`Brown Sugar' star is growing

Sanaa Lathan says she has lots to learn

October 15, 2002|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

NEW YORK - Sanaa Lathan attended the University of California-Berkeley for her undergraduate degree and Yale Drama School to hone her craft. Neither experience compared to the education she received recently.

Lathan had just returned from Miami, where she finished acting with Denzel Washington in Out of Time.

"It really made me kind of step back and look at how much I have to learn," Lathan said in a Manhattan hotel room. "I did learn so much just by acting opposite him, seeing what he did on each different take. I really got a glimpse of where I can go."

Where she has been isn't bad, either. Lathan, 31, is now appearing as a hip-hop journalist who falls for her neighborhood pal in Brown Sugar, which opened Friday. Her most prominent work before was in Love & Basketball (2000) as a hoops star who wants to go pro with her beloved, played by her real-life boyfriend, Omar Epps. She was also Taye Diggs' girlfriend in The Best Man (1999).

Lathan teamed with Diggs again in Brown Sugar.

"It's just easy with her, and she's my friend," Diggs said. But even the comfort of friendship couldn't make their skin-and-satin love scene easy. "It would be like having your first kiss in a room full of 30 people and having it recorded," Lathan said. "It's not like you practice in your trailer."

Brown Sugar is a valentine to hip-hop, the urban poetry that pulsates to a musical beat. Lathan's character writes about it; Diggs' character produces it. They are lifelong friends pushed to confront their true feelings when Diggs is about to bust a move to the altar with Nicole Ari Parker. Lathan grooves to her own budding romance with a basketball hunk (Boris Kodjoe).

The classically trained Lathan is not a hip-hop fan, so she researched by hanging out with a music journalist and watching MTV.

"It's just part of the culture," she said. "It's almost everywhere on the periphery of my life. These days they sell laundry detergent with a rap song. It's so ingrained."

Lathan has gone to greater lengths to secure parts. For Love & Basketball, she trained for four months to reasonably imitate an athlete - and she didn't even have the job yet. For Disappearing Acts (2000), she gained 20 pounds.

Despite her commitment, crossover success a la Halle Berry has eluded Lathan.

"[Lathan is] one of our greatest actors, period," Brown Sugar director Rick Famuyiwa said. "She should continue doing what she's doing, not settling for roles to get paid."

Her visibility is growing, however. Lathan said that when people recognize her, they have a habit of staring. Now she breaks the ice by introducing herself. Her mother, Eleanor McCoy, was a dancer on Broadway, and her father, Stan Lathan, worked in television at PBS. Lathan shuttled between New York and Los Angeles once her parents got divorced.

She was an English major at Berkeley, briefly flirting with the idea of becoming a lawyer. Then an official from Yale Drama School came calling, and Lathan's focus changed. She starred in Shakespearean works on campus and soon landed off-Broadway gigs.

Lathan's father encouraged her to relocate for good to Los Angeles to take advantage of film and TV opportunities. It wasn't long before she was LL Cool J's date with one line of dialogue in the sitcom In the House. Film roles came her way in the Wesley Snipes vampire flick Blade and in The Wood, where she met Epps. On that subject, Lathan clams up harder than a Trappist monk.

The conversation warmed up when the subject turned to Out of Time. Lathan has built a steady career in urban movies. Out of Time is her first try at an old-style psychological thriller. Lathan proudly declared that she plays a "temptress who goes wacko." Washington, a two-time Academy Award winner, is a married cop who's having an affair with Lathan.

Out of Time not only gave her a chance to perform opposite a master, but it completed the roller coaster she rode on her last three scripts.

"With Love & Basketball, I was crying," she said. "Brown Sugar gave me a big smile. Out of Time, I got scared. But sometimes you need to do the thing you're scared about."

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