Sanaa Lathan on Feminism, Fashion, and Defying the Laws of Aging

Photo: Derek Blanks

In 1996, Sanaa Lathan made her acting debut on an episode of In the House, a sitcom starring LL Cool J as a washed-up football player who rents out his mansion to a young family. Since then, she’s played an aspiring professional athlete in Love & Basketball, a Centers for Disease Control doctor’s wife in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, an environmental technician and professional ice climber in AVP: Alien vs. Predator, and more. “The fun of acting to me is to be able to be a storyteller,” she tells Yahoo Style. Ahead of her newest film, Now You See Me 2, in which the dynamic 44-year-old plays an FBI boss, Lathan talks feminism, fashion, defying the laws of aging, and as a 20-year veteran, offers lessons on how to survive in Hollywood.

Yahoo Style: Tell me about your role in Now You See Me 2.

Sanaa Lathan: I play Natalie Austin; she’s deputy director of the FBI and she’s really just trying to bring justice to whomever the bad guys are. And that’s one of the big parts of the movie. In her mind, are they bad or are they good? She’s Mark Ruffalo’s boss, and also when she was coming up in the academy she really looked up to him and modeled him in terms of her integrity for her job, so she has a bit of a moral conundrum.

I loved that you were his boss. That was a great casting move. The movie very subtly fought gender stereotypes. While it’s a very male-heavy movie, the two main roles that women do have seem to take jabs at the establishment.

I love that. I think that’s why this big adventure blockbuster type of movie got such a great cast [the ensemble includes Lizzy Caplan, Jesse Eisenberg, Dave Franco, Woody Harrelson, and David Radcliffe]; that’s one of the things that drew me to it when they offered me the role. Usually you don’t see this caliber cast in such a popcorn kind of movie.

You’re also starring in Shots Fired this fall playing a cop. What draws you to these law enforcement roles?

They’re completely different. I’m playing an investigator [in Shots Fired]. Shots Fired is the 10-hour special-event movie that we’re doing for FOX, and I play Ashe. They’re both in law enforcement, but these two women would never be in the same room. They’re completely worlds apart. We call Ashe “Bad Ashe” because she’s a bad a**; the ends justify the means for her. Her biggest priority is bringing justice — and she’ll do it in any way possible and she’s great. Shots Fired was inspired by everything that’s happening right now and has been happening for years. It’s bringing to life all of the racial tensions and police shootings that have been happening to African-Americans and the Black Lives Matter movement. I’m so excited to be working on it; it’s really powerful, and I can’t wait for the world to see it.

In both of these roles, your fashion isn’t really a main focus; you’re very dressed down in business-professional looks. 

The costume designer [on Now You See Me 2] was so great because she had me in pencil skirts, cute boots, and this uniform that [the FBI] wears but it was kind of chic. Ashe [from Shots Fired] is very anti-uniform. Because she’s an investigator, she doesn’t have to wear one, so she literally wears jeans and combat boots and leather jackets and plaid shirts. She’s not girly at all. I think one of the reasons why I became an actress was because I love playing dress up in all kinds of ways and it really just depends on my mood, but the red carpet is obviously one of the ways to play another version of yourself, a larger-than-life character, like, “OK, now I’m playing movie star.”

So what’s your personal style like?

I wish you could see me right now — you would laugh. I’m in sweats and Crocs and I look thugged-out ghetto. I also have a baseball cap on because I’m on the way to set. When you go to set, there’s no point in dressing because as soon as we get there we take off our clothes. But generally I would say in my day-to-day life I’m not a girl who’s going to walk around and do errands all glam. I love comfort, so my style is whatever’s comfortable. In the spring and summer, I’ll wear a dress with flip-flops; it’s easy. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a “fashionista.” For me that’s just too much work, but I do love dressing up for characters, and I do love getting dressed up for press and red carpets.

In the past two decades you’ve chosen some really great roles, most of which have been very feminist and made statements. How have you chosen your roles throughout your career?

For me, I love that these roles and I have found each other. I kind of don’t feel like it’s necessarily such a straightforward [thing], like I picked these out of a number amazing roles that maybe weren’t so feminist. It just so happened that these were the scripts that I got. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and there have been a lot of roles that I lost out to other actresses for, and I always believe in kind of like a higher design and these are the roles that I guess I was “supposed to play.” But I’m a true actress in the sense that I don’t have a political agenda when I’m acting. The fun of acting to me is to be able to be a storyteller. Sometimes characters don’t necessarily have to be positive; they can be going through a negative journey in their life to serve the story that’s being told. I’m so proud and happy that people are connecting to these roles that I want to play.

Speaking of your longevity, your skin is amazing. What is your routine?

When I was about 5, my mom got really, really sick. She almost died and they couldn’t figure out what it was. She went to every doctor in the country; nobody could help her. Then she finally found this dietician and herbalist who was completely not a regular kind of doctor, and he healed her. So my whole childhood she was very healthy; we had a diet that wasn’t macrobiotic but it was close to that, we were doing brown rice and no sugar and not a lot of meat. She was very clean in terms of her eating way back before people were really doing it. People are more conscious about eating nowadays. So even though I eat everything, if you go to my house, look in my fridge, I think a staple of my diet is to be very clean. You’re going to look like what you put in your body, so I generally try to keep it as fresh, raw, and colorful as possible. Sticking to lots of juices, fruits, and vegetables, and I swear if I go through a period where I’m eating bad and I’m eating out a lot, you can literally — forget about the waistline — you can see it in my face. I think people always want to put all of these things on their skin, creams and serums and all these expensive things, but it’s really about what you’re putting in your body.

On the theme of lastingness, how have you been able to maintain friendships with people such as Gabrielle Union and Regina Hall in Hollywood for so many years?

I think a lot of these friendships are not necessarily everyday friendships, if there’s an understanding that maybe I won’t talk to you for a couple months but then we can completely pick up where we left off. And then I do have the everyday friends. With the everyday friends, it’s important like any relationship to have good communication. I think when people really allow others to grow and change and don’t judge that I think that you can have enduring relationships. So I think that the ones that I’m close to are the ones that do that. We disagree and talk about it, but there’s never grudges. We bicker and argue and then get over it. Like you watch children fight; they don’t hold grudges. They fight, they cry, and they get over it.

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