To hear Sanaa Lathan tell it, she was quite literally born to perform.
The actress from The Affair and Contagion, now appearing in season three of HBO’s Emmy-winning hit Succession, notes her earliest exposure to acting was being on the Broadway stage thanks to her actress-dancer mother, Eleanor McCoy.
“I was in her stomach when she was a dancer in the original Alvin Ailey company,” says Lathan, 50, whose first name means “art” in Swahili. “Then she plopped me out and put me under the piano during dance rehearsals — I was running around backstage at The Wiz; I was around Eartha Kitt when I was just a baby.” Lathan’s father, Stan Lathan, was, and still is, a prolific TV director, having helmed titles that span from Sanford and Son to Dave Chappelle’s Netflix specials.
Yet when it came time to choose her own professional path, she did what any teenager would do: rebelled. “You always want to do the opposite of what your parents do,” says Lathan, who decided to seek a law degree — until she was spotted by a recruiter from the Yale School of Drama while in an after-school arts program at UC Berkeley as an undergrad. “[Yale] made me really kind of admit to myself I wanted it and gave me the courage to pursue it,” she says.
Once Lathan committed to her professional destiny, she pursued acting with full determination. When she landed her first film part in 1998’s campy Blade, she studiously read up on vampires and attended meetings with vampire aficionados. When she was up for the lead of 2000’s Love & Basketball, which would be her breakout role, Lathan auditioned repeatedly for five months. “I saw it as this story of a woman who is fighting for her dreams against all odds and a parallel to my auditioning — they wanted a basketball player they could teach to act as opposed to an actress who they could teach to play.” Noting that players in contention were being given acting lessons, Lathan demanded basketball lessons — and got them, leading to her landing the part and a BET Award for best actress.
Since then, she’s had a recurring voice role for years on Family Guy and starred in the action series Hit & Run, which Netflix canceled after one season despite positive reviews, shocking fans. “You win some and lose some,” she shrugs. “As soon as I’m done with the role, I’m done with it. I don’t like watching it. I move on to the next thing. I love stepping into a new perspective.”
The latest perspective is playing Lisa Arthur, a high-powered attorney who becomes embroiled in the Roys’ civil war on Succession. “I had a blast,” she says. “What stood out was the level of acting and writing, and I love that they let you play around with improv.” When asked about social media criticism of the show’s nearly all-white cast, Lathan quips, “Well, clearly they took the note.”
Restlessness during the pandemic lockdown inspired her to direct a short film in her house with her dog, followed by the actress scoring her first feature directorial gig — an adaptation of Angie Thomas’ novel On the Come Up, about an ambitious 16-year-old rapper. The Paramount Players project, now in preproduction, is proving to be the toughest assignment of her career, but Lathan wouldn’t have it any other way: “I want to be challenged and to use all of my talent. I have a lot to give.”
This story first appeared in the Oct. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.