Interview: Sanaa Lathan

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Sanaa McCoy Lathan was born in New York City on September 19, 1971, but was raised bi-coastal following the divorce of her show-biz parents, Hollywood director Stan Lathan and Broadway actress Eleanor McCoy. So, Sanaa found herself shuttled back and forth till she matriculated at Berkeley with plans for a legal career.

But after graduation, she abandoned that dream for another which would have her following in her forbears’ footsteps. So, she enrolled in Yale School of Drama, where she honed her skills for three years. She then caught the industry’s eye after an engaging performance as the adorable fiancee of a Vietnamese immigrant in Catfish in Black Bean Sauce. And the critical acclaim continued for her work in The Best Man, Love & Basketball, Brown Sugar and Out of Time.

Lathan landed in the tabloids for the first time after rumors of a pregnancy as a consequence of a set romance with co-star Denzel Washington. Here, she shares her thoughts about Something New, where her she plays Kenya, a very successful Black woman who falls in love with the white man she meets on a her blind date, despite her reservations about crossing the color line.

BSN: After you made Out of Time, some rumors started circulating about your having a set romance with Denzel. And recently, you denied it all in an interview with Vibe Magazine. Why did you go to Vibe now to deny such a stale story? Was it to help publicize this picture?
SL: No, no, no. I didn’t go to Vibe. They did a story on me and asked me the question. Somehow, it’s circulating again in a ridiculous out-of-control way.

BSN: So, you just wanted to put the rumor to rest once and for all. Does it bother you to have that salacious sort of gossip about you in the tabloids?
SL: I learned early on in the business, that when you’re in the spotlight on any kind of level, people are going to talk. It’s kind of human nature. People gossip in high school. I’m sure they gossip in your world.

BSN: Yep, so how are you dealing with it?
SL: Just by not talking about it. And by talking about Something New.

BSN: Speaking of which, what interested you in this film?
SL: The thing that was so great about this film to me, when I read the script, was that we’re so used to seeing this issue dealt with with a Black man and a white woman, and this is one of the first times you see it on the big screen with a Black woman and a white man.

BSN: did they just flip the script?
SL: No. The difference is, it’s usually the couple against the world. In this case, it’s really my character’s struggle with her own prejudices. So, the movie could be a metaphor for doing anything outside of the box that you’ve put yourself in. It could be about a relationship with someone from a different religion, or about dating someone outside of your class lines, like Kenya did, or dealing with anything when you step outside of your comfort zone.

BSN: Have you ever been on a blind date in real life?
SL: Yes I have, and it was a disaster. I’ve since sworn blind dates off, because it turned into kind of a semi-stalker situation. [laughs] But after doing this movie, maybe I’m going to be a little open.

BSN: Have you ever been resistant to “Something New� like your character?
SL: Absolutely. I’ve dated interracially. You realize when you’re in the situation that sometimes you have your own prejudices and your own issues that come up that you never knew you had until you’re in that situation.

BSN: Like what?
SL: I’ve had girlfriends who’ve dated interracially call me. They were in a wonderful relationship with a white man, but then it’s time to go to a Black event, and they don’t want to take him. You know what I mean? I think we all understand where that pressure comes from, a feeling of abandoning your people.

BSN: So, how do you deal with the ambivalence?
SL: I think that, at this point, we should just follow our hearts and really not worry about what other people think. But, it’s still there. So, definitely, I identified with Kenya.

BSN: Did you know that in 2005, 13% of all African-Americans who got married, married someone of a different color?
SL: Wow! That’s big.

BSN: Yeah, that’s a sizable percentage. What do you think of the movie’s theme in light of that statistic?
SL: The scriptwriter’s [Kriss Turner] inspiration was a Newsweek cover story from a couple years ago that said 42% of Black women aren’t married.

BSN: What explanation did it offer for the phenomenon?
SL: Because we’re climbing up the corporate ladder so much faster, and our male counterparts are either going to jail, dying, or dating outside the race. So, what do you do, if you want to have a family? That was her inspiration for this piece. And 42.4% was actually her original title for the movie, but we didn’t think anybody would be able to remember it.

BSN: Another study says Asian-American men and African-American females are the least likely groups to date someone of another color? Why do you think that might be?
SL: Because we’re so loyal. And we just love so deep and so hard. And I think there’s an unconscious guilt. It’s not even unconscious. We have a huge legacy in terms of the beginnings of this country, especially when it comes to Black-white relations. It’s so loaded. So, if you’re going to go there, you’ve got to really, really be committed and strong.

BSN: How come the Black females in this movie are so intelligent and sophisticated, and seem so real? This was really refreshing for a Hollywood film.
SL: Something New is historic. It’s the first studio film to be produced by a Black woman, directed by a Black woman, and to star a Black woman. Focus Features is also responsible for Brokeback Mountain and other amazing films that are opening people’s minds because they reflect the world that we live in, period.

BSN: Isn’t it unfortunate that it took till 2006 for Hollywood to get to this point?
SL: Why not be positive and just focus on the fact that it’s happening? We can’t be satisfied, but we have to look at the fact that it is happening.

BSN: So, what’s up next for you?
SL: I’m developing a beautiful script with Gina Prince-Bythewood, who wrote and directed Love & Basketball, and Disappearing Acts. It’s about a woman, married to a man in prison, who has lost herself, and how she gets back to herself.

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