Don’t get it twisted.
Although she has decades of solid acting work under her belt and has racked up a pretty impressive list of credits, Sanaa Lathan doesn’t want anyone to think she’s “made it.” In fact, she’s the first one to tell you she hasn’t.
“I’m just a working actress trying to pay my mortgage,” she says during a recent interview at the Geffen Playhouse where, in the Gil Cates Theater, she will open tonight in the title role of the West Coast premiere of Pulitzer Prize winner (Ruined) Lynn Nottage’s comedy, By The Way, Meet Vera Stark.
“To someone on the outside looking in, it might look like I’ve made it,” she explains while sipping on a green tea latte from Starbucks. “It’s interesting when people come to my little house up in the hills, they always say, “˜You’re so modest.’ And, I’m thinking, “˜No, this is what I can afford.’Â Don’t get me wrong, I have been fortunate. I consistently work. But from my perspective, “˜made it’ means something else entirely. It means I’m at the point that I could take a couple of years off if I wanted to. That hasn’t happened yet, but I’m working on it.”
OK, she may not be there yet, but Lathan is giving “made it” a run for its money.
Since she decided to take a turn as an actress she has done Broadway. She’s been Off-Broadway. She played Emily in Our Town at South Coast Repertory. She starred as Maggie the Cat in the award-winning 2009 revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in London.
She has worked with Denzel Washington, Omar Epps, Taye Diggs, Simon Baker, Alfre Woodard, Taraji P. Henson, Blair Underwood, Kathy Bates, Tyler Perry and more. She’s done television. She voices the role of Donna Tubbs on Fox’s animated The Cleveland Show and The Family Guy and currently stars as Mona, the incorruptible chief-of-staff in the hit Starz drama, Boss, opposite Kelsey Grammer. She also appeared in Disappearing Acts and on Nip/Tuck.
She reprised her Tony-nominatedÂ role as Beneatha Younger in the ABC production of A Raisin in the Sun. Some of her film credits include Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, The Family That Preys, Out of Time, Something New, Alien Versus Predator, Brown Sugar, The Best Man, and Love and Basketball, for which she received a NAACP Image Award for best actress.
“People always ask how I’ve chosen my roles,” says Lathan.Â “They have chosen me. For every one I get, there are 10 I haven’t gotten. Somebody else got it. I just keep shooting.”
Nice to meet you
It’s a bit daunting when someone dressed in blue sweats, sneakers and a gray hoodie with her hair pulled up and back, walks into the room sans makeup and is more striking than some women dressed to the nines.
That’s Sanaa Lathan. She’s not only one of the industry’s busiest and versatile actors, she has a comfortable beauty that includes a big, sparkling smile; dark, dancing eyes; long, flowing locks and blushing, high cheek bones.
“I’m on my feet a lot for this show, which is why I’m dressed this way,” says Lathan, who is icing her knee between scenes after hurting it recently while working out. “I’m in every scene. That can be exhausting. Everyone else looks nice, but I usually come in looking just like this.”
This isn’t Lathan’s first time meeting Vera Stark. She originated the role last year Off-Broadway at the Second Stage Theatre. The show was helmed by Jo Bonney (American Night: The Ballad of Juan José at the Kirk Douglas earlier this year) who’s re-visiting Vera Stark at the Geffen, where she also staged The Break of Noon in 2011.
Bonney says she wanted to direct Vera Stark for several reasons.
“It was one of the most original, theatrical scripts I had ever read,” she says. “Lynn [Nottage] is dealing with a big topic, one that has great weight to it but she handles it with such humor and comes at it from so many unexpected angles.”
Bonney has nothing but praise for her leading actress.
“Sanaa is very smart dramaturgically and tremendously honest in her choices,” says Bonney. “So she develops a character that is very complex and familiar, whether she’s playing the heightened style of the 1930s or a more contemporary version. She brings great empathy and humor. The role asks for both comedic and dramatic skills and she has that range and ease with both. I always trust her instincts. If she questions a moment, I pay attention. The fact that she’s also tremendously charismatic and beautiful is a bonus.”
Kevin Carroll, Lathan’s co-star, longtime friend, confidante and, she admits, “go to” person when she’s preparing for a role, admits he’s also a sounding board for the actress.
“I love being a ‘go to’ person for Sanaa because the experience is always mutually beneficial,” says Carroll. “I leave our pow-wows inspired. I don’t know that Sanaa has ever really needed advice as much as a challenge in evaluating options in her approach and a dare to go further with ideas and see what happens. Because we have been friends for so long, we have been able to sift through personal nuances that fuel her integrity in the work. She is constantly searching, questioning and exploring ideas.Â At times I have been a sounding board in the foundation of the process. At other times we have taken field trips to search for insight on things as well as streamlined ideas from research that would be helpful in her creation of characters.”
By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, originally commissioned and developed by South Coast Repertory and Center Stage, is a comedy about a 1930s maid pursuing her dream to become a movie star. After landing a plum role in the same Southern epic as the woman she used to work for as a maid, Stark’s life takes a turn and she becomes a sort of pioneer who paves the way for up-and-coming black actresses. The play spans more than five decades (1930s to 2003), with Stark eventually losing her luster. Her influences over the years and her downward turn raise the question, just who is Vera Stark?
If you want to know, just ask playwright Lynn Nottage.
“Vera Stark is my answer to questions that I had about pioneering black actresses in Hollywood,” says Nottage. “Who were they?Â Â What were their struggles and how did they feel about the roles they were relegated to playing? And finally what was the emotional toll of battling racism in the workplace on a daily basis?Â Â Sanaa Lathan was absolutely our first choice when we were hunting for someone to play Vera Stark.Â Â We needed a talented, beautiful, adventurous and versatile actress because the role is very demanding and asks the performer to exercise a lot of rarely used acting muscles.Â Â The role requires that the actress age 40 years in the course of the play, and in addition she must move from humor to pathos with relative ease.Â Â Sanaa is simply amazing, and she owns the role.”
The role has taken on a life of its own. In an attempt to give the play more depth and mileage, Nottage developed a website that brought this fictional character to life. For those who visit the site, Vera Stark is/was a real actress. If you Google the name, Vera Stark, you’ll find a page featuring film scholar Herb Forrester, who is also fake. Nottage explains why she took such an elaborate route.
“By The Way, Meet Vera Stark was conceived as a transmedia piece,” says Nottage.Â Â “I wanted to tell the story of a fictional black actress on stage, on film and then finally online.Â Â I want the audience’s experience to spill out beyond the proscenium, and I invite them to continue to engage with the characters across another creative platform.Â Â In doing so, I hope the audience moves beyond my characters and (on their own) begin to investigate the lives of black film actors working in pre-code Hollywood.Â I am interested in new ways of storytelling and expanding character.Â Â At times the stage can be limiting, and digital media allows me to delve more deeply into the world of Vera Stark.Â Â It also allows me to continue to grow my characters long after the script is locked. Â I can pick up where the play left off.Â Â I think there is lovely and interesting conversation to be had between theater and digital media, particularly in the way in which the audiences interact and expand our understanding of character.”
Lathan’s on a role
Vera Stark is a role Lathan says she can sink her teeth into. She likes the character ““ “a lot”. She admits the two have a lot in common.
“We’re alike in that we’re both actresses, we’re black women and we’re really passionate about what we do and determined to succeed,” says Lathan. “We persevere. I have some of her sass. She’s a little sassy.”
When she was first sent the script before taking on the role in 2011, Lathan “˜”immediately” knew she wanted to play the part.
“When I read the script, I realized that writing like this comes few and far between,” says Lathan. “I had worked with Lynn [Nottage] on Por’Knockers. I knew her and knew what a great writer she was. My interest was piqued. You read this script and you can’t stop turning the page. You can’t believe what has come out of this woman’s imagination.”
Lathan says she is convinced that Nottage has a gift.
“She’s so awesome,” says Lathan. “She’s one of our treasures. She’s going to be like an August Wilson. Everyone needs to know her work.”Â (Those who haven’t seen Nottage’s first widely-produced play, Intimate Apparel, will get another opportunity this fall, when Pasadena Playhouse produces a revival of it, opening Nov. 11.)
“She goes deep,” Lathan continues. ” She’s a smart woman. She’s telling our stories and different aspects of our stories.Â She’s not only interested in African Americans. She’s interested in the human condition. This particular piece is funny. She gets the point across with humor and not preaching.”
Lathan says before she got the role in New York, she was asked to do a reading and considered it a “good way to dip your toes in the pool.”
“The reading went well and they offered me the show in New York,” says Lathan. “That’s when I felt scary about it. I was wondering what would it be like to play her. I was thinking this was going to be out of my comfort zone. But, it turned out to be such a charmed experience. We had standing room only every night. It was so much fun to do. Some people loved the show so much they came back three or four times.”
Lathan’s part in developing Stark came easy. She says it was Nottage who had the “hard part.”
“She made all of our jobs relatively easy,” says Lathan. “It’s grueling in time and effort, but it was layered and in depth and laid out. It was fun for me. The hard part is I’m in every scene. I am on my feet a lot. Hence the sneakers and how I look. Everyone else looks cute and I look like this, she said pointing to her sweats. I had done Maggie the Cat in London a year before and that was my test. That role really tested me on every level, spiritually, physically, emotionally. It was such a beautiful production. To have to do eight shows a week for six months was hard on me. It was like running a marathon. I felt beat up after that. Then, I got Vera and I wasn’t nervous about the schedule. In fact, I’m very relaxed.”
Before taking the stage as Vera Stark, Lathan prepares herself by doing what she’s always done since her drama school days.
“I’m old school,” she says. “I do everything I’ve learned. I go early to the theater. I get on stage and do all the vocal warm ups. I warm up my body. I’m warming up my imagination. I don’t know if it makes a difference, but I’ve been doing it so long that now I can’t not do it.”
Lathan is joined on stage by Carroll (Blues For An Alabama Sky at Pasadena Playhouse in 2011, Ebony’s Rep’s A Raisin in the Sun at the Nate Holden and the Kirk Douglas theaters, The Piano Teacher at South Coast Repertory, Angels in America and 45 Seconds From Broadway on Broadway) and also by Merle Dandridge, Amanda Detmer, Spencer Garrett, Mather Zickel (the Geffen’s Extraordinary Chambers) and Kimberly Hébert Gregory, an Off-Broadway Vera Stark cast member who is currently starring in Spike Lee’s film, Red Hook Summer.
She takes a medium
Film. Television. Theater.Â Each one of those does something for Lathan that the others don’t.
“Television and film give me money to pay my mortgage,” she offers. “You can’t survive on the theater. I actually lost money doing Vera Stark in New York. Now it’s only a four-week run here at the Geffen, so I’m able to do it. Thank God I have my television show and my cartoon. I wouldn’t be able to support myself. I love films. Nothing is more fun than sitting and getting lost in a movie. I love that. And I love the fact that in 10 years you’ll be able to watch Boss again.Â And then there’s the theater. There is a specialness of theater that is shared with the people who were there.Â There is also something very magical about the theater.”
When Lathan was in her 20s, she went to a church that taught Science of Mind. Parishioners set their intentions by writing it down.
One of the things Lathan, now 41, wrote was how she wanted the ability to go between the mediums of theater, television and film.
“I had totally forgotten I had written that until recently when someone asked me about my career,” says Lathan. “I guess there was something to that, huh?”
A New York native, Lathan comes from a family filled with talent. Her brother Tendaji is a popular dj. Her award-winning father Stan Lathan, is a director, producer and writer (Peabody Award for HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, a 2003 Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event for Def Poetry Jam on Broadway), The Soul Man, All of Us, Moesha, Martin, The Steve Harvey Show, Sunday Best).Â Her mother Eleanor McCoy performed on Broadway.Â Â Lathan remembers fondly going to work with her mother as a little girl and standing in the wings as the likes of Eartha Kitt took the stage.Â It was a learning experience she’ll never forget.
“That was a special time,” she says.
With entertainment blood running through her veins, Lathan, who wanted to study the craft of acting, went to the University of California at Berkeley, where she studied English and as an undergraduate performed with the Black Theatre Workshop. After a nudge from a recruiter she applied to and was accepted in the Masters program at the Yale School of Drama, where she graduated in 1995 with a MFA.
“The recruiter said a lot of people of color don’t consider the school of drama,” says Lathan. “It gave me the idea that this is something I could really do.”
After catching the bug, she performed in school productions like Othello, Romeo and Juliet, The Winter’s Tale, and Twelfth Night.
“Theater is my first love,” says Lathan.Â “Some people don’t know me that well in theater because of my movies. My mother was in the original Wiz and Timbuktu on Broadway. I grew up with theater. Those are my earliest memories. All my life I’ve been doing plays and going to drama school. At one time I was more comfortable on stage than in my own skin.”
Lathan says there is something special about the time spent building a character and then presenting it to a new audience every night.
“For me it’s such a thrill living a character from beginning to end,” she says. “With the audience there is an exchange of energy. It lights me up.”
There is no mistaking that Lathan loves the theater. However, she does have a bone to pick with the love of her life.
“The thing that bothers me about theater is that I’m not an eight-show-a-week girl,” she says. “After a couple of months, I’m really not that girl. And, it’s strange, I tend to choose the grueling roles — physically.Â Having one day a week off makes me feel like”¦.well, after a while you start to feel like you’re a slave to theater. Six shows would make me happy. Those two extra shows just make me mad.”
By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, Geffen Playhouse, 10866 Le Conte Avenue, WestwoodÂ 90024. Opens tonight. Plays Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm and 7 pm. Through Oct. 28. Tickets: $37-$77. www.geffenplayhouse.com. 310-208-5454.
***All By The Way, Meet Vera Stark production photos by Michael Lamont