10 questions for Sanaa Lathan
Lathan takes charge of Chicago in the powerful political TV drama “Boss.”
For her latest project, Sanaa Lathan is starring opposite Kelsey Grammer (who plays Chicago's ruthless Mayor Tom Kane) as his Chief of Staff in the second season of the Starz cable television series ”Boss,” airing Friday nights at 9 pm. Lathan has numerous film credits, including “The Best Man,” “Brown Sugar,” “Love & Basketball,” “Alien vs. Predator,” and “Out Of Time," and also starred on Broadway in 2004 and received a Tony Award nomination for her role in “A Raisin In The Sun.”
Lathan recently sat down with Loop 21 to discuss her “Boss” character, “The Best Man” sequel, and campaigning for Barack Obama.
Loop 21: After starring in several films, now you have your first starring role in a TV series. Why did you decide to accept the role of the Mayor of Chicago's Chief of Staff Mona Fredericks?
Sanaa Lathan: I was a fan of the show before I knew there was a possibility of a role. It is one of my favorite shows on television. I told my agent that I would consider a role on cable television because of the quality of cable programming. So when I was approached about being in the cast, I signed on even before the role was written. I liked the show that much and had faith in the writers to create a character that I believed in. For me, accepting a role is about the caliber of the people and the writing. The writing is outstanding and Kelsey Grammer, who plays the Mayor of Chicago Tom Kane, gives the performance of a lifetime.
Loop 21: It’s rare for African American women to get roles portraying powerful government officials. How do you feel about getting this role?
S.L.: I am proud of this role because my character is the moral center of the show. She’s surrounded by immoral politicians. Mona cares about the community and she stands up for what she believes in. She works for Alderman Ross who is the Mayor’s biggest rival but accepts a job with the mayor because he has the real power, and she believes he can make a difference in the community. She fights for the preservation of the housing project on the South side of Chicago where she grew up. It is a fictional show but it is very realistic. We've had some outrageous happenings in the show such as when a vote in the city council was going against the Mayor. On cue from the Mayor, a council member suddenly started a fight to disrupt the meeting so the vote had to be postponed, allowing the mayor more time to get the votes he needed. I said to myself, 'This could never happen,' but it could actually happen because Chicago has a history of corrupt politics.
Loop 21: How are you like your character, Mona Fredericks?
S.L.: We are very different. She is a lot smarter than me politically. We both share a passion for what we believe in. She is dedicated to her job in politics. I am dedicated to my job as an actress and I choose each role very carefully. It is important to me to portray a positive image. Integrity has been very important in my career and in the projects that I do.
Loop 21: For years we’ve heard about the lack of roles for African American actresses. This year, Octavia Spencer won an Academy Award and Viola Davis received a nomination for roles in “The Help.” You and Kerry Washington (in “Scandal” on ABC) star in acclaimed television series. Is the situation better now for African American actresses?
S.L.: It seems so. I see my peers working more. I’ve been acting for over 15 years and now more black women are able to make a living acting. You see more of us in major films and television series. The range and quality of roles for African American actresses is expanding and we are able to show our diversified talents. It is getting better and we want it to continue to improve.
Loop 21: Are there more roles for African American women on television than in film?
S.L..: Yes there are, because there are not as many films being made as in the past and now there are more television shows and cable networks. So there are more opportunities on television. I see fewer opportunities in film but with more cable networks being launched and great writers, directors and producers working in cable, there are more outstanding TV series like “Boss” with roles for African American women.
Loop 21: Earlier this year, you won an award for your starring role in the off-Broadway play “By The Way, Meet Vera Stark.” You are now starring in the play in Los Angeles. Why is this project so important to you?
S.L.: I am thrilled to be in this play. It was written by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage. It is important to me because it is a homage to the great black actresses like Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen and Theresa Harris who survived portraying maids in films. They paved the way for me and other African American actresses. The writing is brilliant. It is funny and poignant. In the first act I play an aspiring actress in her 20s in the 1930s. She works as a maid. In the second act it is 1970 and she is 68 so I age from a character in her 20s to being 68 years old in the play.
Loop 21: You are now involved in three projects—“Boss,” “By The Way, Meet Vera Stark,” and “The Cleveland Show” on Fox, as the voice of Donna Tubbs. What is it like playing such different roles?
S.L.: I am very blessed and very lucky. Each role has different challenges and I enjoy the variety. I love the intensity of “Boss” and I love my character in the show. It is very exciting for me to appear in “By The Way, Meet Vera Stark” in LA, where I live, after doing the play in New York City. Performing for a live audience is very invigorating. Doing “The Cleveland Show” is such a fun job. It only takes 45 minutes a week and I laugh all the time. Each role is very rewarding.
Loop 21: In 1999, you starred with Terrence Howard, Taye Diggs, Nia Long and Morris Chestnut in “The Best Man.” How do you feel about the possibility of a sequel?
S.L.: I am very excited. I would love to do a sequel. It was a great cast and I look forward to seeing and working with everyone again. It is over a decade later and all of us have matured so much as actors. There is a great script for the sequel. I can't divulge any details but we see how the characters have grown since the original film in 1999. We did a reading for the studio and now we’re waiting for everything to be finalized. I have such fond memories of shooting the original. It was one of my first major films. I knew Taye from doing “The Wood.” I was friends with Nia. I met Regina Hall who is now one of my best friends. It was a fun script and it was the beginning of our careers. We all got along. It was so much fun shooting and a lot of laughter. I believe you could feel the energy on screen.
Loop 21: Election Day is less than two months away. You were extremely active in President Obama’s first campaign. What are your favorite memories of campaigning for Obama in 2008?
S.L.: I had never campaigned before and it was a great experience. I felt it was important to be involved in supporting such a dynamic man. He gave us all hope for our country. We traveled to several cities and it was exciting getting people registered. We were part of history in the election of America’s first African American president. I remember our last stop was in Las Vegas. We were trying to get out the vote in a grass roots effort. So we would go to churches, beauty shops, and barber shops. I loved seeing the reaction on people's faces when they saw me walk in campaigning for Obama. When they recognized me they could not believe I was there face to face with them. They were so happy to meet me and kept talking about seeing me in various movies. I let them know I was there for a very important purpose, to get them involved in the political process. That was the best part of campaigning, seeing people who may not have voted commit to registering and voting for Obama. Then on election night when he was announced as the winner, I knew our efforts had paid off and it was a moment I will never forget. I'm hoping he will be re-elected and I am campaigning for him locally here in Los Angeles, but because of my play “By The Way, Meet Vera Stark” I am not able to travel to different cities for Obama as I did in 2008.
Loop 21: Can you share a favorite memory of President Obama?
S.L.: I met him in during the campaign in 2008 before he was elected. I was impressed with how cool he was. There was so much pressure on him and so much was expected of him. He was attempting to break down huge barriers. There was an incredible weight on his shoulders but you could not tell by seeing him and talking to him. I was struck by his confidence and his assuredness. Just looking into his face gave you faith in him. Those are the qualities you want in a person running the country. When he was elected I knew he would need another term to correct the problems he inherited. The Republicans are doing everything they can to stop him but I believe that once again people will know he is the best man to be president.