Standing in front of a bathroom mirror with clippers in hand, Sanaa Lathan’s mind is racing. The moment, nearly two years in the making, is finally here. She is about to shave her head, with an entire film crew behind her waiting to capture it. While many of Hollywood’s leading ladies, including Charlize Theron and Natalie Portman, have shaved their heads for action blockbusters, Lathan’s cut is a defining moment for not only her character but is an invitation to women of color to embrace their natural hair.
In Nappily Ever After, an adaptation of Trisha R. Thomas’ book of the same name, Sanaa Lathan plays Violet Jones, an advertising executive who seems to have it all. But when she is blindsided by a breakup, she embarks on a journey of self-discovery that begins with a dramatic hair makeover.
When Lathan revealed her new look on Instagram last year, the Love & Basketball star was met with an outpouring of support. Unlike the physical transformations of other actors, Lathan’s new look holds a larger significance. In an age when social media feeds and ad campaigns filled with women of color embracing their natural hair, Nappily Ever After feels like the perfectly-timed love letter to women of color who have felt for years as though they could not embrace their natural beauty.
EW spoke with the actress about cutting off her hair, embracing natural beauty, and the importance of Nappily Ever After in 2018.
How did you get involved in this project?
I came on as a producer and helped develop the script… We shot it last year, [and] I can’t believe how quickly a year has gone by. At first, obviously knowing that she was going to shave her head, I was like, ‘Oh no, I’m not shaving my head. We’ll just get a really good bald cap.’ In today’s age, we have bald caps that look so authentic, I even did my research, I saw movies…I was in true denial. Then, as I kind of dived into Violet’s journey, and really thought about the themes of the movie, I just knew that I couldn’t not shave my head, so I went from there.
Why did you feel this was an important film to make?
It’s kind of the perfect timing…right now in our culture, Hollywood and marketing industries — there’s no excuse to not be inclusive anymore. We’ve seen that audiences come and show up for movies and shows that represent all people.
One of my wishes always, when I was coming up in this industry, was that the Hollywood that I work in really represents the world that we live… I feel like we’re making progress. We’re seeing it finally. It’s a long time coming and there’s still a lot of work to be done, but this is kind of a great time for this discussion about standards of beauty and how we’ve been conditioned to believe that there’s only one standard of beauty, the European standard of beauty, and hair is kind of a metaphor for that.
Hair, for women of all races, is kind of like a symbol of beauty. So, I just love that this is kind of a love story about falling in love with your own unique self and your own unique beauty.
What was the experience of shaving your head like?
It was intense… I had butterflies for the week before because I knew that it was very crucial for Violet’s journey and it was a one-shot deal and there was the added thing of I’m shaving my head. Then there was, what is my head going to look like? So, I purposely decided I wasn’t going to think about what emotions I wanted to play. I wanted to go into it completely as Violet in the scene and just see what came up, and it was really surprising. It was really an emotional rollercoaster, so many emotions that came through. It was terrifying, but like most terrifying things, once you jump, it turns out to be surprisingly great. I actually continued shaving my head for four months after we finished the film because it felt so freeing, so good.
What was going through your head as you looked at yourself in the mirror and began shaving your hair off?
Violet’s kind of in crisis. She’s just been broken up with, she’s drunk, she’s depressed. So, as an actor, you go into the scene with all of that. I’m taking Violet into the scene, but it was really interesting because as I was doing it, there’s the duality because you’re looking in the mirror and I’m really doing it. I think in the movie it’s like four minutes, but the whole scene we actually shot pre-editing was 10 minutes. So it took a whole 10 minutes of shaving and I swear, you’re not thinking in that moment. I wasn’t thinking. You’re just on this rollercoaster ride of emotions, I don’t even know how to describe it.
There’s a great moment in the film where your character says that women can wear any hairstyle they want to, it’s having the option to wear it naturally that you’re advocating for. Can you speak to that?
That’s actually something that I wanted to highlight because I really didn’t want people to feel like we were saying, if you don’t wear your hair natural, you’re doing a bad thing. Because weaves, wigs, I mean I’m sitting in my closet right now and I’m looking at about 12 wigs on wig heads right now. It’s part of my job, but I also believe that at this point in history, yes, it kind of came out of a conditioning that maybe our kinky hair is not as beautiful, but now we’ve kind of claimed it as our own and wigs, weaves, straightening your hair, wearing it curly, wearing it natural, it’s all an expression of all who you want to be that day. It’s almost like hair can be an accessory.
We no longer have to fit into this one little box. So the message really is: yes, embrace your natural hair as beautiful, but you can do whatever you want.
In press for The Perfect Guy and American Assassin you a lot about spoke about colorblind casting. However, Nappily Ever After feels very specific to a black experience. Has your perspective on centralizing race in the story changed?
I feel like this is a specific story about black women and their hair, but it’s so universal. There are two different points of view on this. I feel like there is more colorblind casting now. I think the public is demanding that we’re more inclusive with our casting choices, you’re seeing that. I’m finally starting to see some progress in the movies that are coming out and on TV, but it’s still so long to go. I just always want the movies and the TV shows that we are watching to reflect the world that we live in and at the same time, I love that you can have a story about a black woman’s experience with her specifically black hair and yet it’s still kind of a metaphor for what all women go through.
How did playing Violet shift your relationship with your natural hair?
I am loving it. Even though I was intellectually aware and knew that my natural hair was on par with any European hair, I still am a victim of the conditioning. There are days — I have a short, what I call #twa tiny, weenie, afro and there are days when I wish I had hair. Then there are days when I’m loving this. It feels so me now. It feels so the new me and I’m still a woman, I still have insecurities and doubts about myself at times, but I definitely feel like me doing what they call “the big chop” has kind of seeped into my outlook on life, my perspective on life in terms of kind of taking more risks and stepping outside whatever boxes I have put myself in or society has put me in. It’s definitely kind of started that conversation for me internally.