Tejana singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, known to the world as “Selena,” was taken away much too early at the ripe age of 23. As she was nearing the height of her cross-over music career, she was murdered by her fan club president, Yolanda Saldivar.
In 1997, just two years after her death, Gregory Nava wrote and directed the biopic, “Selena,” about the Tejana star’s life. This film tugged at the hearts of all who watched, because it consoled thousands of fans still mourning their idol’s death, and it also created new Selena fans of people who had never known of her before.
“She reached the English audience through the movie,” says Constance Marie, the actress who played Selena’s mom 15 years ago. “It took her mainstream.”
“Selena” will be making its 15th anniversary appearance kickstarting HBO’s New York International Latino Film Festival on August 13. Although it was nominated for a Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition and a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical or Comedy motion picture for Jennifer Lopez, it actually won four ALMA Awards.
The successful film included a Latino-studded cast, including a 28-year-old, Jennifer Lopez, in one of her first feature film roles; Edward James Olmos, who played Selena’s dad; Constance Marie, who played her mom; and Jon Seda, who played Chris Pérez – Selena’s band and soul mate.
Constance Marie still remembers vividly that time in her life when she was cast to play Marcella Quintanilla. The award-winning actress from Los Angeles says she had never even heard of Selena before trying out for the movie, but she was hoping for the lead role.
“I watched videos of her over and over and became a fan while watching them,” says Constance Marie. “Then all of a sudden I had the thought ‘Oh my god, she’s not with us anymore!’ I became a fan and realized she was gone all in a week, and I began to cry.”
When she was told she wasn’t going to play Selena but her mother instead, she says at that point she felt grateful for any opportunity to get Selena’s story out — regardless of the role — the best that she could.
“We all had to sit down and meet the people we were playing,” recalls Constance Marie. “We had to learn how they carried themselves…I needed to connect with and absorb who Marcella Quintanilla was.”
Seda says he practiced with Chris Pérez for many hours and tried his best to mimic him as much as he could.
“It would take years to be able to play as amazing as he can,” says Seda. “Although I respected the fact that he didn’t want to come to the set because it was just to emotional for him, I felt the only way to do him justice and let the world see how great a talent he is was to have him do the solo, and I’m glad he did!”
Constance Marie concurs it was a tough time for everyone. Sometimes, in the middle of interviewing Mrs. Quintanilla, they would both break down and cry.
Constance Marie also had it rough, because her call time was four and a half hours earlier than the rest of the crew. She says being only two years older than Jennifer Lopez, a lot of makeup was needed to look like her mother.
Seda says the recently-late Lupe Ontiveros also had a challenging role — playing the woman who killed Selena and making her one of the most hated women in the world.
“I think she was an unbelievable woman, and I think it was really difficult for her to play that role, because people didn’t deal well with her death,” says Constance Marie. “She was very gracious, and she handled it really well.
There was also controversy about the Puerto Rican Jennifer Lopez being chosen for the role of Selena, rather than a Mexican-American.
“I was really upset about that,” says Constance Marie who worked at a time when Latinos weren’t getting Latino roles. “Everybody should have been so thankful that an actual Latina was actually playing her…”
She says Jennifer Lopez, who often hummed Selena’s “Dreaming of You” on set — bringing the cast to tears – accomplished a huge undertaking.
“To imitate someone who could sing, but she also had to dance, I don’t think anybody could have done it better — not even myself,” says Constance Marie. “I think Jennifer just picked up the baton that Selena threw out there and kept running with it.”
Until this day, Constance Marie says she has only seen the film once.
“I cannot watch it in its entirety,” says the woman who more than a decade ago embodied the mother of a legend who still lives. “I am a mother, and I can’t even imagine it happening to me.”