Amid all the hustle and bustle on the corner of 150th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem, hardly anyone notices the woman checking her reflection in a car window.
Only when the paparazzi arrive do passersby begin to realize that Jennifer Lopez - yes, JLo herself - is in their midst, looking surprisingly approachable in jeans, tousled bob and a white T-shirt with a troubling brown stain.
The actress-dancer-singer-producer whose name has become synonymous with blinged-out glamour is filming a scene for her new series, Shades of Blue, and has just wrestled a perp to the ground, rolling in (simulated) dog poop in the process.
Much has been made of Lopez's make-under in the new NBC drama. As she says later in her plush trailer, "I wanted to change my look completely and be like the antithesis of what people are used to seeing me as." Getting dirty on a muggy August morning is just one more way she's bringing verisimilitude to Harlee Santos, the mildly corrupt Brooklyn cop she plays.
"We knew from the very beginning she was only interested in playing this character authentically," says NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke. "The kind of sexy glamorous thing was never really part of her definition of the character, although she can't avoid being sexy and beautiful."
In many ways, Shades of Blue isn't so much a departure for the actress, raised just a few stops away on the 6 Train in the Bronx, as it is a return to form.
It's easy to forget the former Fly Girl and star of frothy romantic comedies Maid in Manhattan and The Wedding Planner made her name playing tough girls in stylish crime capers such as Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight and Oliver Stone's U-Turn.
For NBC, Shades of Blue, whose two-hour premiere was directed by Oscar-winner Barry Levinson, allows the broadcast network to dabble in the kind of morally ambiguous tales more often found on cable. A struggling single mom with a teenage daughter, Lopez's character is perfectly willing to accept kickbacks to supplement her income. She and her fellow detectives are enabled by their boss, the quietly terrifying Matt Wozniak (Ray Liotta, pictured), who uses the mantra "the greater good" to justify a wide array of malfeasance. But when Harlee is caught soliciting a bribe, the FBI pressures her into becoming an informant, pitting her against her work family.
"It's a character piece about human nature. Good people do questionable things. We're all trying to do our best, but we all make dumb choices at times," Lopez says.
The show is the first regular series role for Lopez, who had guest spots on such dramas as South Central early in her career before moving into film and music.
It's also just one of three major projects she's launching this month, in addition to her judging gig on American Idol, in its final season, and a residency at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas beginning Jan. 20.
"I have to approach this like I'm going into the biggest marathon race of my life and I'm going to win. That's the mentality that I have to have, I can't get nervous or scared," Lopez says of her intense schedule, adding, "but I'm overwhelmed most of the time." As if on cue, Lopez's 7-year-old twins bound noisily into the trailer and enthusiastically greet their mother.
Bypassing the traditional pilot process, NBC ordered Shades of Blue directly to series in February 2014, but filming did not commence until mid-2015 to accommodate Lopez's jam-packed schedule. This allowed show runner Jack Orman and his staff time to write most of the 13 episodes before filming began, a luxury rarely afforded in broadcast television.
"It was worth it in the end to be able to let the show have a process that was more thoughtful," Salke says. In a show of confidence, the network has given Shades of Blue a spot following The Blacklist on Thursday nights, where it will settle into its regular 10 p.m. time slot this week.
Shades of Blue also gets a pedigree boost from the involvement of Liotta and Drea de Matteo, who plays a fellow cop. Both actors are best known for their work in acclaimed mob dramas — Liotta as the gangster turned "average nobody" Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas; De Matteo as the ill-fated Adriana in The Sopranos.
Liotta admits to some initial apprehension about Lopez. "She was the question mark. All I really knew about her of late was her singing. ... My biggest fear was I'm just going to be in the JLo show. She's just going to be the main person, and I'm just going to give her orders from behind the desk."
But he says he has been impressed by Lopez's work ethic and unflinching commitment to the gritty material.
"She's a frigging machine," he says. "I was the diva."