Sanaa Lathan has managed to forge an enviable stage and screen career over the past 15 years. The 42-year-old actress, who was raised in New York and Los Angeles, has appeared in such films as "Love and Basketball," "Something Different" and "Alien vs. Predator." She also was Tony-nominated for her performance in the 2003 production of "A Raisin in the Sun" and starred as Maggie the Cat in a critically acclaimed British rendering of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." In her latest film, "The Best Man Holiday," a sequel to 1999's "The Best Man," she reprises her role as Robyn, the successful chef-wife of a writer and teacher played by Taye Diggs. Lewis Beale spoke with the UC-Berkeley and Yale graduate by phone from L.A.
"The Best Man Holiday" is the sequel to a film that was made nearly 15 years ago. What did you think when you were approached to do it?
I actually was like, "Why?" Malcolm is a friend of mine, and it was maybe three years before we shot it that he talked about it. I asked why are we doing this? Who wants to see a sequel so many years later? But my thought is, it's always about the script. So he wrote it and pitched it , and we were on the edge of our seats.
How much of the character that you play in this film is like you in real life?
With each character, you can't help bring yourself to it. I'm definitely a glass half-full person; I have a little hippie in me. In the first movie, she's definitely the glass half-full to [Taye Diggs'] glass half-empty. She's a free spirit, can't find her calling. By this movie, she's found her passion -- she's an executive chef at a well-known restaurant.
So does that mean you're really a foodie?
I'm a great cook, I'm a real foodie. I believe anyone who loves food can be a great cook, if they practice. It just comes naturally to me, and I love it. I love playing with recipes, and I love watching the Food Network -- "Chopped," "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives."
A lot of actresses of a certain age talk about how good parts get tougher to find. I wonder, now that you're over 40, if your age and your race have made any difference in that respect?
It's been the opposite for me. I've had some of the most exciting work of my career. I got to play Maggie the Cat in the West End, and I got an Olivier Award for that. I did a Lynn Nottage play Off-Broadway to much critical success. I did a season on "Boss" with Kelsey Grammer. I guess that's the glass half-full side of me that doesn't look at the age and the race.
What is it about theater that you like so much?
The experience of being onstage is the most fulfilling feeling in terms of the art of acting. When you do a film, it's out of order, and when you do see it, it's several months later. Being onstage, every night is different. The thing I don't like about theater is it is all-consuming, eight shows a week. There's nothing else you can be doing.
What was the breakthrough moment in your career?
"Love and Basketball." In terms of the business. It was a starring role in a studio film, which is rare for people of color. People really connect with that movie. It's the love story. The writer-director crafted a beautiful coming-of-age story, one that anyone can relate to, and the fact she is trying to succeed in this arena that doesn't take women seriously. Everybody likes a good love story.
I have to admit, I also love you in "Alien vs. Predator."
People love that, too. I was in Prague for six months shooting that movie. It was one of the most challenging acting jobs, because I had to wear the same outfit all the time. You know, there's that joke that the minority character always gets killed off, but I not only survived, I saved the world.
Your dad is a director and your mom a dancer-actress. What kind of advice did they give you about the business?
It was more about understanding, being an ear, understanding what I have gone through. It's great to have people who have been through it. One of the things my dad told me is just to always do your best work. My mom was always, "It's not about you, it's giving your best work." One of the things I learned is perseverance.
Any advice you would give to up-and-comers?
You have to find a way to develop a steel exterior and maintain a soft heart. If you don't have a sensitive heart, you can't be a good actor, but you have to have that steel spirit, because the business of acting is brutal. I don't care who you are, it's brutal.