a moment that was true to life,” Coiro continued. “She’s been around. She has fans like nobody else, and because of that high profile sometimes she’s not looked at in a certain way.”

Despite the guardrails, public perception is something Lopez still struggles to get right.

“You really just want to sing and dance and act,” Lopez said. “This whole other thing comes along with it that you have to learn how to navigate — having that public life, this artistic life and then your private life. What you want is just a regular life, like anybody else,” she said with a pause. “All of it is put under scrutiny.”

Lopez had just finished telling me this when Affleck appeared. “Hi, baby,” she said to him. The two set the internet on fire last year when they rekindled their relationship from 19 years ago — a relationship so extra at the time that it single-handedly fueled tabloid culture with the duo’s glamorous, and very public, meet-ups. (Revisit Lopez’s infamous 2002 “Jenny From the Block” video to see Affleck kissing her bikinied bottom while the two are sunning themselves on a yacht.) With a backpack slung over his shoulder, he interrupted the interview to pull her into the other room. They returned 10 minutes later, only to embrace, kiss and whisper “I love you” into each other’s ears. “All right my love, I’ll see you later,” he said before dashing off.

It was a peculiar moment. Was it planned? Spontaneous? My requests to speak to Affleck had been denied, yet here he was, the dutiful boyfriend sharing words of encouragement in front of the press.

I asked Lopez about the conversations the two of them had before rekindling a romance that previously had the power to sink two films and jeopardize their respective careers. (“Gigli” and the subsequent “Jersey Girl” both crashed on release, in part because of relationship turmoil.) Had they strategized on how they would handle the media frenzy that would accompany such a union?

“I would say we learned our lesson the first time,” she said with a sigh.

And what is that lesson?

“To hold it sacred,” she added. “You have to do what feels good to you all the time. But at the same time, you learn from the past, you do things better the second time. There’s a part of it that, yes, we’re together. But there’s a part of it that’s not, you know, being so open the way we were when we were so young and in love many years ago.”

What about all that she shared with the public during her four-year relationship with the former Yankee Alex Rodriguez, from the constant presence on the red carpet to the intimate Instagram shots with their respective kids? The two even tried to buy the New York Mets in 2020, only to lose out to a higher bidder.

“When you’re in things, you do what feels right. And I don’t beat myself up over ‘I wish I had done this differently’ or ‘Did I do too much?’” she said. “That’s what was comfortable at the time. I did what I did. He did what he did. And it was fine. The relationship stuff had nothing to do with being public or not being public.”

One thing does seem clear: Lopez is a hopeless romantic, one who despite three marriages and other failed relationships still believes in destiny. It’s the through line of her new movie and also appears to be the through line of her life, one she doesn’t intend to change any time soon.

“You can’t live life and think that things are just mistakes: I just messed up there, I messed up there. No, it’s all lessons,” she said. “It’s really what can you extrapolate from it that is going to help you grow and go to the next level of understanding yourself, finding yourself and being able to be at peace with your life, at peace with who you are.”