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In Her Shoes: Sanaa Lathan

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The Cut

A weekly audio magazine exploring culture, style, sex, politics, and more.

In the latest installment of In Her Shoes, the Cut’s editor-in-chief, Lindsay Peoples Wagner, welcomes actress Sanaa Lathan, known for her iconic roles in Love & Basketball, Alien vs. Predator, and, more recently, Netflix’s Nappily Ever After. She speaks to Lindsay about embracing natural hair, being one of the only Black women to save the world in Hollywood films, and cementing her new directing career with an upcoming adaptation of Angie Thomas’s novel On The Come Up. 

To hear more about Sanaa’s career path and why she is a fervent believer in the benefits of meditation, listen below, and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can also read the full transcript below.

SANAA LATHAN: I remember even thinking, I was like, Wow. This is surprising. Are they looking for a Black woman for this? What is this about? And I love the fact that I was a Black woman who kind of saved the Earth.

​​LINDSAY PEOPLES WAGNER:  Welcome to In Her Shoes. I’m Lindsay Peoples Wagner, editor-in-chief of the Cut. On this podcast, we talk to ambitious women about how far they’ve come and where they’re going next. Sanaa Lathan is a New York City–born and –bred actor and director. She started out as a teen guest starring on sitcoms like Family Matters and Moesha before becoming a staple in rom-coms like Love and Basketball, The Best Man, and Brown Sugar. She’s also appeared in blockbusters like Blade and Alien vs. Predator, where, as she spoke about before, she is one of the only Black women to save the world in the movie. We spoke about embracing natural hair, her directorial debut, and how much he loves meditation and self-care. I’m excited for you all to listen. Hi Sanaa, thank you so much for joining us today.

SANAA: Hi. It is my pleasure. I love your hair.

LPW: Thank you. I like yours, too. So in Netflix’s 2018 film Nappily Ever After, you played a woman who really only becomes true to herself when she embraces her natural hair. Can you tell us about what brought you to that role? It was such an important and I think critical role for so many young women of color like myself to see someone go through that journey. What made you feel like you had to be part of that project? Could you walk me through the casting and what really was attracting you to the story itself?

SANAA: ​​Hair in that movie, which was also a book, it was a very big book and it had been around for a long time and was very beloved. It was a synonym to your authentic self, your nappy hair being who you really are. I just loved how it was this woman who was always trying to conform and do what society has told her that women should do, what Black women should do or be. It was never anything that was coming from who she truly was; it was always something that was coming from outside of herself. Hair being such a huge thing for women across all racial lines — we’re taught, you know, that long hair means you’re desirable. You have to be desirable for the prince to want you. Your worst comes from the prince wanting you, not about what you want. From the time we’re little girls, we read these fairy tales about Snow White and Cinderella. It’s all about, from the time we’re really little, it’s all about being chosen. That our worth comes from being chosen and having to conform in order to be chosen. For me, it was way deeper than just hair. Hair was a metaphor for: I’m going to step into who I truly am. I’m going to find out who I authentically am, and I’m going to choose. I love the idea of her not ending up with anybody at the end because it’s a love story about falling in love with yourself. Sometimes that’s hard in this society when we as women, and especially Black women, are told over and over and over again that who we are is not okay and that you have to fit into some kind of box. That was what really drew me to the role and then obviously it was it was so great because just as an actress, I got to really just do all of the range of emotions going from kind of a repressed “good girl” who’s never really succeeding in life to a real breakdown where she had to find out who she truly was and what she wanted.

LPW: There’s so much that’s so powerful about this movie. What hit home for so many of us watching at home, we felt what you were feeling — it was this visceral reaction of you shaving your head. There’s so many emotions, I think specifically for Black women around having short hair and cutting your hair. I remember as a child when you go get your trim, you would freak out if the hair stylist did more than a trim — that was such a big deal. Or even wanting a short hair style. I was having a conversation with a girlfriend the other day, and she wanted to go for a short hair style, and the conversation turned to, What would her partner think? And I’m like, Who cares? Do whatever you want. I wanted to hear your thoughts now that time has passed on that scene and what your real life was like outside of that, as well, shaving your own head.

SANAA: ​​It’s interesting, because as an actor being in the business, practically my whole adult life, we’re just now talking about having Black hairdressers this year, after the whole Time’s Up and after Black Lives Matter. But I was having to deal with going to other countries where you ask for somebody who knows how to deal with Black hair. Everybody says they do. My go-to thing [to ask] was, “Well, do you know how to use a stove with a hot comb?” They’d be like, “No,” because not that I even use that, but if you don’t know how to use a stove with a hot comb, then you don’t know how to do Black hair, right? That’s why a lot of Black women suffered, models have had to deal with it over the years, because they’d go and our hair requires a completely different kind of regimen — you know that. It can’t be having heat on it, can’t be getting wet every day. So weaves were a big thing for me. People would be like “You have hair, why do you wear a weave?” Because I wouldn’t have any hair if I had to get it straightened every day for whatever part I’m playing to have continuity. It’s an ongoing thing that I think all women deal with, with their hair, but I think especially Black women, it’s like, Okay, what am I going to do next? We both have braids [right now]. But I’m sure you talk to all your girlfriends, like, What should I get next? It’s great. I am so happy that braids are in now. It’s such a thing now because they are a protective style. Anyway, I digress. I was ready. Sanaa was ready to shave my head at that point because after years and years of dealing with all of the demands of having coarser hair, “nappy” hair, there’s different degrees of nappiness, but you know, you get your hair flat-ironed and you don’t want to go to the gym. I mean, it’s just a whole thing.

LPW: That is really the conundrum.

SANAA: Yeah, no, it is! Because I used to love to get my hair flat-ironed like once every two weeks. But then you time it. You want it to stay straight and silky and bouncy for the first five days, but you don’t want to stay away from the gym too long, so you have to time it. Like, Okay, I’ll go to the gym the last couple of days before I get it redone. So I was at a point in my life where it was scary as hell, the idea of shaving my head, because … who knows? I didn’t know what shape head I had. I didn’t know if I had dents or if I had a conehead. Larry Sims, who’s a big celebrity hairstylist, I convinced him to do the movie, and every day I asked him — because there was D Day, because you couldn’t go back. We had to do it all in one take — what you see in the movie is real. You’re seeing me actually shave my head, and I asked him over and over again, I said, “Do you think you think I’ll have a funny shaved head?” He’s like, “No, baby, you have a beautiful head.” And I said, “You can tell?” And he was like, “Yes, you can tell.” The day I shaved it, he ran into the bathroom with tears in his eyes, and he said, “Thank God.” I said, “You didn’t know?” He said, “No, you never know.”

[LAUGHTER]

SANAA: He was like, “I was hoping that you had a nice-shaped head.”

LPW: I love it.

SANAA: We had scheduled the day that we were going to shoot that scene and it was very nerve-racking, not only for me, but for the whole crew, because we knew we had to get it right. We had to get it right in one take. They rigged the camera behind the mirror. So I was actually looking into a mirror. I didn’t see the camera, which was really helpful. That day, I found some music that really helped me get into her state of mind and her emotional state, which was great. On that particular set, the sound person, in between takes, we would blast music. You know, on different sets, they have different kinds of things that go on. So I just asked him to blast the music during the scene and it was really wonderful. It was triumphant and emotional. The whole set was crying because it was cathartic for everybody. The symbol of the hair, like, I’m just going to let go of everything outside of just who I am. I said to myself, If I hate it, I have wigs. Wigs are in too. People change their wigs like they change their earrings.

LPW: Exactly.

SANAA: All the lace fronts. So I was like, I have wigs. I could just wear wigs for a little bit, then I’ll put braids in my hair when it grows out a little bit. Surprisingly, I kept shaving it. I loved it. I had so much male attention. Men? It was like they were obsessed with it. It was crazy. It was the opposite of what I thought.

LPW: I love that you were surprised by that.

SANAA: No, I really was. I had ex-boyfriends calling me, texting me, saying, like, Ooh can I come rub your head? I was really shocked. It’s been three years and once it got to that awkward, middle stage when it’s not that cute, or at least I couldn’t get it cute, because it does take a lot of energy to for natural hair. Natural hair is just …

LPW:  Yeah, a lot of work.

SANAA: Demanding. They have a lot of amazing YouTube tutorials, and I would watch them and not do it.

LPW: Well, I Google twist outs every other night, and then I’m like, This looks wonderful, but I don’t have the time for this.

SANAA: I don’t have the time or the energy.

LPW: No.

SANAA: So once it got long enough, I just started wearing braids, styles, all different kinds. When I would work I would just braid it down and then wear wigs. It’s actually longer than it’s ever been. Every single day, I fantasize about shaving it off again.

LPW: Oh, wow.

SANAA: It’s actually my mother who keeps saying, No, no, no. Isn’t that such a mother?

LPW: Such a mom thing, such a mom thing.

SANAA: But yes, I’m in Palm Springs right now. It’s a high of like 115 today. This would be a good time to have a shaved head.

LPW: Yeah, I was going to say, it would be perfect for that. I’m going to take it back even further. Love and Basketball, Alien vs. Predator. You have so many amazing credits. You were extremely phenomenal in Alien vs. Predator and you held the record for highest opening weekend for movies led by a Black woman until Lupita was in 2019’s Us. I bring this one up specifically because sci-fi is not generally a genre that Black women have take up space in and survive and thrive and figure out a way to create a different language that isn’t already available, especially in the 2000s. So what was it like then? You’ve been so many firsts for Black women in general, but what was that like, and what has it been like to be such a trailblazer in all of these really important moments?

SANAA: Oh God, it was great. I remember I was in L.A. and it was an audition that came to me on a Friday night to go in on a Saturday. I had this guy that I was dating and he was in town and I didn’t want to go and I … because I just wanted to hang with him, and I was like, That’s just too much work, because I don’t like to go and wing it, right? Why are you auditioning on a Saturday? I was just complaining about it, and it’s so funny because he turned out to be not a good guy, but he made me go. In my mind, sometimes you just never know, right? But he was like, “No, just go, just go. We’ll do something after.” So I wound up going, and then two weeks later, I was on a plane to Prague to screen test. It was like an eight-hour screen test in the studio with a big-ass predator. I had to shoot a gun and push him around and I did a bunch of scenes. By the end of the day, I knew I had the job. Then two weeks after that, I was on the plane back to Prague for a six-month shoot. I didn’t have time to really let it sink in what it was, because I was so displaced and wasn’t really ready to just uproot my life and go. Obviously, I did, and it was extremely grueling. I don’t envy action stars or thriller stars because it’s a different type of rigorousness being scared for six months straight, being in panic, because that’s basically your reality. You’re going to work to be scared, and it was rough. It was an intense, rough shoot. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I was very lucky to have a really great crew and cast around me who were very supportive and great. But in terms of the actual physical nature of it and the emotional nature of the state that you have to be in for those many months, it was intense.

LPW: Yeah. It sounds very intense.

SANAA: Yeah. It was surprising. I remember thinking, Are they looking for a Black woman for this? What is it about? I love the fact that I was, you know, a Black woman saving the Earth. She doesn’t die first. Literally.

LPW: I love that.

LPW: So let’s talk about your directorial film debut with the adaptation of Angie Thomas’s novel On the Come Up. First of all, congratulations.

SANAA: Thank you.

LPW: What has that been like, moving from acting to directing? Why was that important to you? Could you just walk me through that journey?

SANAA: Well, it’s interesting because I always wanted to be a director when I was a little girl. I would always say, “I want to be a director when I grow up like my dad.” Then I got involved in after-school performing programs and in college, I was in a Black theater group called Black Theater Workshop, where we put on plays by Black authors. It was there that there was a recruiter from the Yale School of Drama who came and spoke to us. And she said, “Statistically, minorities don’t consider graduate school in the arts.” That was back then, and she was a recruiter for that. She was like, “You guys should consider applying.” And I was like, You know what? That might be cool. Let me apply. It was almost like getting into drama school took me on a different path, it kind of made the decision for me. So, I just have gone down this acting road. But I think that actors turned directors, they can sometimes make the best directors because they’ve been around it. They know what works. But lately, I feel like life has been ushering me in that direction. I was asked to be a mentor to directors at the Sundance Lab. I had a director of photography, after working with me, approach me and say, “I teach DPs at a college level.” Directors of photography, or cinematographers. He was like, “You should really consider directing because you’re a director.” He had seen me on set, so it was a lot of outside influences kind of pushing me in that direction, and then there’s a company called Maven Pictures that when we had the original quarantine in L.A., I got an offer from them to do a short film with the subject matter of “What is it to be in this lockdown?” They would provide the editor, a writer, and you would come up with a story and do the short film. I took that as my opportunity. I directed it and it turned out pretty well. It just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s about an OCD panic disorder Zoom therapist who has panic OCD disorder herself. It’s very quirky. She’s in the middle of a pandemic, and obviously she’s taking care of all of her clients all day long because everybody’s thinking it is the end of the world and she gets a Postmates [delivery] and she’s like, I didn’t order this Postmates. And she goes outside and there’s a dog in her yard. And a note from a Postmate saying, I think you’re a really nice lady. You always tip me really well. I can’t afford my dog because of the shutdown, I lost my job. Will you please take care of this dog? So she winds up having to take in this dog and she has OCD, so she’s just not having it. But it turns out that the dog winds up being her therapist by the end. The dog ends up taking care of her. It’s cute.

That was a really great experience and I thoroughly enjoyed the process. You asked me about about On the Come Up, and this is a really long circuitous way to get there. But this is kind of how it unfolded. Then people started seeing my short and saying, “You should get into directing.” My agents were like, “Would you like me to start submitting you for directing gigs?” And I said, “Sure.” I was thinking in a couple of years I’d do it. Then On the Come Up came up and I really responded to the story and I had to get in there and basically “audition” the way directors audition, which is to give a 40-page presentation. Gina Prince-Bythewood was a very close friend of mine. She was a great mentor during the process. I call her my mentor now; she loves it. After a two-month “audition” process, I got the job. I’m excited because it’s a coming-of-age story about a young girl who is finding out who she is through her voice and finding her authentic voice. Isn’t that a question for all of us?

LPW: Yeah.

SANAA: That’s the goal. I think that’s my underground theme because I’m trying to find that for myself as well.

LPW: I think that’s beautiful. That’s also something that I think we’re all searching for and wondering and questioning and constantly trying to find an answer to, whether there would be a pinpointed answer to that or not. I think that that’s something that we all think about, so I’m looking forward to that. I want to talk about Succession, since the new trailer just dropped. I’m obsessed with Succession. I’m very excited. What was it like working on season three, and can tell us anything about your character or just your experience overall?

SANAA: Yeah, so I got the offer right in the fall, and we were nowhere near outside of the quarantine. I remember saying to a friend, I would like to have a job in the can soon. But I wasn’t thinking that soon. I had to get on a plane within a matter of weeks to go to New York in the middle of the quarantine. So that was very scary for me. It was a trip to work with all of the PPE and it was like swimming underwater with weights. Yet I was a huge fan of the show. I think it’s some of the best writing and acting on TV, and I knew that I had to be a part of it. It was a great experience. I got to go to New York several times over the last year and work with some great actors. It reminded me of my early days working in the theater, that kind of level of commitment and just depth. I’m just super-grateful, super-grateful for the opportunity, and I had a great time despite the pandemic of it all.

LPW: Yeah. Well, I’m very excited to see that. Speaking of theater, you’ve done so much work in the theater. Do you see the difference between the work in your process? Is that anything different between stage and film? Do you prefer one or the other added aspiration to do more theater work?

SANAA: Yeah, I love theater, I feel happiest when I’m onstage. For me, it’s so all encompassing, the eight shows a week that it has to be a role that is just undeniable, that I cannot refuse anything less than that, I would rather be on a movie set because you can have a life. But there’s nothing like the exchange of energy between the audience and you as the character and the fact that you get to live the character from beginning to end every night and not out of order. That is very satisfying for an actor. It’s different every night and it’s exciting. There’s nothing that can touch that.

LPW: Yeah. You said something interesting about having a life and being in film, TV, theater, I know the schedules must be crazy and always hectic, but tell me a little bit about how you’re able to deal with it both mentally, emotionally. I know there must be a lot of stress, like, Am I getting this part or am I not? You’ve been in the industry for so long, so how do you feel like you’ve been able to grow in that area? And what is it like? Because I also feel like people really glamorize it in a way that it’s probably different in reality.

SANAA: Yeah, it is different. Any freelance artist, it takes a lot of faith because after every single job, I don’t care how much success you’ve had, you don’t know what the next thing is until you know what the next thing is. So when I chose to be a Zoom therapist in my short, it was because I know that experience very well. I’ve had lots of therapy. I’ve had life coaching. I lean on my friends. A lot of people are like, How can you be friends with your competition? But I find that they’re the only people who know what I’m going through. I just spoke to this woman who, I won’t say her name, but she got a lot of success in the last year. She’s having a hard time because it was just, like, overnight. I said, “Please, just reach out.” She’s thinking about quitting. And I was like, “You’ve got to reach out. You’ve got to reach out to me, reach out to somebody else.” Because it is no joke, that amount of faith and some days you don’t have the faith. Then on top of it, there’s the level of scrutiny. I feel very, very blessed, and yet I do not ever envy anybody’s success because at every level of success in this business, whether it’s small or you’re the biggest star in the world, it comes with its huge challenges. You’re always proving yourself. There’s always rejection. There’s always scrutiny. That’s why I tell young people who are getting into the business or any kind of freelance thing, a writer, a journalist, you have to really, really want to do it. If you can do anything else, do it, because it can be very emotionally abusive.

LPW: Yeah. That’s for most creative positions. I feel that way about fashion, so I get it. I want to end on, there are people who always love to hear any wellness things. I’ve read that you’re big on meditation, so are there any wellness things you’re doing or that you want to talk about?

SANAA: People talk about self-care like it’s a catchphrase, but if you’re in line with yourself and you’re taking care of yourself, people will treat you different. When I say self-care, that means taking time to yourself when you’re not on your phone and doing your version of meditation, walking outside, getting a foot massage, taking a bath. These are little things that you’re doing for yourself, and when you do them for yourself, it’s almost like it becomes a magnet for other people to treat you with care. If you can’t treat yourself with care, then you’re not going to get it from the outside. It’s a weird way to think about it. But I’ve found that to be very true. I’m a huge believer in meditation. Everybody can learn how to meditate. All you gotta do is Google “meditation.” I do transcendental meditation. Years ago, I had a lot of trauma. I had a best friend suddenly die along with many other things that happened all at once. And I started having panic attacks. I was like, That’s not a real thing. What’s a panic attack?

LPW: Oh, it is.

SANAA: I remember having a girlfriend who had one and I was like, Girl, just breathe, just sit down and breathe. Then cut to a couple of years later, I started having three to five a day. I could be happy and all of a sudden I felt like I was going to die. I felt like I was having a heart attack and went to the doctor, [who was] like, “Oh, no, no. You’ve been under a lot of stress and you have not processed it. You had a lot of trauma.” He wanted to put me on medication. To each his own, but before I got on the medication, I wanted to see if I could address it in a more holistic way, at least first. So a friend of mine who was very into meditation was like, “Why don’t you try that? It’s been proven to help PTSD in veterans that people that come home from war. So let’s see.” And the day I started transcendental meditation, my panic attacks went away. So, I dived in after that and did lots of research. People should do their research on all of the benefits. It helps slow the thinning of the gray matter in the brain. As you age, the gray matter in the brain gets thinner, and that’s where all the brain diseases can come from, like dementia and Alzheimer’s. It lowers blood pressure without meds. There’s so many benefits and it’s just 20 minutes a day. So to all you guys listening, I encourage you to get into a meditation practice. Especially in today’s world where we are just always on our phones and never present. Social media, all of it. It’s hard. You got to really kind of carve out time for yourself.

LPW: I agree. I agree. It’s very easy to wake up and look at the phone first thing in the morning and just be mindlessly scrolling, and you’re like, why am I even using this phone?

SANAA: Wasting time.

LPW:  Yeah, and you don’t even realize it.

SANAA: You don’t even realize it, wasting your life.

LPW: I’m super, super grateful to be able to talk with you today. Thank you so much. We really appreciate

SANAA: Thank you. That was great. I appreciate you.

In Her Shoes: Sanaa Lathan