Sanaa Lathan is as beautiful as they come. Playful, aggressive, and effortlessly cool, she’s undeniably an emerging talent. Plus, she’s nice enough to pick up your napkin when you knock it off the table.
But her jump shot? Pathetic. Which wouldn’t be a problem if her potential breakout role weren’t in a movie called Love & Basketball. ”I was horrible! Horrible, horrible, horrible,” says the 26-year-old actress of the lack of skill that almost kept her from starring in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s drama about the relationship between two African-American neighbors. ”Thank God I can act.”
No surprise there: Born into a showbiz family — her father, Stan Lathan, is a prolific TV director (Roc, The Steve Harvey Show), her mother, Eleanor McCoy, is an actress who danced with Alvin Ailey — Sanaa grew up surrounded by performers. After stints at the Yale Drama School and Off Broadway, she headed west. ”Dad said, ‘You’re young, you ought to be in L.A.,”’ she remembers, picking at a plate of nuts in a Manhattan hotel lounge. ”And I was like, ‘I don’t wanna! Nooooo!’ So, of course, I loved it.”
Parts on such TV shows as Moesha and Lateline led to memorable supporting roles in The Wood (as Omar Epps’ grown-up teenage sweetheart) and The Best Man (as Taye Diggs’ girlfriend), and she was soon auditioning for the role of Love & Basketball‘s Monica Wright — a hot-tempered ballplayer who eventually falls for the boy next door. ”I put her on the court and thought, okay, well at least she looks like a ballplayer,” says writer-director Prince-Bythewood. ”Then she started dribbling and it was like…aw, s—!” The filmmaker kept searching for a court-savvy actress, even trying out professional players. In the meantime, she hired a WNBA coach to work with Lathan. After four months of training, Lathan finally passed muster and Epps was tapped as her costar (”To get paid to flirt with Sanaa every day was great,” he laughs). The film premiered to acclaim at January’s Sundance Film Festival. Now Lathan and Prince-Bythewood are working together again, on an HBO adaptation of Terry McMillan’s Disappearing Acts, costarring Wesley Snipes.
”At the Sundance screening, I think we were the only black people in the audience. Hell, I think we were the only black people there,” Lathan recalls. ”And 1,500 people gave it a standing ovation. I had middle-aged white men coming up to me, so moved. And I couldn’t help thinking ‘That was great; that was as it should be.’ ”