LOS ANGELES — “I don’t think this lighting is going to work,” Jennifer Lopez says. She has just turned up at a photo shoot, and she is dismayed.
“Newspapers don’t do retouching,” the actress points out, “and ugly don’t sell movies.”
She requests that the studio representatives retrieve a monitor so she can review the images up close, zooming in on the pixels. As Lopez’s entourage scrambles to find a screen, best friend Leah Remini stands by patiently. The two will be posing together in a photograph for a story about to their new film, “Second Act,” but Remini seems less concerned about the images.
“I don’t need to see them,” she shrugs.
Remini understands the work that Lopez puts into maintaining her brand. She doesn’t complain when she’s on time for an interview and her costar is an hour late. She has no interest in “taking away her JLo.”
“I’m not that friend that is like, ‘I don’t see you as JLo,’” she says. “I see you as JLo, and I love that. Because you built that. I’m not trying to take you down and go, ‘Be normal.’ Her not being normal is what made this all possible.”
“This” is Lopez’s empire, which has grown to include acting, singing, dancing and producing since she was discovered as a Fly Girl on “In Living Color” in the ’90s. This year alone, she’s starred in the third season of the NBC crime drama “Shades of Blue,” done a 120-night Las Vegas residency at Planet Hollywood and has begun work as the executive producer and judge of the third season of NBC’s “World of Dance.”
And then there’s “Second Act,” Lopez’s first film in three years. The romantic comedy follows big-box store assistant manager Maya (Lopez), who wishes for a promotion for her 43rd birthday. When she’s passed over for a college-educated applicant, she laments to best friend Joan (Remini) that her lack of higher education has held her back from her ambitions.
Joan’s tech-savvy son overhears the discussion and secretly creates an online resume for Maya that bluffs about her credentials — and lands her a job at a fancy Madison Avenue firm.
The STX Entertainment picture, directed by Peter Segal, marks a return to romantic comedies for Lopez, 49, who established herself as one of the most dependable actresses of the genre after starring in such films as “The Wedding Planner” and “Maid in Manhattan” nearly two decades ago. But it’s the biggest film role ever for Remini, 48, who is best known for her sitcom television work opposite Kevin James on “The King of Queens” and the recently canceled “Kevin Can Wait.”
“I’m not film person,” Remini shrugs. “I don’t love the genre. I don’t enjoy the actual work of it. I like live shows. I like an audience. I don’t love filmmaking and doing things out of sequence.”
Still, she admits that she said yes to the role before even reading the screenplay because of how much she trusts Lopez. The two first met 14 years ago, when Remini was still deeply enmeshed in Scientology. She and her husband, Angelo Pagan, were close with Marc Anthony, who in 2004 had just begun dating Lopez. Anthony invited the couple to the premiere of a new movie he was in, “Man on Fire” — where he and Lopez were having their first public outing — and excitedly introduced them to his new girlfriend.
“He was like, ‘She’s the love of my life, blah, blah, blah,’” recalls Remini. (Anthony and Lopez would go onto wed and divorce and share custody of their 10-year-old twins.) “As I was walking up to the table, I was like, ‘Ugh, God, you’re even prettier in real life.’ She started laughing, and I was like, ‘Ugh, and you have a sense of humor even?’”
Within the week, Remini was at Lopez’s house, hanging out with her in the bathroom. The two immediately bonded, she says, forming the kind of friendship where “you just take the armor off.” She has long credited Lopez with being one of the few people in Hollywood to stand by her when she left Scientology in 2013.
Remini has been talking without Lopez by her side, waiting for her to arrive from her home to the interview. Suddenly, the door slides open and Lopez walks into the room.
“Hi, guys,” she says airily.
“God, that is nice,” Remini says, observing Lopez’s outfit. “That is just chic, chic, chic.”
“It’s a thing,” Lopez replies. “I don’t know what it is. It’s a pretty, camel-colored thing. Not the easiest to sit in, but it’s OK. Worth it. We did it. I’m here. I got up to work out at 6.”
“No,” Remini says, horrified. “I got up at 5:30 to make pancakes for my daughter.”
“Anyway, we don’t want to waste your time,” Lopez says. The conversation about Remini’s aversion to film continues.
“I’ve always been like, ‘Why don’t you do more movies?’” she says. “But performing on those sitcoms in front of an audience — it’s a different talent. It’s a real rhythm, it’s a real family, it’s bit comedy. It’s different than scene comedy and even romantic comedy. I remember Leah walked up to me in one of the emotional scenes [in ‘Second Act’] when I was outside, like, ‘OK, I gotta prepare.’ And she opens the door and she’s like, ‘Oh, wow, you’re really crying.’”
“Because in comparison to me and Kevin James,” Remini says, talking about her sitcom costar, “we’d be outside the door waiting for ‘action,’ saying, ‘So, are you going to order the pizza? Because I don’t want it to be cold.’ And [Lopez] is, like, doing a job.”
Remini is quick to downplay her acting ability. She says Lopez, who produced “Second Act,” and Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas — Lop-ez’s former agent turned producing partner — knew she wasn’t the kind of actress “who was going to play Chekhov.” But she insists she isn’t worried about being typecast as a brassy New Yorker, because she’s “not looking to be anything other.”
“She’s the actress of us,” Remini says, pointing to Lopez. “Jennifer’s done such an array of films and different types of characters. She’s that girl. She loves the acting, and I’m like, ‘Eh, I wanna eat.’”
“Her lifeblood is helping people and making them laugh,” Lopez adds. “Whatever form that takes, whether it’s her ‘Aftermath’ show or it’s a sitcom.”
Lopez is referring to “Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath,” the A&E docu-series now in its third season in which Remini investigates the controversial church. (In 2017, she won an Emmy for her work on the program.)
Remini, who was raised a Scientologist by her mother, has said publicly that she felt church executives were desperate to lure Lopez into the organization. In a 2015 interview with “20/20,” she said the church invited Lopez to the 2006 wedding of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. While in Italy at the nuptials, “They were always trying to extract me,” Remini said of church higher-ups. “I could only assume because they wanted to make Jennifer a Scientologist and maybe I was barring that road for them.” (The Church of Scientology has refuted Remini’s claims and in a statement called her account “revisionist history.”)
“I’ve seen her evolve,” Lopez says now. “I saw her go through the pain of it, telling her that her life wasn’t over. That there’s stuff she can take from it that is positive. She has to follow her heart and do what she thinks is right. … Her choices are her own. We can agree and disagree on certain things. I just want her to be happy and hang out with me sometimes.
“I mean, she’s helped me through major moments in my life as well. Really difficult times that nobody in the world knows about. I think one of the things about us is that we understand each other’s lives in maybe a way people in our family or friends don’t.”
“Yeah,” Remini agrees, “because we’re the breadwinners, or the public faces of our families, a lot of times even your own family is like, ‘Oh, you’ll get through it,’ and that’s the extent of their advice.”
The women say they realize their friendship is a rarity in Hollywood. While Lopez acknowledges she is friendly with a handful of other actors and singers, she says Remini is the only friend in the business who has penetrated her inner circle.
“It is very rare,” says Remini. “Well, there’s, like, Nicole Kidman and her best friend — “
“Oh, Naomi Watts?” Lopez asks, prompting Remini to nod her head.
But Goldsmith-Thomas, who cowrote “Second Act” and is close to both Remini and Lopez, says she never feels like a third wheel when hanging out with the two.
“They bring you into their circle,” she says. “What they don’t do is they don’t gossip. They don’t talk about other people and their husbands or boyfriends or fashion. They’re not judgmental. They’re fun. … Jennifer was never in Scientology, but she never stood in the way of Leah, and when Leah left, she supported it. They don’t judge each other.”
Which is why Remini is happy to celebrate JLo while also appreciating Jennifer — the friend who makes her coffee when she comes over, even though she has staff at the ready for such purposes. The chick she can unbutton her pants in front of when she’s bloated after eating too much. The costar whose eyes she looks into during scenes and actually connects with.
“Acting with other people, sometimes you look in their eyes and you see them learning their lines, or there’s a weird film over her eyes,” she says. “And when I look in her eyes, it makes me emotional a lot of times.”
“Well, there’s love and respect there,” Lopez says.
“People have often accused us of being lovers,” Remini says with a laugh. “By the way, if I was a lesbian, I’d be proud to be with her.”
“People have asked me if we’ve slept together,” Lopez agrees. “I’m like, ‘No. I just love her.’”