Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them about.
The actor: Sanaa Lathan started out as a teen guest-starring on sitcoms like Family Matters and Moesha, before becoming a staple in rom-coms like Love And Basketball, The Best Man, and Brown Sugar. She also has appeared in blockbusters like Blade and Alien Vs. Predator, where, as she pointed out in her conversation with The A.V. Club, she is one of the only Black women to save the world in a movie. Right now she’s a high point on Showtime’s prestige series The Affair. Lathan took a few moments to discuss many highlights in her career, the importance of natural hair, and to set the story straight on her time on the Love And Basketball set.
The Affair (2018-2019)—“Janelle”
Sanaa Lathan: Some of the best writing on TV, and I loved the actors—the crème de la crème. The experience really reflected that. They were mainly female show runners, and they were very thoughtful about creating Janelle. They hired Black female playwright Lydia Diamond the first season to write Janelle and then, this year, they hired a woman of color named Jaquen Castellanos. Which was so cool. It just felt like they wanted to make sure that they got it right. Just that kind of thoughtfulness and just having a fully realized character with a point of view and who has flaws and is dealing with relationships. For me, it’s a no brainer. It was truly great to work on.
The A.V. Club: This season you got your first encounter with some of the show’s familiar characters, when Janelle got thrown in the deep end at Vik’s funeral and Helen and Whitney were so condescending.
SL: It was fun because all of those sequences. They take up such little screen time, but at the same time, you’re on set for days. So it was great because I got to know Maura and a bunch of the other cast members that I didn’t get to work with, and they were all lovely. It’s fun because it’s like you’re kind of a fan and now also you’re working with them. So it was cool.
AVC: So Janelle goes to the funeral and you go through three scenarios. And you must get three very different directions. In one you’re supposed to be laughing with Noah and having a good time because Helen’s looking at you. Then in the same scenario but in a different episode, you’re really stressed with your job because Noah’s talking to you.
SL: It’s so subtle. They like the changes to be subtle, but they’re still changes. I don’t know if you noticed, but I wore the same dress in Noah and I’s perspective, but in Helen’s I had a lot of cleavage and red lipstick. And my braids were down. It was more of a sexy look. And in Noah’s perspective, I’m a little more self-righteous and kind of attitudinal. [Laughs.] Strong. And then in Janelle’s perspective—her own—she’s very vulnerable and struggling. I think that’s part of the genius of this show, but it’s also fun for the actors, because you get to track all that—those changes.
AVC: That’s got to be the most interesting acting exercise, to go through the same scene from entirely different angles.
SL: And isn’t that how life is? The truth is really in the eye of the beholder. Everyone has a different experience of reality.
AVC: You also played a really strong mom character on that show, which is an unusual maternal role for you.
SL: I know! I was like, “Well, damn!” When I met Christopher, the actor who plays my son, I was like, “He’s taller than me.” [Laughs.] And, technically age-wise, it’s the first time that lately, I’m starting to play “mom.” Because I don’t have a problem playing moms as long as they’re completely fully realized characters. I know there’s a lot of actors who are like, “Oh, no, I won’t play a mom that age, because it…” You know.
Something New (2006)—“Kenya Denise McQueen”
SL: It’s interesting because it’s become, like a lot of my rom-coms, kind of a new classic. Netflix picked it up and people come up to me all the time, and I get those notifications on Twitter that people are watching it again and again. So it’s doing something for people, which I love. I got to work with Taraji [P. Henson], she was in that, so that was great.
The director’s name [Sanaa Hamri]—we had the same name. It was the first time I’ve worked with someone who has the same exact name. She pronounced it Sa-NAA and I’m Sa-NAH, and she was like, “You don’t pronounce your name right,” because she speaks the language. I’m like, “Oh, sorry.” But she was a brilliant director. It was her first film, but she had come from music videos, done a lot of Prince music videos and editing. Now she’s a big showrunner on TV. So that was a great experience.
AVC: Did you and Simon Baker have chemistry right off the bat?
SL: We did. We did a chemistry read. We did a chemistry read with a number of guys who were hot at the time, and it was funny, because I didn’t feel anything. Chemistry, it’s interesting—sometimes you don’t necessarily feel it, but they see it. I was like, “I don’t have chemistry with any of them,” and they were like, “Oh, yes, you do.” I was like, “How could you tell?” “It was so there on the tape.” So once we got on set, it was very obvious—he was lovely to work with.
Nappily Ever After (2018)—“Violet”
AVC: In both Something New and Nappily Ever After, you play a woman who really only becomes true to herself when she embraces her natural hair. It’s such a powerful scene when you shave your head.
SL: It connected all over the world, because the hair is really a metaphor for self-love, and being outside of what society tells us we should be. And every woman can identify with that. That was pretty terrifying, though, because everybody knew that was the day that I had to shave my head. That was all my hair.
I kept asking Larry Sims, who was the hairstylist, “Do you think the shape of my head will be okay?” “Yeah, baby, it’s going to be great.” And then after I did the scene—we basically did it in one take—and the whole set is on pins and needles. I actually called “cut,” because they wanted me to call “cut” when I was done. Everyone was in tears. Larry runs in, and he’s like, “Oh, my god, your head is beautiful. Thank god!” I was, like, “What do you mean? You were telling me that it was.” He was like, “I didn’t know. I was just telling you that. I didn’t know. You could have had a cone head.” So that was hysterical.
But it was interesting because, after I shaved it off, I was, like, “Oh, I’ll just wear wigs. They’ll look really natural.” And I didn’t wear a wig once in my real life. Actually, every ex-boyfriend of mine was like, “Ooh, can I come rub it?” I was so surprised by the reaction from men. And when I went to not a screen test, but a lighting test, for The Affair, and my hair was still bald, I brought a long wig—it was mainly guys on set that day. And I did a test with the wig, and with baldy, and was like, “What do you like better?” They all said my baldy, and I was so shocked. So I did the baldy. It was very liberating. There are days now, because it’s growing out, it’s at the in-between stage, where I just want to shave it all off again.
AVC: Another great thing about that movie at the end, she finds herself. It’s not like she’s with a guy or anything—it’s all about her being true to herself. If only more women’s movies had that message.
SL: We really have been taught that the only way that we’re complete is when the guy chooses us. So we were trying to turn that around. We’ve been taught that—when we’re little girls, reading all the fairy tales: Cinderella, Snow White—all of the little fairy tales are all about being chosen by a man. And that gets into your subconscious, you know? Let’s try to turn this around and say, “No, this is about choosing yourself.” And that’s how you get complete.
Love And Basketball (2000)—“Monica Wright”
AVC: You’ve said that you were not a basketball player, but you pulled it off so well.
SL: My mother was a dancer, and I just grew up dancing, and I was lucky that I had that. Because it’s really all about rhythm and form, and so I just practiced my ass off for months and months. By the time we shot it, I could actually do more tricks than some of the real basketball players. But if you put me in a game, forget about it. I was horrible.
AVC: You’ve also said that that experience was kind of stressful for you because of that.
SL: One of the things that I can’t stand is—now that’s become the thing, the headline: “Sanaa Hated Love And Basketball.” And that’s not the case. I did a radio interview about how I cried—I don’t even want to talk about it, because now they’ve made it such a thing. I don’t want that to be the story about Sanaa and Love And Basketball. And that’s what happened. It was this whole story about how I had to become a basketball player and it was tough—instead of them looking at that like a positive, it looks like I was complaining, and I wasn’t. It was actually an amazing opportunity and experience. [Writer-director] Gina [Prince-Bythewood] and I are still very, very close to this day.
AVC: That’s another one that ends with the focus on her being a success, and not him. She’s the pro.
SL: It’s so true! I love that, too. And he’s there supporting her. It’s beautiful.
AVC: You co-starring with Omar Epps is another example of amazing chemistry.
SL: We had known each other. We did The Wood, and we were friends, so yeah. For me, it’s all a blur because it was my first starring role, and we would shoot everything really quick, and there was the basketball element, of wanting to get it right. It premiered at Sundance, and I remember going to Sundance and that was the first time I watched it. It was at Eccles, that huge theater—and we got a five-minute standing ovation. I was shocked. Because the experience of making a movie—you’re making it all out of order, you’re just, like, “Please, god, let this all come together.” And it came together so beautifully.
The Best Man (1999)/The Best Man Holiday (2013)—“Robin”
AVC: In the Best Man movies, the men are all over the place, and you and Nia Long are the voices of reasons, like, “Can you just get it together?”
SL: Isn’t that just how it is? Yes. But we had fun, especially on the second one. The first one, we didn’t know each other. We were in New York. For me it was so exciting, because it was a real movie, and it was my first one, and we were all in New York. But the second time around, we shot it in Toronto, and at the end of shooting, we were like, “Oh, shit, we hope this movie comes out.” Because we were having too much fun on set because we all knew each other.
I felt bad for [director] Malcolm [E. Lee]. He was always trying to wrangle us and we were like, “No!” He’s giving us a direction and we’re, “No, we’re not doing that.” Just completely like kindergartners. And then on the weekends we would hang out and all go to dinner, so we were watching the boys, because a lot of us lived in the same short-term rental apartments. So it was a blast. We had so much fun that we were all terrified when the movie came out.
Nip/Tuck (2006)—“Michelle Landau”
AVC: Nip/Tuck was such a bananas show, but your character has such a great relationship with Julian McMahon’s character, Christian.
SL: He was the doctor. She has a past with Jacqueline Bisset’s character, who—she was, like, a high-class prostitute who harvested [organs]—oh, my god. It was so wild.
AVC: When you came on, what was your take? Because it was a pretty early Ryan Murphy production.
SL: That was someone I was already a huge fan of. He approached me for that, and I jumped at the opportunity. And I think Ryan Murphy is a genius. That was another one where, every week, I couldn’t wait to read the script, just as a fan, not to see what my character was going to be doing. And it was just funny—you didn’t necessarily know the arc of the character.
AVC: Because anything could happen.
SL: Exactly. And then I was married to—oh, my god—J.R.—Larry Hagman! He would watch me and Julian have sex. It was really… [Laughs.] Do you remember that? He was so sweet. Larry Hagman. Very down to earth.
AVC: In Blade, you play Wesley Snipes’ evil mom, who he has to stab with a bone.
SL: And I had to die on screen, which was so fun. It was one of the most exciting things to get a job with Wesley Snipes. He was so big back then. To play his mom—I’m a vampire, so I’m younger than him. And it was great. How fun to wear the fangs—you had the fangs, you had the blood. It was fun to play a vampire, but the biggest thing was that it felt like, “Oh, well, now I’ve made it.” This big Hollywood movie.
AVC: How long did you have to sit in the chair for the fangs and the vampire transformation and all of that?
SL: It wasn’t like a big thing. Once you got fitted, it was almost like a grill. You know, how you get a grill and you just put them in? That’s how they did it in the beginning. And then hair and makeup. You come on in and then you have your fangs.
Alien Vs. Predator (2004)—“Alexa Woods”
SL: Alien Vs. Predator was amazing. I think they had been looking for the lead for, like, a year, but for some reason couldn’t find it. It was a Friday night, and they were like, “Could you come in tomorrow on Saturday and read for this movie?” And I was like, “No.” Because it just felt so last-minute. But I thought about it, so I went in, and I was not prepared at all. And I just read this thing—you call it cold when you’re not prepared—I was, like, “I’m really cold, I’m going to be horrible.” And the following week I was on the plane.
I had to be in Prague for six months. And the predators were played by retired basketball players. And the one predator that we had in the movie was actually three different guys. They all lost 30 pounds during the six-month shoot because the suits were so heavy. They could barely breathe. So, every 30 minutes, they had to take the suits off to rest and also use the restroom or whatever. And it takes 30 minutes to get it back on. So it was a very slow process when predators were on set.
AVC: And you were freezing in Prague the whole time.
SL: Freezing. And the crew was awesome to me, but it was probably one of the most grueling experiences—acting-wise. Because you’re running and you’re in fear and you’re fighting. But I love all that stuff.
They don’t talk about this enough—is it 2004 that it came out? This was a Black woman who saves the world. There’s a joke that any Black person, if you look at horror movies, they always get killed first. So the fact that in this massive, iconic movie with these two iconic characters, it’s a Black woman who ends up saving the world, it’s big, and no one’s talked about it. So I’m going to talk about it now. [Laughs.]
Contagion (2011)—“Aubrey Cheever”
AVC: Steven Soderbergh is such a genius.
SL: He is. I love him. He’s so great. That was really cool, because it’s so collaborative. It’s like his main producer is the first AD, and he’s the cameraman, and he’s just so in the trenches with you. And I’ve known Laurence Fishburne for a long time, and we got to do scenes together. That was a quick one. That was one of those movies that had so many amazing actors in it, but I was kind of in and out. So it was really interesting to watch it for the first time, because you’re like, “Wow.” She was the one who started the whole end of everything, running her mouth, right? [Laughs.]
AVC: It was all Gwyneth Paltrow’s fault for shaking the hand of the chef who didn’t wash his hands.
The Cleveland Show (2009-2013)/Family Guy (2010-2019)—“Donna Tubbs”
SL: That was another fluke where I got a last-minute audition, and I was like, “I’m not going.” Because I had been doing voice-over auditions for years and never even gotten a call back. So I was like, “I’m not going to get this because I never get voice-overs,” and then they were like, “Just go. It’s the creators of Family Guy.” So, thank god I went. Because, first of all, I love Seth [MacFarlane], and I love that whole group of people over there. They’re so funny. It’s a great job because you just can roll out of bed, come in your sweats, and you’re in and out. It’s a paycheck.
Family Matters (1997)—“Allison”
SL: I just ran into Brandy the other day. It was so funny. I remember Family Matters. I was so excited—Moesha was little one-scene parts, but on Family Matters, I got to play a real character. It’s kind of hysterical how she was such a bitch to [the nerds] and then when [Urkel] kisses her, she’s like [Silence.] People still circulate pictures from that episode—Family Matters was so big back then, so I was like, “Yeah!”