Sanaa LATHAN – Acting her best!
by Kimberly Bailey-Tureaud
In the eyes of many, Sanaa Lathan first entered the hearts of movie audiences opposite Omar Epps in the 2000 romantic drama “Love & Basketball,” but her dynamic acting career has actually unfolded over 17 years of virtually nonstop work alongside a who’s who of A-listers on the silver screen (“Blade” with Wesley Snipes, opposite Denzel Washington in “Out of Time”) and hit television series (“Nip/Tuck,” “The Cleveland Show”). While her career in those realms continues going strong, in more recent times Lathan has earned quite a reputation as a stage performer — earning a Tony nomination for her role in a revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” and currently receiving rave reviews in Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s off-Broadway sensation “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.” She recently sat down with Black Image to discuss her career and why living in the public eye makes it so dangerous to disclose too much about your personal life.
Tell us about your new play, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.”
It is an off-Broadway show at the Second Stage Theatre in Manhattan in New York City. It is written by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, who is an African-American playwright. As far as I am concerned, she is one of the greatest playwrights out there today. The play is so deliciously juicy. I play a great character, Vera Stark, which is basically inspired by black women performers and actresses of the 1930s. The play is a comedy, and I play a fictional character who works as a maid and also an actress. She works as a maid for a big Hollywood white starlet. My character works her way up to become a star herself in major films — portraying maids. It is very interesting.
How was it being in “A Raisin in the Sun”?
That was a great experience, and my first Broadway production. Even though people know me from films, I started in theater. So, it was like a dream come true to work in a Broadway play and work on such a classic piece. I loved working with Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald and Sean Combs. We were sold-out every night, and I was so excited to be nominated for a Tony Award for my performance.
What do you get the most enjoyment from: working in Broadway plays, films, or television?
I love all of it. I love acting in all areas of the arts. Playing different characters is very exciting, but I find theater the most demanding. I usually do eight shows a week with only one day off. So, I go into marathon mode when working on a play. You have to take care of yourself like an athlete, and go to bed early and eat right. At least I have to do this, because I am in every scene of the play that I am currently performing in. The schedule is relentless.
Who has been the best leading man you have worked with?
You know, I don’t have a favorite. I really don’t. I have been really lucky because I have had great experiences with all of my leading men. I recently had a great time working with Lawrence Fishburne in the film “Contagion,” due in theaters in October. It is a real ensemble movie and a thriller. I play Lawrence Fishburne’s fiancée, and he is the head of the Centers for Disease Control. He is great to work with, and I have always been a fan.
Do you think Hollywood casts black actresses only when the script calls for it? Or do you believe Hollywood has moved away from that, and African-American actresses are being cast because they are great actresses?
That is a good question. It really just depends. For “Contagion,” I don’t think my role was written for a black actress. But, because Lawrence was playing one of the lead roles, they chose to cast an African-American as his fiancée. I still definitely get a lot of scripts that are written specifically for black women. And there are always those discussions being had between my manager and agent where I say, “I love this role. I can play this role.” Even though the script describes the character as white, I still ask to have a conversation with the producer to see if they are open to casting me. I think theater is a little more open. I really don’t know.
Do you make a conscious decision to select scripts that portray you, as a black woman, in a positive light?
Yes, I do. I would also play a character that is a prostitute. It all depends on the story that is being told. I am not interested in portraying negative images. I also believe in reflecting all of humankind. I think that is what makes acting fun. I have played evil characters, and I have played a lot of ingénue types. If people look at me as a positive role model, that is great. That makes me feel good.
How is your love life?
I have been in the business for 17 years, and have learned that nothing good comes from talking about your love life. I know Las Vegas Black Image Magazine’s intentions are good, but once it hits the Internet, people take a hold of it and talk about it. It is not fair to whoever I am involved with. So, I have decided that I will keep that part of my life private. But, for the record, I am happily dating — and yes, down the road, I do want to get married and have children. (Laughing) Down the road.
The movie “Love & Basketball” was such a huge success, and is seen by many as a classic. What did you take away from working on that film?
I basically auditioned for that movie over a four to five month period. So, I was pleased when they said I had the part. It was a grueling audition process, and I really didn’t have time to get too excited when they told me I had the role. Nevertheless, it was good preparation for me … to play the character Monica. She was a fighter, and had to also fight her way to win a career in basketball. Even to this day, people are still talking about my role in that movie. You always want to do projects that people enjoy. One of the things I like to do is work on movies that stand the test of time.
What makes you happy?
I am very simple. I really like hanging with friends, talking, laughing and philosophizing about life and love. I love a good meal and going to the movies. I am a pretty simple person.
How do you feel about President Obama and the job he has done so far?
I feel great about President Obama. I have always felt supportive, realizing that his job is not an easy one and things take time. Sometimes there might not be immediate results, but it takes time and I think he is doing a great job.
How are you spending your Fourth of July?
I want to first wish everyone a great Fourth of July. My family gets together, usually in Los Angeles, for the barbecue and great times.