October 2002
Brown Sugar : The New Diva of Black Cinema : An interview with Sanaa Lathan

Interviewed by Wilson Morales

Brown Sugar : The New Diva of Black Cinema : An interview with Sanaa Lathan

Over the years in Black Cinema, the female lead always was in the spotlight and had many films where they carried the weight and brought in the audience. We can go back to Pam Grier, Diana Ross, Diahann Carroll, Angela Bassett, and Whoopi Goldberg, and even the ladies of the 90’s such as Regina King, Nia Long, and Vivica A. Fox, and recently Halle Berry. Each has had several films that we KNOW was their film. Now it’s Sanaa’s turn. While other actresses are still out there, doing their thing, Sanaa’s recent string of indie hits have put her on the top of African-American directors’ list. In an interview with blackfilm.com, Sanaa talks about working on her latest film “Brown Sugar”, breaks down her background and her decision to stay in this industry. Coincidentally, since “Brown Sugar” is about an ode to hip-hop, it’s interesting to know that Sanaa’s father Stan Lathan directed the classic “Beat Street”.

WM: Where are you originally from?

SL: I am originally from New York. I was born in NY and was raised between Harlem and LA. My mother lived in NY but recently moved to LA. My father lives in LA. They are both in the business. My mother was a dancer. She was in the originally Wiz on Broadway. My father is a director and producer. I have been in the business all my life. I went to Yale Drama School and when I got out, I have had pretty steady stream of roles. I started from small roles to MVT to supporting roles in films from “The Wood”, to “The Best Man”, then came “Love and Basketball”, in which people would say was my big break. I did “Disappearing Acts” with Wesley Snipes on HBO and now “Brown Sugar” with Taye Diggs. I just completed a film with Denzel Washington called “Out of Time” which will be out next year.

WM: Did you always want to be a performer?

SL: You know I didn’t. I was always doing it and loving it. I was always a good student. Some people look down on acting and I even said I was too smart for that. For a while I thought I was going to be a lawyer. After doing some research, I realized I had no interest in law at all. When it was time to graduate, I thought about what makes me the happiest, and it was acting. That’s why I pursued it.

WM: How much of yourself came out in the film?

SL: You can’t help but be you in the films you do. The greatest character actor is going to bring an aspect of themselves. I definitely think that was Sydney. I didn’t put much pressure on myself to really to make the character work because I met a woman who’ s a writer and I sort of modeled on her. She was a hip-hop journalist for a while and I realized that she’s sort of like my girls and me. I just thought about bringing myself to it and really try to tap into the passion for the music. The shooting was so fun. The laughs were real.

WM: What song do you remember from way back?

SL: There are so many. The more you think about it the more you remember. I would have to say “La Di Da Di” by Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew. That was the first song where I learned all the words to, and sang over and over. I’m listening to the “Brown Sugar” soundtrack now. I can’t listen to the hard core rap just because of the content. I’m too sensitive to that even though I can appreciate the music and the beats.

WM: Did you work with Rick (Famuyiwa) on changing the script to make the character work?

SL: Rick really did some amazing rewrites on the scripts. When we were in rehearsals, we saw what worked, and he was open to making changes. There were certain points you had to make to get the point of the scene across but he was open to improv and making it so it’s natural for you.

WM: How was working with the cast members?

SL: It was so great because we all know each other. The spirit of the film is people that know each other for a long time, especially me and Taye, where we play best friends. I have know Taye since “The Wood”, maybe about 5 years ago. It just makes your job easier. We liked each other. The whole cast liked each other. In between takes, we were cracking up and being silly. It was fun.

WM: With Halle Berry’s Best Actress Award, have you seen changes for African-American actresses in the community since you started?

SL: Yes, I’ve seen some changes before she won the award. I feel like more of my peers are working now whether it’s in TV or film. There’s so much farther to go. I think it’s great. I hope that it helps. I also think it’s too early to see. I was very moved and inspired by her win. I’m a glass half-full person. I think it’s only going to get better.

WM: What’s the craziest thing you have done for love?

SL: I don’t know, probably hung in there. People would look at you like you’re crazy because of the situation, but sometimes you just have to stay because of the “heart thing”. It’s not rationale.

WM: Do you think close straight male friends can date?

SL: No close best friends. I have a lot of male friends, but my closest friends are girls. That’s not to say that I don’t think it’s possible. You can do that. I think at one point, you are going to have to go through the door of “Am I attracted to this person?” and have that “talk” at one point.

WM: Where do you see yourself going with your career?

SL: I want to continue acting and eventually produce and one day direct. But I don’t have any desire to direct any time soon. I have time to evolve.

WM: Besides Denzel, is there anyone else you would like to work with?

SL: I just really want to work with people that make you rise to their level. People whom I can learn from and be challenged by. Ultimately, it’s your work and you’re spending most of your life doing this, so people that are fun to be around with too.

WM: What was like working with Denzel?

SL: He’s amazing. He blew me away. I knew he was good, but everyday I was like, “I can’t compete with this”. He’s just really passionate about what he does. He’s so quick. His mind is quick and he’s so smart. He’s a great actor and artist.

WM: With your career rising so fast, do you see yourself settling down and having kids?

SL: I definitely want to be a mother and a wife. I think it can all be done, but you’ve got to work it out. That would just come naturally

WM: What’s your opinion of the film?

SL: When I first saw the finished print, I was taught it was cute. With some of the responses we’re getting now; I’m excited to go to the premiere.