Sanaa Lathan grew up in the entertainment world–her father was a TV director, and her mother was on Broadway. So, it should come as no surprise that the actress, herself, gave one of TV’s best performances of the year as Ashe Akino, a seasoned investigator, on Shots Fired, a 10 episode-long thriller aired this spring on Fox. “It’s a really juicy role,” Lathan says, who has previously starred in films like Love & Basketball and Brown Sugar. But Lathan, now 45, didn’t always want to act. “I thought I wanted to be a lawyer,” she explained. “I was kind of a nerd growing up.” Here, the actress opens up about how she got her first role, what it’s like filming the provocative sex scenes in Shots Fired, and her upcoming film.
You have such a beautiful name. Were you named after someone?
In the ’70s, my mother — her name is Eleanor McCoy — and a lot of black people were getting their African roots on, and learning about their history. And so she was given the name Sanaa as her African name, and when she gave birth to me, she gave it to me.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in New York and L.A. I went to Beverly Hills High School for two years and then I went to Manhattan Center in Spanish Harlem for two years. So it was like two opposite sides of the equation, which was kind of like a nightmare for me, both of them, in high school, and yet it was kind of the best thing that happened to me at that age. Kind of grew me up and gave me a different perspective on the world.
Did you always want to be an actress?
No. I wanted to be a lawyer. I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I was kind of a nerd growing up. I skipped the sixth grade, I was kind of like a real bookworm. But I was always around the business, because both my parents are in the business. And when it came time to decide what I wanted to do when I really researched being a lawyer, I realized I had no interest, so I was like let me do what I like to do, and I kind of pursued acting and it kind of worked out.
What was your first professional audition?
Oh, wow my first professional audition. What was the name of the movie that Robert De Niro made his directorial debut? I auditioned for Bronx Tale. And it was so heartbreaking, because I got all the way to the screen test, and then the other girl got it.
What was the first job you got?
I got a Secret deodorant commercial when I came out of drama school, and it wound up paying my rent for a year. It was like me getting ready with my boyfriend, and like rushing around the house and like pouring coffee and, you know, kissing him. I felt like I did a little mini movie that day. It was a national Secret deodorant commercial, and I was so excited. And who knew all those residuals would be paying my rent?
Did you have an idea that you mostly wanted to do movies or TV? Did you have a particular plan in mind?
I grew up around theatre. My mother was in the original Wiz on Broadway, and I was like a toddler walking around backstage. And so I always knew I wanted to do theatre. And then I fell in love with movies. Just the whole experience of sitting in a theatre and kind of getting lost in a story, I still to this day love that whole experience.
And having parents in the business, do you feel that that was helpful?
So helpful, yeah, I’ve never really worked with either of them, but a lot of it had to do with just knowing it was possible. I think people don’t realize how important that is. Like you, you’ve actually been on sets and you realize that this is a real thing that people do and it’s a real job and it’s not this far out dream so far away, then, you know, I think maybe that made it somehow, you know, easier for me to accept that this is a possibility for myself.
Recently you starred in a new series called Shots Fired. Tell me about it.
It is a ten-hour mystery thriller that is very reflective of the world that we’re living in right now in terms of what’s going on with police and racial profiling. It’s very entertaining, and yet, it’s very enlightening.
I play Ashe Akino. I call her #BadAshe, because she’s a bad ass. And she is an investigator with the Department of Justice and she kind of leads us on this mystery thriller and tries to put these pieces together. And she’s also a very damaged woman. She’s going through a crisis in her personal life that kind of threatens her being a mother to her child. So it’s a really juicy role.
And you have some good sex scenes.
Oh, I sure do. With some cutie pies. It is hard to do love scenes. It helps when you like the person that you’re doing a love scene with. But no matter what, it’s hard, because it’s a lot of people standing around and a lot of them you don’t know. Sometimes it feels like soft porn. TV is getting racier and racier, and so you have to do it, it’s part of the job. But I’m lucky on this one, I had some good guys to do my little love scenes with.
What’s your favorite love scene in a movie?
You know, this is not a love scene, this is a sex scene. The Postman Always Rings Twice with Jack [Nicholson] and Jessica Lange, when he like comes in and they’re like in the kitchen and she’s like standing up. It’s hot. Anyway, that just popped into my head. That’s not my favorite, but it’s a good one.
Who do you have a cinematic crush on?
I have so many crushes, God, it just really depends on the day. Um, I think Idris Elba in Luther, I liked him in that. There’s something about how manly and kind of rugged and masculine he is. Nowadays, a lot of these movie star guys are kind of boy men. And he’s like a real man, you know, like, like Russell Crowe in Gladiator. Or, you know, Humphrey Bogart or Spencer Tracy. I like the kind of like the really masculine leading men.
And do you have any girl crushes, like a talent crush?
Oh, yeah, well, Nicole Kidman is one of them. I love her. There are so many. Marion Cotillard….
What TV show makes you cry?
Well, definitely Shots Fired makes me cry. And it’s so funny because I when you’re going through it, you feel like you won’t have emotions when you’re watching it. And just last week, I was sitting in my living room crying at a scene I already knew about. So it’s very moving. They got an amazing group of such talented writers with amazing integrity.
Is there a movie that makes you cry?
I’m kind of a softie when it comes to any kind of entertaining, and entertainment. The first thing that comes to mind right now is just The Bicycle Thief.
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“In the show I play an abused woman, and I felt very exposed and deeply humiliated. I remember lying on the floor in the bathroom at the end of a difficult scene, and I wouldn’t get up between takes. I was just lying there, basically naked in half-torn underwear, and Jean-Marc Vallée [the director] would come over and place a towel over me. It was very hard.”
Kidman wears a Miu Miu dress and coat.
“As a girl, I was obsessed with the program 20/20—especially with the coanchor Hugh Downs. I thought I was going to marry Hugh Downs for a really long time. He was so dignified. Everything was going to be all right because Hugh Downs was going to tell you the important story you needed to know that Friday night. They just don’t do newsmen like him anymore.”
Marling wears a Prada dress.
“My first crush was Jessica Lange in Tootsie. I was maybe 8 or 9 when I first saw the movie, and I had never felt anything for a girl before that. I was just mesmerized by her. I watched the film over and over again because of Jessica Lange. I’m still not over her. Every time I meet someone, I compare her to Jessica Lange in Tootsie. That’s probably why I’m not married.”
Skarsgård wears a Cleverly Laundry robe; Schiesser Revival shirt.
“The Americans mostly takes place in the ’80s, during the Cold War. Anytime you’re wearing clothes that are unlike yours, it just heightens the moment. When I wear heels and silk shirts, slacks and blouses, it makes me feel like an adult. On the show, I wear a cat eye with black eyeliner, and it makes me feel like a panther. It’s so unlike me as Keri—this tired mom in flip-flops and jeans. And I love that transformation.”
Russell wears a Michael Kors Collection top; Philosophy briefs; Manolo Blahnik shoes; Louis Vuitton bracelet.
“For Homeland, I made an audition tape with a point-and-click camera and sent it in. The ratio was off. It was out of focus. I was also wearing the wrong thing, and I filmed it against a door that they later told me made it look like I was in a mental asylum. The producers were like, ‘Where the hell is this kid?!’ In the end, I did seven separate audition tapes of the same scene. They finally said yes.”
Friend wears an Hermès sweater; Sunspel boxers; his own ring and socks.
“I went to work on The Crown four months after giving birth. The queen didn’t wear a corset, but I did in the beginning. Now, in the second season, I have to wear a significantly padded brassiere. In the first season, it was all my own breast work, but now it’s ‘Ha! Where have they gone?’ The queen would be so ashamed of me.”
Foy wears a Louis Vuitton dress; Messika Paris bracelet.
“I usually get stopped in the U.K. before I board a plane. What’s funny is that Heathrow is in a heavily South Asian neighborhood, and the kids working at the airport are fans of mine. So while they’re swabbing me for explosives, they’re asking me for selfies. While they’re going through my underwear, they’re quoting my raps back at me. It’s quite a surreal experience that speaks to the insider/outsider status I’ve felt all my life.”
Ahmed wears a Bottega Veneta sweater; Jeffrey Rüdes pants.
“Even with the show, I still live at home in Liverpool. I can’t bring myself to leave just yet. My brother is 21 and he’s still at home, too. I said to my mom, ‘We’re going to be 30-, 40-odd years old and we’re still going to be living in the kids’ rooms.’ I’m hoping I will be able to leave the nest at some point.”
Comer wears a Marc Jacobs dress; Jennifer Meyer necklace; Larkspur & Hawk ring.
“During the screen test for Stranger Things, one of the directors came up to me and said, ‘Bzzz,’ over my head. He then asked, ‘Are you ready?’ I was like, ‘For what?’ And he said, ‘To cut all your hair off!’ The next day I got the job and I cut it. My hair was down to here, but it’s only hair. After that, I was called ‘boy’ a lot.”
Brown wears a Balenciaga dress and tights; Chanel shoes; Jennifer Meyer ring.
“I worked at McDonald’s for a few months, and I got a couple of dates from taking orders at the drive-through window. I was enrolled in an acting class, and I would practice different accents. I was really bad, but people believed me. A young lady would say, ‘Oh, I forgot to order the strawberry milkshake’ and ask me about my Italian or Irish or Brooklyn accent. We would go out on a date, go back to the McDonald’s parking lot, and make out. Eventually, I had to break it to them that I wasn’t Italian or Irish or from New York. The girls would usually end it right then and there.”
Franco wears a Prada shirt.
“In playing Albert Einstein, I found out that he was not the archetypal absentminded professor. He was an energetic, slightly rebellious, rakish, sort-of-bohemian poet. And he was quite amorous—he had many lovers. Einstein wasn’t exactly a ‘player,’ but he enjoyed women, and when his first marriage fell apart, he became what you would call a ladies’ man. He gave up on monogamy.”
Flynn wears a Calvin Klein Jeans Established 1978 jacket and pants.
“My dad, Stan Lathan, was one of the first black TV directors. He used to direct Sesame Street, and he blindfolded me once, and when he took the blindfold off, I was on the set. I got to meet Big Bird. It was my birthday, and the whole cast sang to me. That was the biggest thrill of my life.”
Lathan wears a Lanvin coat.
“I’m not a big crier. But family stuff gets to me. Fathers and brothers and children. If I wasn’t on This Is Us, I’d be a wet noodle watching the show. I’d be crying along with everyone else.”
Ventimiglia wears a Current/Elliott shirt; his own chain.
Do you have a favorite birthday?
My dad was one of the first black directors in TV, and he used to direct Sesame Street. And he blindfolded me one year, I don’t know what year it was, but I must have been like Sesame Street age because I was really excited when, that he took the blindfold off and I was on the set of Sesame Street, and I got to meet Big Bird. That was my biggest thrill at that point in my life.
That sounds like a great birthday.
Yeah, it was great. And then now as I get older, I just don’t want to celebrate anymore.
Do you have any secret skills that people would be surprised to know that you have?
Well, I mean, this is not like a skill, but this is the first thing that came to mind. It, I’m, I mediate twice a day for like the last three years. And it changed my life. I don’t think I would be here if I didn’t start meditating. I do TM, which a lot of people do.
And why did you start?
I started because I had lost a best friend of mine suddenly, and it was just like the perfect storm of every horrible thing that could happen that year. And I just was like, “Oh, I’m fine, I’m fine.” I wasn’t dealing with it. And then I started having panic attacks. And I didn’t want to go on the medication. And I swear, as soon as I started meditating, a friend of mine was like why don’t you try it? The very day I started they went away. And so now I know the power of it, and I just became obsessed, so. Yeah, I go into schools and teach kids and all that kind of stuff.
Up next, I heard you have a movie coming out, too.
I do. I have a movie called American Assassin coming out, which is based on this international best sellers by Vince Flynn. And there’s several of them, they’re akin to Jason Borne. So you know how there’s like 17 of those? There’s like 17 of these books, and people love them. And I play Irene Kennedy opposite Michael Keaton and Dylan O’Brien. And in the book, she’s white. So, you know, for a change, they, you know, changed the changed the color to a black girl.
That is so great. That’s fantastic. Was it your idea or did they do it because they met you?
I don’t know, I didn’t even ask!
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