"I’ve learned a lot of different things for movies... but this was something totally different," says Jennifer Lopez of her role in Hustlers

By Elizabeth Leonard
December 06, 2019 12:00 PM

It’s safe to say that mastering the art of pole dancing for her role in Hustlers was one of the more challenging skills Jennifer Lopez has tackled for a movie.

“Training for pole dancing was painful and really, really difficult,” Lopez tells PEOPLE in this week’s cover, where she and three other stars are celebrated as PEOPLE’s People of the Year.

“I’ve learned a lot of different things for movies, (from) martial arts to shooting, but this was something totally different… I was bruised everywhere, chafed, burned – people don’t realize you can’t have body makeup or tights on because you have to slide and it has to be skin to pole.”

Her hard work clearly paid off.

Watch the full episode of People Cover Story: Jennifer Lopez, streaming now on PeopleTV.com, or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite device.

Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers
| Credit: Barbara Nitke/STXfilms

Not only did Lopez’s pole dancing skills make for a jaw-dropping onscreen introduction to her Hustlers character, Ramona, but her overall performance in the hit film has landed the star on critics’ shortlists this awards season.

“Honestly, I was in tears,” says Lopez, 50, of all the accolades and Oscar buzz. “You are so honored to be in the conversation… It all felt awesome and overwhelming.”

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The critical acclaim — and mad pole-dancing skills — has been an added bonus from making Hustlers, which Lopez co-produced, but playing Ramona had its own enduring effect on the actress.

“I also learned from playing that character — she was so independent, there was no man in her life and she was always telling Destiny [played by Constance Wu], ‘We don’t need anybody, we can do this on our own!'” she says.

“It’s that theme of being limitless, this whole idea that you can do it on your own… There was a toughness to her that reminded me to be that way in my own life.”

While she is happily engaged to former Yankees star Alex Rodriguez, 44, Lopez says she has never felt more personally empowered. “I’ve come to a place where I feel the most comfortable and most powerful I’ve ever felt,” she says.

“I feel more confident and at peace with who I am and more aware of what I bring to the table, but that was a huge journey.”