Sanaa Lathan has triumphed in every medium, having won awards for films including Love and Basketball, acclaim for TV's Nip/Tuck, and a Tony Award nomination for her performance in the Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun. Earlier this year, she earned a Drama Desk Award nomination for playing the title role in Lynn Nottage's By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, in which she portrayed a young actress in 1930s Hollywood and the same character, now a grizzled superstar, many decades later.
Now, Lathan – who co-stars in Starz' hit series Boss – is reprising By the Way, Meet Vera Stark at Los Angeles' Gefffen Playhouse. She recently spoke to TheaterMania about the role, what Boss has done for her career, and why she enjoys voicing Donna Tubbs on FOX's The Cleveland Show.
THEATERMANIA: So did you miss Vera?
SANAA LATHAN: I didn't miss Vera, because I've been falling in love with other characters, which happens to me all the time. I did the play in New York for five months, and by the time I was done, I was ready to move on. Actually, I was not looking forward to rehearsals, because I had never done the same play twice. And then it turned out to be so fun, discovering new things. And honestly, I was so surprised that I didn't really have to relearn my lines. They came back quickly.
TM: Do you think the play will get maybe even a stronger reception in Los Angeles, because it's about the movie business?
SL: Yes. The people coming to the theater are the movers and shakers in Hollywood and I think they will relate to the scenes with studio heads and directors. I imagine a lot of the people will have had the same types of arguments the characters have. And even though it's a period piece, the cast is talking about the same things as the characters on our breaks. We talk about our dreams and how we would like to see more stories about people of color.
TM: The older Vera is very different than anything we've ever seen you do. Do you love playing her?
SL: Yes. I think I'm a character actress in a leading lady's body, but the industry doesn't really see me that way. When I was at Yale Drama School, I played Juliet, Irina, and Viola, but I also did the Good Person of Sichuan. I got some great roles early on.
TM: Your role on Boss is also a bit of a departure for you. Was it a fun gig?
SL: It was a great arc. Kelsey Grammer is one of the best actors I've ever worked with. There were also a lot of theater people in the cast, like Jonathan Groff, and lots of guest stars from the theater world, so there was a lot of talk about theater on set.
TM: How much did you know about Mona before you took the job?
SL: When I took the role, there was just a rough outline. Nothing had been written yet. But I know the caliber of the people who hired me and they assured me Mona would have some juice. And I have never played someone as political as Mona. She's very smart and self-assured, with a lot of integrity. She's not the vixen, not the ingénue; it's a different realm for me. I hope the part will change some people's perception of me. I feel like Vera that way, looking for the one part that will help me break out to another level.
TM: What kind of reaction have you been getting from the fans?
SL: I am on Twitter a lot, and people really like both Mona and the show; they're intrigued to see what happens next. And when I got back from filming the show in Chicago, my mom thought I seemed relaxed.
TM: I bet a lot of people don't know you voice Donna Tubbs on FOX's The Cleveland Show. Has that worked out the way you expected?
SL: I didn't think I would get this job. I had been on so many voiceover auditions, and never got callbacks, I didn't want to go. Thank god I got pushed into it. It has been so great just to have a job in between your other gigs, and it's something I can do from anywhere. There is a lot of struggle in being an actor; you need so much emotional strength, no matter what level of stardom you have, that it's nice to have something steady. And I don't have to work on the scripts; they know how to turn it out. And best of all, Donna just makes me laugh.
TM: I know you have a number of projects in development, including a movie called All In, about poker. Are you good at poker?
SL: It's a great script, but the truth is, I don't know how to play poker. If it gets made, I am going to have learn the game by reading Poker For Dummies.