“I think I’m a character actress in a leading lady’s body, but the industry doesn’t really see me that way.” — Sanaa Lathan

It’s her birthday today.

Sanaa Lathan is a wonderful actress: fluid,funny, unconventional in some of her responses, and with deep wells of emotion that you can feel- in a visceral way, coming off the screen. You don’t catch her working. If she had a “type” I would say: Leading Lady, End-Stop. She’s in the Julia Roberts category level. She has that whatever-it-is something that makes an audience invest powerfully in her character’s happiness, a requirement for a romantic lead. Why do some people have this and some people don’t? Who knows. It probably has to do with vulnerability. The current generation of actors have a tendency to see vulnerability as weakness. (Lest you think I’m generalizing: seek out acting teachers. Ask them what they think.) If you play a character without vulnerability, or a character where vulnerability is only paid lip service to (painful backstory, moments of stress or fear), then you don’t get audience identification with staying power. If you only want to be an inspirational “badass”, then you forget to be human. Sanaa Lathan is DEEPLY human.

I’ve been a fan for some time, ever since I first saw (and fell in love with) Love and Basketball.

Recently, in my piece on “Tomboys in Cinema”, I wrote about Lathan’s performance in that film, and how she represents the tomboy coming out of adolescence – something that few “tomboy films” address. It’s one of the missing pieces.

And then came Something New.

Something New kind of came and went, barely making a ripple. This is such a shame. People bemoan the lack of rom-coms, or, hell, romances, period. But here’s one. And it’s a good one. Take notice! It’s a conventional romance with the added interest of the potentially explosive interracial theme, all beautifully and sensitively portrayed, peppered with insider details. It feels inhabited, rather than described from the outside. The scene where Lathan and her new boyfriend ( Simon Baker), get caught out in the rain and she freaks out about her hair – and he has no idea why – is a particularly good example. Something New does not re-invent the wheel. As a matter of fact, it leans on the cliche, on the expected tropes, all while reversing and revising the so-called “norm”: A workaholic Black woman, groomed by her family to be a success, falls in love with her white gardener, the “help”, essentially. It’s the typical rich-lady-falls-in-lust-with-the-groundskeeper storyline, except for the obvious: minority actors are often used in these cliched storylines as objects of lust and/or agents of sexual freedom. Those with brown/black skin are seen, in the cliche, as more “connected” to their sexuality, to the earth, whatever, and they are there to help the white woman/man loosen up – teach them how to dance, in a particularly tired example. Condescending though this cliche may be, Something New acknowledges it, while turning it inside out. Here, the woman is Black, a nose-to-the-grindstone former debutante, sexually conservative, uptight even. Her world is populated by the wealthy Black elite, and when the hot sweaty WHITE gardener shows up, she is unprepared for her primal response to him. Innocent lust has had no place in her life before this. She doesn’t know what to do with it or how to handle it. Watch Lathan navigate these minefields. She is our “way in”. She’s an amazing guide: messy and emotional and flawed and lovable.

The thing about Sanaa Lathan as an actress is … and it’s important, although it may sound simplistic or even silly: your heart goes out to her. Not every young actress has this. You want Lathan to be happy. All great romantic female leads have this, from Irene Dunne to Natalie Wood to Kate Winslet. You worry about these people a little bit. They aren’t superwomen “badasses”. They may be strong, but they are conscious of a LACK. They have yearnings and feelings and are capable of feeling pain and disappointment, and so your heart goes out to them, you hope for them, you invest in their happiness. Investment draws you into relationship with them. It is a rare contract between an audience and an actress, and not all actresses have it. You can’t try to foster this contract (although people of course try). When you are an actress in a romantic film, and you are the lead, the audience must be on your side, must want what you want. They ROOT for you. A romantic film is basically a sports film. The triumph of love is like winning the playoffs, and the audience must feel this. Sanaa Lathan has it.

The character in Love and Basketball, a fiery-tempered tomboy, is nothing like the uptight, vaguely sad and lonely career woman in Something New. Not the same person at all. This shows her range.

I also have to mention Nappily Ever After, which I reviewed for Ebert. I wrote about her work in one of the scenes – it’s next-level kind of work and it should have gotten more attention, and it would have if people paid more attention to acting.

Her face, even with that faint scar on her right cheek, maybe even because of the scar, is made for the movies. It’s a very beautiful face, but it’s also very human, open, itself. Emotions are not strived for, or sought after by the actress, they are experienced, and every fluid moment of thought and unspoken feelings flicker across her face in waves. You don’t catch her pushing. Ever. She goes through all the peaks and valleys of emotions in Something New. The scenework between Lathan and Baker is moving, surprising, and, at times, powerful. The script is intelligent, and treats both its characters with respect. This is a movie for grownups, about grownups.

Lathan’s vulnerability in Something New is that much more touching because of the mask she feels she must put over it (the same is true in Love & Basketball, although the mask has different qualities there). She has a moment in Something New where she is given a long-sought-after important promotion, and as she struggles to keep her cool, she can no longer do so, and a smile explodes across her face, and it’s a smile that has so much in it I find myself in tears every time I watch. This is what being accessible as an actress means. That smile reaches out of my television and grabs me … and by that point in the movie, I already want what she wants. I hope her hopes. I yearn for what she yearns. I want her to have it all. I feel the triumph of that moment with her.

If this were a just and fair world, Lathan would be one of America’s premiere leading ladies. But as it is, she’s a great asset to the industry, and a counterpoint to the Hollywood star-making machine, which has a tendency to churn out or push forward generic “types”.

Sanaa Lathan is not generic. She has in her all of the qualities of the great leading ladies through the ages, but – just like them – she is herself. She is an original.

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5 Responses to “I think I’m a character actress in a leading lady’s body, but the industry doesn’t really see me that way.” — Sanaa Lathan

  1. Pingback: The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for week of April 15 | Parallax View

  2. Carolyn Clarke says:

    I love this woman and I am so glad you like her, too. Something New is one of my favorite movies and I watch it whenever it plays which is very rarely. Everyone in that movie does a great job. I know those kind of people and everyone is spot on but my favorite scene is with her father in the bathroom and the ‘mutt’ speech. That movie introduced me to Simon Baker who also doesn’t get enough credit. He plays it so well. He loves her – full stop.

    • sheila says:

      The scene with the dad kills me. I love him! Such a well-written scene. And the other debutante in the bathroom, shocked to see a man in there. Him: “I’m a doctor. I’ve seen it all. Handle your business.” ha! There are so many great little details like that!

      // He loves her – full stop. //

      He totally does! He’s “in” from the first blind date. I love how both of them are given space in the movie to be complicated – sometimes he’s right, sometimes she is – and a lot of times they just say things awkwardly, that end up hurting the others’ feelings – which is so real!

      I love the friend group, too. Each of those women are fantastic and I totally believe that those 4 women have been friends for years. Chosen family.

      So glad to hear your thoughts on it.

      You’re right – it plays rarely. and … so many people seem to have not heard of it. I have introduced a lot of people to it and I will continue to do so!

      This kind of adult romance barely exists anymore in cinema. I love it!

  3. Carolyn Clarke says:

    One more thing. Watch her in The Best Man. Not a great movie by any means. Just because the entire cast is black doesn’t make any of the standard cliches any better (except dance par ty at the end) but it’s fun to watch and Nappily Ever After.

    • sheila says:

      Oh yeah, The Best Man!

      I also love her in Contagion – not sure if you’ve seen that. It has eerie resonance with our global-pandemic era. A friend of mine is in it! But she has a great little arc and I was happy to see her.

      That scene in Nappily Ever After when she shaves off her hair legit blows me away – it was one of my favorite acting moments of that year.

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