Sanaa Lathan is thankful for everything she has. But thatâ€™s not stopping her from working hard to get even more.
One of the perks of interviewing Sanaa Lathan is that you donâ€™t always know what sheâ€™s going to say, but you kind of know what youâ€™re in for. And that is a really engaging conversation with a woman who exemplifies a plethora of â€œCâ€ words. Cool. Calm. Considerate. Clever. Conscientious. Committed. Constructive. Certain. Chic. Conversant. Courageous. Crazy. Confident. Colorful. Contempla-tive. Creative. Compassionate. Complex. Courteous. Credible. Plus at least one word that doesnâ€™t start with the third letter in the alphabet. â€œSexy,â€ adds Blair Underwood, who played Lathanâ€™s rebound love interest in the 2006 romantic comedy Something New. â€œSheâ€™s very easy on the eyes.â€ Lathan is also so earthy that interviewing her never quite feels like work. Itâ€™s more like sitting down and dishing with an old girlfriend you havenâ€™t seen in a while. Thereâ€™s something undeniably relatable about her. She seems like one of those celebrities who actually does check her ego with the valet. And thereâ€™s also pretty solid evidence that sheâ€™s one of the ones who understand that the moon and stars donâ€™t necessarily revolve around her 24/7.Or it could be that people are drawn to Lathan because the girl has a knack for picking just the right spots for interviews. That was certainly the case when I meet up with Lathan at a small, unpre-tentious tea cafÃ© on Sunset Boulevard where she can eat and spill in peace.
Lathanâ€”dressed in a chartreuse sundress that serves notice to all couch potatoes in the vicinity that exercise is worth the sacrificeâ€”is already standing at the counter poring over the menu when I
arrive a few ticks late.
â€œAre you hungry?â€ she asks as I sit down. â€œThis place has really good food.â€ Indeed, it does, but the Cobb salads and rooibos tea drinks are not nearly as tasty as the conversation. Lathanâ€”whose new film, Tyler Perryâ€™s The Family That Preys, hits theaters this monthâ€”is her usual engaging yet somewhat guarded self. She talks about working with Perry and shares anecdotes about the abandonment issues the companion pooch she recently bought for her English bulldog was having. Then she gets a little deeper, delving into her spirituality, being Black in Hollywood, her upcoming projects, and her current beau, Chicago Bears defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, who calls once during our interview. Judging by the softness in her voice and the smile on her face, it appears sheâ€™s found her brown-sugar boo. Lathan and Ogunleye, whom she calls â€œWale,â€ were initially hooked up by Lathanâ€™s older brother Tendaji and have been dating for two years. â€œHe came highly recommended by my brother,â€ Lathan says with a grin. â€œWe just hit it off right away. Heâ€™s really smart and really sweetâ€¦â€ At that moment, Lathanâ€™s internal censor gets reactivated, and the intensely private actress politely says, â€œI donâ€™t think I should talk about him. Should I?â€ It would be lovely to learn more about Wale, but she has every right to be wary of the press. During her relationship with her Love & Basketball co-star Omar Epps, there were reports that she was either pregnant or engaged nearly every other week. And sheâ€™s also had to suffer through all those vicious rumors about an affair with her Out of Time co-star, Denzel Washington, which she wisely declines to dignify with further discussion.
Hustle & Flow
These days, Lathan tries to keep everything on the positive tip. Although playing a hoops star in 2000â€™s Love & Basketball was her breakthrough role, Lathan actually made her feature film debut in Life, opposite Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. Since then, she has amassed an impressive rÃ©sumÃ© that includes The Best Man, Brown Sugar, Alien vs. Predator, the HBO production of Disappearing Acts, and the Broadway and network TV versions of A Raisin in the Sun. In addition to Preys, Lathan is in Wonderful World, a compelling drama about a divorced man (Matthew Brod-erick) who falls in love with a Senegalese woman (Lathan). Itâ€™s expected to hit the festival circuit this fall. And sheâ€™ll provide the voice of Donna in The Cleveland Show, an animated primetime spin-off of Family Guy on Fox. Itâ€™s no surprise that sheâ€™s in such high demand. Even if she werenâ€™t one of the best actresses of her generation, sheâ€™s also a joy to have on the set. Generally, those who have worked with her in the past yearn to do it again. Lathan and Taye Diggs have played lovers in three films: The Wood, The Best Man, and Brown Sugar. â€œSheâ€™s such a warm person, and that translates when youâ€™re working with her,â€ says Diggs. â€œSheâ€™s a very generous actress. Sheâ€™s beautifulâ€”which doesnâ€™t hurtâ€”and sheâ€™s smart. Iâ€™m waiting to do something else with her.â€That shouldnâ€™t be a problem, as the casting gods have already seen how hot they are together. Remember the scene in the radio control room from Brown Sugar? Some folks are still sweating. Then thereâ€™s Alfre Woodard, who has played Lathanâ€™s mother in The Family That Preys, Love & Basketball, and Something New. She says that Lathan has been a â€œreally good daughter.â€ â€œSanaa is a trained actor, but you never see the training,â€ she says. â€œIt just gives her facility, so she has an intelligence that translates into an ease. She brings characters off well.â€
In an era when itâ€™s hard for women of color to even get a foot in the door, Lathan has seen a steady flow of opportunities come her way. Maybe thatâ€™s because sheâ€™s that rare actress who is both beautiful and talented. Or perhaps itâ€™s because she doesnâ€™t cower when she hears Hollywoodâ€™s favorite N-word: No. â€œThere are scripts out there with Black women in lead roles,â€ she says emphatically. â€œItâ€™s just that the people in power who are making decisions arenâ€™t interested in our stories. Thatâ€™s why you focus on the positive and know that thereâ€™s always an exception. If theyâ€™re not interested in telling my stories, then Iâ€™ll get them told somewhere else.â€ Lathan might just have that kind of power. Studio heads will tell you that Black films donâ€™t do well overseas, which is one of the reasons why theyâ€™re hesitant to make more than a handful per decade. They obviously havenâ€™t been to Japan. Lathan claims that she was once mobbed at a hotel by Japanese tourists calling her â€œBrown Sugar.â€ So whatâ€™s the problem? â€œItâ€™s a double-edged sword,â€ Lathan says. â€œThe studios decide who opens movies. They only give a person one chance, and if the movie doesnâ€™t do well, they make that the rule. Thatâ€™s bull.â€
Hope & Faith
Lathan, who records all of her blessings in a gratitude journal, is a deeply spiritual person whose faith allows her to see opportunities that others would overlookâ€”especially when it comes to her career. Unlike some of her peers who are living paycheck-to-paycheck, sheâ€™s not afraid to turn down roles when sheâ€™s not feeling them. The day before our interview, she walked out on a well-known director (whom she declines to name) when he pulled the old bait-and-switch on her. She was duped into auditioning for a role she was uninterested in after initially being asked to do a simple stage read as a favor. She refused. â€œIt was funny, because I think people look at actors as disempowered,â€ she says. â€œPeople think they always need someone to give them a break, and they think theyâ€™ll do anything to get it. But no, you have to stand up for yourself. You have to protect yourself. No one else is going to do it for you.â€ Along with her humility, confidence has always been one of Lathanâ€™s strongest traits. At 36, she is coming to grips with who she is and who she wants to be. She delights in discovering new things about herself and the people, places, and things around her. â€œIâ€™m constantly trying to grow as a human being and be the best person I can be,â€ she says. â€œThatâ€™s part of my belief: that weâ€™re responsible for our own growth.â€ Perhaps thatâ€™s the reason why Lathan doesnâ€™t feel that many of the veteran actresses she respects like Angela Bassett, Woodard, Audra McDonald, and Ruby Dee have paved the way for her in Hollywood. Nor does she feel as though sheâ€™s done likewise for the Lauren Londons, Meagan Goods, and Jurnee Smolletts of the world. â€œThe truth is that I donâ€™t think of it that way,â€ she says. â€œI love seeing usâ€”Black womenâ€”working in different roles, and I wish that we had more opportunities. I donâ€™t know that they specifically opened up any doors for me. Maybe they did, but thatâ€™s not for me to say. And I donâ€™t feel like I can open a door for somebody else. All I can do is focus. I can only hope that my success will open up peopleâ€™s minds to hire more Black women.â€
One of the people who has been giving work to sisters of all ages lately has been Tyler Perry. Now itâ€™s Lathanâ€™s turn to shine in The Family That Preys, a comedy about a dysfunctional well-to-do Black family that is being hailed as one of Perryâ€™s best efforts in his short but productive career as a filmmaker. Lathan plays Andrea, a character she described as being â€œa real bitch.â€ Rockmond Dunbar plays Andreaâ€™s husband, and Cole Hauser is her â€œsomething new on the side.â€ Also in the mix are Woodard, Perry, Kathy Bates, Taraji P. Henson, and Robin Givens. â€œItâ€™s fun. Itâ€™s juicy. Itâ€™s scandalous,â€ Lathan says. Apparently, Andrea is such a trip that Lathan guarantees the audience will cheer out loud when she gets slapped. Preys is the first time Lathan and Perry have worked together, and she praises his work ethic and the positive impact heâ€™s had on a town that still has trouble believing that black is the new green. â€œI think his success will definitely open up doors,â€ she says. â€œWhen anything is successful, somebodyâ€™s going to follow suit. They follow money in this town. Itâ€™s all about the green.â€
All in the Family
As the daughter of Stan Lathan, one of Hollywoodâ€™s most prolific sitcom producers, and Broadway actress Eleanor McCoy, Lathan has known about the pitfalls of show business for a very long time. But despite her pedigree, the acting bug didnâ€™t really bite her until she was accepted into the prestigious Yale Drama Schoolâ€”the same program that spawned the likes of Bassett, Meryl Streep, and Paul Newmanâ€”following her graduation from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in English. â€œI was always acting in school,â€ she said. â€œI was in the Black theater workshop at Berkeley, but I was on my way to law school when I got into Yale.â€ Growing up, Lathan was encouraged to always flex her creative muscles. The native New Yorker recalls staging plays in the familyâ€™s living room with her mother and writing her own scripts. â€œIt was just kind of a constant vibe of creativity around her house,â€ said Lathan. â€œMy mother was always very encouraging of creativity.â€ Stan, who eventually moved to L.A., and Eleanor, who remained in New York, split up when Lathan was five, turning her into a bicoastal kid. Shuttling back and forth between parents on opposite sides of the country wasnâ€™t as stressful as it sounds. â€œThatâ€™s all I knew,â€ she says. â€œI donâ€™t know what itâ€™s like to have my parents together.â€ Even though she now lives in the Hollywood Hills, she still spends a considerable amount of time in New York. â€œIâ€™m always drawn to Broadway,â€ says Lathan, who was nominated for a Best Actress Tony in 2004 for her role as Beneatha in Raisin. Ironically, even though she has worked extensively in televisionâ€”including a stint as a regular on the NBC sitcom LateLine in the 90sâ€”Lathan and her father, the creative force behind Def Comedy Jam and Def Poetry Jam, have never worked together â€œEarly on, there could have been stuff for me to do, like some of his sitcom stuff, but it quickly became a thing where it just wasnâ€™t the road I was taking,â€ she says. â€œAnd now heâ€™s doing more reality-based stuff and documentaries. But I think we will eventually do something together.â€
Love & Football
When sheâ€™s not working, Lathan loves to pamper herself with spa days, curl up at home alone with a good book, hang out with her girls like Regina Hall or Nia Long, watch The Iron Chef, and work out. â€œI really sound kind of boring, huh?â€ she apologizes. She also enjoys jetting off to fun spots with her man during the off-season. During the season, she attends his games in Chicago and on the road when her schedule allows. Itâ€™s no wonder her dog has an attitude about her being away so much. It doesnâ€™t take a psychic to see that Lathan is smitten with Ogunleye, but if heâ€™s the one, sheâ€™s keeping it to herself. While she hopes to become a wife and mother someday, she isnâ€™t one to listen to the ticking of her pesky biological clock. â€œI really want it to be organic. I want it to happen because itâ€™s right for me and my partner,â€ she says. â€œOf course, there is that fear and the statistics about the biological clock and having kids. Whenever that comes up, I just try to breathe and say, â€˜You know what? Just have faith that it will all work out perfectly.â€™ â€œThatâ€™s not to say that I donâ€™t have my days when I get depressed or angry,â€ she continues. â€œBut I definitely practice optimism and gratitude. Iâ€™ve seen a difference since I started doing that. Itâ€™s like your life shifts around you when you practice that attitude of gratitude.â€