Selena Gomez is as big a star as can be: a world-famous, multitalented industry unto herself. She’s a couple years shy of thirty, yet her accomplishments have already put scores of showbiz lifers to shame: Millions in record sales. Two world tours of sold-out stadiums. More than a hundred film and TV credits, dating back to when she was just some sweet-faced kid from Grand Prairie, palling around with Barney & Friends.
Gomez has excelled at everything she’s ever set her mind to; she even managed to turn an experiment with quarantine home cooking into a three-seasons-and-counting hit series for HBO Max.
But is the world finally ready to see Gomez as an actor?
This sounds like a ridiculous question for someone who’s as established and beloved as Selena Gomez—and on that last note, I swear to her loyal, occasionally terrifying fan base that I ask it in good faith. Because the fact remains that Gomez, despite being on-screen since she was ten, has yet to fully make that transition from a pop star who’s sometimes in movies or TV (see also: Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson) to an actor whose music career feels separate, almost incidental. But by all appearances, this is about to change.
Earlier this week, Hulu released the first trailer for the upcoming dramedy series Only Murders in the Building, premiering August 31, that stars the unlikely comedy team of Gomez, Steve Martin, and Martin Short. The three play a trio of neighbors who become obsessed with solving a homicide inside their tony Manhattan apartment building, using the skills they’ve gleaned from true-crime podcasts to ferret out the killer.
Steve Martin and Martin Short are, of course, a classic pairing, with an easy give-and-take honed over decades, including in movies like Three Amigos and Father of the Bride. Gomez is the real unknown quantity here, forced to hold her own against the comedy equivalent of tenured professors.
The trailer’s just over a minute long, but it already tells you plenty about whether Gomez can pull it off. While Martin and Short dominate the clip with talky voiceovers, it’s Gomez to whom you’re instinctively drawn. She’s an enigma wrapped in a posh turtleneck. We get only a few flashes of her character’s inner world—Gomez bolting upright from a bad dream; Gomez wrestling someone to the ground as her face twists into vengeful anger—but already you can sense that there’s a lot of torment and rage bubbling beneath her cool, glamorous surface.
Gomez even gets a solid emotional beat, as she confesses of the unfolding murder mystery: “I can’t tell if I want it to be nothing or for it to be something.” And yes, she can also do comedy. She gets the trailer’s parting punch line, giving Steve Martin some light guff over his self-avowed “charm.”
Perhaps none of this should be considered remarkable for someone as skilled or experienced as Gomez. But it’s bound to be hailed as a revelation anyway. The same goes for her upcoming starring turns in the psychological thrillers Dollhouse and Spiral, and a biopic about the pioneering mountaineer Silvia Vasquez-Lavado. After nearly twenty years on screen, Selena Gomez is suddenly diving into acting with a commitment that’s truly unprecedented in her career. It’s something her past work hasn’t exactly prepared us for.
After all, we’re more used to hearing Gomez on screen, rather than seeing her. The biggest titles in Gomez’s filmography have been primarily voiceover roles—like Dracula’s daydreaming daughter in the blockbuster animated franchise Hotel Transylvania, where she provides the emotional through line to a series of monster-related goofs. Or 2020’s Dolittle, where Gomez plays the gregarious giraffe Betsy (although you’d be forgiven for missing her among the film’s celebrity-studded, CGI menagerie).
Given how few big, non-cartoon roles she’s been given, it’s little wonder that Gomez is, to her chagrin, still often characterized as a “Disney star,” frozen in neon-tinted amber as the spirited teen sorceress she portrayed for four seasons on Wizards of Waverly Place. For a while, Gomez’s career certainly seemed destined to follow the Disney Channel star trajectory—and not just into the pop-music stardom that’s been de rigueur for many, such as Ariana Grande and Gomez’s Texan compatriots, Hilary Duff and Demi Lovato.
The kind of perpetually cherubic, positive role model that pleases the Disney machine carried over into most of Gomez’s early film work, beginning with 2011’s fluffy Cinderella fantasy Monte Carlo. Even Gomez’s first attempt at reinvention, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, relied heavily on her Disney image in order to subvert it. Gomez’s sweet, devoutly Christian character Faith provides the 2013 film’s moral center, the girlish innocence that’s symbolically rejected by her friends amid their bikini-girls-with-machine-guns bacchanalia.
Spring Breakers marked the beginning of a period of risky experimentation for Gomez, as she tried to shed her child-star past. The trouble is, not many people actually saw her. Gomez played a gun-toting teenage hacker in 2013’s Getaway opposite Austin’s own Ethan Hawke, but the film ended up being one of the year’s biggest box-office bombs. In 2014, Gomez joined her fellow Disney Channel grad Nat Wolff in the raunchy-ish teen sex comedy Behaving Badly, only to see it go straight to video. The reviews were even worse than the indifference: Getaway in particular earned the ire of critics like the Atlantic’s Christopher Orr, who singled out Gomez’s performance as “a kid trying desperately to act like a grownup, but with no real idea what that might entail.”
In fact, Gomez’s most successful movie roles in the last decade were mostly cameos as herself, as in The Muppets and The Big Short, or some satirical shade of her squeaky-clean persona, like the fussy, flower-crowned sorority president in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. This isn’t really a surprise: acting is hard enough without having one of the most famous faces on the planet, or the added baggage of everyone thinking they know you through your tabloid fame or your (largely autobiographical) music. It’s why most pop stars don’t make the transition into capital-A actors, even if that’s where their careers actually began.
But to Gomez’s credit, she’s redoubled her commitment to changing people’s minds about all that. She’s taken some real chances in the last few years, cultivating her hipster cred with a gory turn in Jim Jarmusch’s zombie satire The Dead Don’t Die, and reinforcing her arthouse bona fides by starring in Woody Allen’s A Rainy Day In New York. Unfortunately, that film was quickly consumed by Allen’s scandal-plagued personal life.
Still, both roles found Gomez setting aside “Selena Gomez” and sublimating herself in someone else’s work—really acting, in other words. It’s something she’s now pursuing with the same zeal and focus she’s brought to the rest of her enormously successful brand.
“I haven’t even touched the surface of what I want to do,” Gomez told Vogue back in April. “I can’t wait for the moment when a director can see that I’m capable of doing something that no one’s ever seen.”
It definitely seems like that moment is here. And this time, the world may finally be ready for it.