Sanaa Lathan Looks Back at Her Most Iconic Roles


Welcome to Look Back At It, a monthly column where some of the most iconic Black actresses in Hollywood reminisce and reflect on the roles that made them stars. For our first installment, Sanaa Lathan breaks down her career—from Love and Basketball and Brown Sugar to her most recent feature film directorial debut, On the Come Up.

For over two decades, actress Sanaa Lathan has graced our television and movie screens in everything from cult classics to romantic comedies. After graduating from Yale School of Drama in the ’90s, her first credited role was in 1996 with the LL Cool J-led family sitcom In the House. From there, she secured guest spots on hit shows like Moesha and Family Matters before landing her first big studio film Blade, acting opposite Wesley Snipes.

From there, Lathan went on to star in fan favorites like Love and Basketball (which was recently added to the Criterion Collection), Brown Sugar, and The Best Man. In 2004, she was nominated for her first Tony for her role in Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun, which was later adapted for a TV film of the same name. The awards didn’t stop there; just this year, Lathan was nominated for her first Emmy for her guest role in the HBO drama Succession.

Below, Lathan takes us through her most iconic film roles to share what she’s learned, some of her favorite moments from set, and why her feature film directorial debut On the Come Up has ushered in a new chapter.

Vanessa in Blade (1998)

“I remember being really excited about this because Wesley Snipes was the biggest star in the world. This was my first big studio movie. I’m such an actor-y actor that I actually did so much research on vampires for this. At the time, there was a store in L.A. called The Bodhi Tree and it was a spiritual bookstore. I went in and I asked one of the guys if he had any books on vampires. Then he was like, ‘I have 200 at my house in a coffin.’ And I was like, ‘Are you a vampire?’ I was joking, but then he said yes. There are actually people who consider themselves vampires and who are obsessed with the world and the lore. But anyway, I read some books and did some deep diving and really took her seriously. I had a lot of fun, especially with the fangs. I was really committed.”

Robin in The Best Man (1999) and The Best Man Holiday (2013)

“Soon you’ll be able to watch The Best Man: The Final Chapters, which is coming to Peacock in December. But these movies were so much fun. They actually called me in for the role of Candy [Regina Hall’s character], but when I read the script, I was like, ‘I wanna read for Robin.’ It was the first time that I had used my voice and asked [for what I wanted]. So when they said yes, that was a big thing for me. The Best Man was the first time I did a movie in New York City. We were all young, excited, and at the beginning of our careers. We had such a blast. I think it comes through in the first one. And then The Best Man Holiday was 16 years later. We shot that in Toronto. It almost felt like camp because, by then, we were good friends and almost like family. We had so much fun that we were worried at the end. We were like, ‘What did we do? Is it gonna be good?’ And it came out so great. We were really happy about that.”

Monica in Love and Basketball (2000)

“I had known Omar [Epps] since The Wood and Gina [Prince-Bythewood] wrote the role of Quincy with him in mind. So he always knew that he was doing it. For my part, I think Gina was under the wrong kind of guidance that she needed a basketball player who she could teach to act as opposed to an actress who she could teach to play basketball. I had to really fight and I fought for months and eventually won the job, but it was definitely an exercise in perseverance and believing in yourself. It was really one of those moments where you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m really an actress out here.’ The shoot was so challenging. Gina was a college basketball player so there was always that feeling of wanting to get it right. But I remember when we went to Sundance, there was a four-minute standing ovation. I was in shock like, ‘Wow, this is what we did.’ And now it’s in the Criterion Collection.”

Sidney in Brown Sugar (2002)

“We shot Brown Sugar right after September 11th and it was really scary. I remember being terrified to come to the city. You could still smell the smoke. The city was very empty, but it actually turned out to be such a great experience because New Yorkers were so happy and so grateful that we were there. I remember that there was a whole movement of bringing business back to New York and we were one of the first productions. So that was really great.”

Ann in Out of Time (2003)

“I remember that I had to screen test against four other girls for this movie. It was also very nerve-wracking because Denzel Washington was in it. The auditioning process was intense. I remember Carl [Franklin, the director] just wanting me to cry a lot. Like, ‘Do it again. Do it again.’ I was like, ‘Oh, God. You want to torture me to get this role.’ We shot that in Miami in the summer. Even thinking about it, I’m breaking out into a sweat.”

Alexa in Alien vs. Predator (2004)

“I remember being in a corner on the floor, dirty, in this big cold warehouse with the camera and then pouring buckets of goop [onto me]. It gets in your mouth and you’re like, ‘This is not glamorous.’ [Laughs] But there were retired basketball players in those predator outfits. I’m sure it’s not like this anymore, but at that time, they could only wear them for 20 minutes at a time. So it was a long shoot. And they all lost 20 pounds because the suits were so heavy.”

Kenya in Something New (2006)

“People love this movie. I have so many people who say it’s their favorite. It’s kind of become a new classic. But at the time, I remember it didn’t do well at the box office. I was really upset by that. I had a lot of Black men come up to me and be like, ‘I’m mad at you Sanaa. Why you with that white boy? I didn’t wanna watch the movie, but my girl made me.’ [Laughs] But Blair [Underwood] and Simon Baker were so amazing. So was Donald [Faison].”

Beneatha in A Raisin in the Sun (2008)

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“Oh, this is great. I was shooting Alien vs Predator and Puffy called me in Prague and he was like, ‘I want you to read A Raisin in the Sun. I wanna do it on Broadway.’ He wanted to get into acting. And I was like, ‘Why A Raisin in the Sun? Can we do something new? I’m not interested.’ And then I read it and I was like, “Oh, this is the real meaning of a classic. It transcends time.’ It really spoke to me. I loved the hope and the light of Beneatha after playing Alexa [in Alien vs Predator] who was fighting and trying to save the world. So that was really amazing. We did a run on Broadway and I got to work with Phylicia [Rashad]. I’d known her since I was a child because she, my mom, and Debbie Allen used to dance together. And obviously, Audra [McDonald] is a force. It was standing room only every night and I got a Tony nomination. That was the cherry on top. And then a couple of years later, we shot the film. I remember being surprised that I still had the lines in my head. I didn’t have to relearn them.”

Andrea in The Family That Preys (2008)

“This was exciting because Alfre [Woodard] has played my mom in three different movies: this one, Love and Basketball, and Something New. What I remember about this is that Tyler Perry had the happiest set I could imagine. My trailer was beautiful and had fresh flowers. It was the first time I felt seen as an actress. He treated us like human beings. Sometimes in this business, especially when you’re up-and-coming, there’s a lack of respect that you feel on sets. I felt respected by him. He saw us. He treated us great. He paid us well. I think he was just starting to build his studio back then, too. So that was a great experience. And for my character Andrea, he was like, ‘I want you to really lean into the bitch.’ And I did.”

Aubrey in Contagion (2011)

“This is so timely. It’s insane. I remember seeing it at the premiere back then and I was like, ‘That that would never happen.’ And look at us now. But obviously, to be a part of such an amazing cast with such a brilliant director was really cool. We shot it in Chicago and I loved working with Laurence Fishburne. I didn’t really meet any of the other actors because everyone had their own storylines. But I loved being a part of this. I loved being in that company.”

Leah in The Perfect Guy (2015)

“Well, this was fun because look at my co-stars. Obviously I knew Morris [Chestnut] from The Best Man, but I hadn’t worked with Michael [Ealy.] But I was like, ‘I’m the luckiest girl in the world to kiss both of these guys.’ This was filmed in L.A. and I remember we shot right around the corner from my house. There were a lot of night shoots and when you do thrillers, you have to be scared a lot. As an actor, you’re using your real emotions so it was an intense shoot. But I had the best co-stars. They were so great and so generous. And I remember this being number one at the box office.”

Violet in Nappily Ever After (2018)

“This is making me emotional. I’ve done a lot of movies. With this one, I was more involved. I had produced The Perfect Guy, but I was a real producer on this in terms of helping to choose the director and working on the script. I got my PGA mark on this. I was involved in the rewrite of the script because it was a project that had been around for a while. They had been trying to make it for years and there were different actresses attached. And finally when I became attached, it was a little dated. So we brought the script up-to-date.

I also remember begging the celebrity hairstylist Larry Sims to do it. So he designed all her looks. In the scene where I shave my head, it’s really me shaving my real hair. They rigged the mirror and they put the camera behind the mirror so I couldn’t see it. It felt like I was really looking into a mirror. I remember blasting music while I was shaving my head and it was a cathartic moment for me. When I was done, Larry rushed in crying. He was like, ‘Baby, it’s beautiful.’”

Jay in On the Come Up (2022)

sanaa lathan stars in a paramount original moviein association with paramount players a temple hill  state street production“on the come up”

Courtesy of Paramount+

“God, this movie is everything to me. It’s my baby. When you’re the director, it’s your vision. You’re manifesting with the help of these amazing actors and crew and producers and studio. It was a dream and the joy of my life to work on. I’m just so proud of it and I’m happy that it’s resonating with people. I fell in love with my character, Jay. She isn’t the easiest character to play, but I just recognized a lot of women in my family in her. To prepare for the role, I talked to a Black woman who had been 30 years sober off of heroin. She just poured her heart out to me and told me her story. She was totally secure in her sobriety. She wasn’t worried about that. But her biggest regret was [the effect that her addiction had on] her children. So that was really informative in terms of playing Jay and in terms of understanding the relationship with her daughter Bri. You know, I feel really proud of myself right now. When I was at TIFF [Toronto International Film Festival] and the end credits of this film started to roll, it was like a dream. It was so surreal. My family surrounded me and it was truly one of those moments where I was like, ‘I finally feel some level of satisfaction.’”

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