The Sunday Conversation: Sanaa Lathan

Sanaa Lathan has a starring role in "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark" at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Sanaa Lathan has been a critics’ darling here and in New York in the title role of Lynn Nottage’s play “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” which runs through Oct. 28 at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. As Vera, Lathan plays an African American movie actress in the 1930s who can get only maid roles. Fast-forward to the present, where she costars as Mona Fredricks, the mayor’s assistant, in the second season of the Starz series “Boss,” which concludes Sunday.

Sanaa Lathan: The Sunday Conversation interview with Sanaa Lathan in the Oct. 14 Calendar section said that her TV series “Boss” would be airing its season finale that night. The season finale airs Friday. —

So your name is pronounced Sa-NAA?

Yes, like Sinatra without the “tra.”

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You really look like you’re having a blast in the second act of “Vera Stark,” when Vera is a blowsy, tipsy has-been. Were you channeling anyone in particular?

No. I watched a lot of interviews on YouTube, everybody from Bette Davis and Judy Garland to Nancy Wilson and Pearl Bailey. I watched tons and tons of video from those talk shows, like “The Mike Douglas Show” and Merv Griffin. They would drink and they would smoke, and they would have real conversations. There was a great one with Lucille Ball where she was actually really drunk. It was so fascinating to see how they had no self-consciousness about that. Everything is so polished now, and it’s all about telling a story and getting to the joke.

Vera is pretty out there, as opposed to most of your roles, which are basically normal people. Is that part of what attracted you to the play?

The play is just so well written. I was blown away by it when I first read it. I come from the theater, and I’ve done a lot of character work in the theater, but Hollywood stuff in film and TV, they’ve been more leading lady/ingenue type roles.

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Do you prefer theater?

I really prefer the actual experience of being onstage and living the character from beginning to end with the energy of the audience. There’s nothing that beats that feeling, and yet I really have trouble with the eight shows a week. We had two shows Saturday, two shows Sunday, and Mondays are our days off. Some people thrive on it; sometimes I wish there were two less shows a week.

Your mother, Eleanor McCoy, was an actress and a dancer with Alvin Ailey, yes? Did she deal with the same career limitations that are discussed in “Vera Stark,” limitations on her career? Although Alvin Ailey is a mostly African American company.


Yes, she was with the original company. She toured the world.

She had two incarnations. She was a dancer and she toured the world with Alvin Ailey, and she was in the company of the original “Wiz” on Broadway and the original “Timbuktu!” on Broadway. And then later on she moved into acting. She started to have some success, but then gave it up. I wouldn’t necessarily use my mother as an example.

I think that definitely, even since I’ve been in the business for the last 15 years, the opportunities are expanding for women of color. I’ve played so many different kinds of characters. Back then, in the 1930s, the roles were very, very limited. But I think it’s getting better. Would I like to see more stories about us, more variety? Yes. And yet I do think there’s progress being made. I think Hollywood is so driven by money, the people who are making the decisions are not necessarily reflective of the melting pot, so what stories are you going to want to tell? You’re going to want to tell stories about yourself. So I think the key is having filmmakers that are representative of all races and women as well.

Do you have any plans to go behind the camera?


Eventually. I have a couple of scripts that have been in development for a long time. It’s really about the right time in your career in terms of being able to produce something. And that time hasn’t happened for me yet. I know that one day all the pieces will come together.

You sound pretty optimistic.

You have to be. I wouldn’t have become an actress if I wasn’t. The first day at the Yale School of Drama, my acting teacher said, “One percent of the people who call themselves actors actually make a living at it.” I wouldn’t have gotten into this business if I was a realist.

Both “Boss” and “Vera Stark” are dark, although in different ways. Does that appeal to you?


Good storytelling appeals to me, good writing. I was such a fan of “Boss” before the opportunity for Mona even came up. I just want to be a part of quality storytelling — filmmaking, plays. [“Vera Stark” playwright] Lynn Nottage I think is going to be up there with August Wilson — prolific in her work and she’s really passionate about it.

Back to “Boss,” Kelsey Grammer’s portrayal of the Chicago mayor is pretty much the opposite of Frasier. Which character seems closer to the real Kelsey?

Kelsey is very different from both of them. He’s one of the kindest men I’ve ever worked with. Obviously it’s a very demanding role, and I never saw him say an unkind word to anybody. And he’s really funny, in between takes. There have been times when I’ve had to beg him to stop making me laugh, because I wasn’t going to get my character’s intention across.

Your dad, Stan Lathan, is a veteran TV director. What was it like growing up with two parents in entertainment?


It was great. I was in the theater a lot with my mother, in dance classes; she always had me doing different arts, but I was never a child professional performer. I think they just wanted me to focus on school, and I was a really good student. I didn’t decide until college that I wanted to pursue [acting], and in fact, if I’d ever seen anybody have a tantrum, a grown man, my dad really did not want me to become an actor. He knows that no matter how much talent you have that the road is rough and challenging. But he’s my No. 1 fan now. One of the benefits of having parents in the business is that there’s just that sense of knowing and understanding, so when you do go through the knockdowns, they get it. And that’s huge.


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