Q&A: Sanaa Lathan Talks Contagion and Roles for Black Women

Q&A: Sanaa Lathan Talks Contagion and Roles for Black Women

The actress on her new creepy film and why playing a maid isn’t always a bad thing.

Published September 7, 2011

From romantic comedies (Love and Basketball, Something New) to sci-fi action (Blade, Alien vs. Predator) to animation voice acting (The Cleveland Show) Sanaa Lathan has emerged as one of the more versatile actresses in Hollywood. This week, the 39-year-old actress stars in the deadly disease action–thriller Contagion, which also includes Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Kate Winslet.  Lathan portrays Aubrey Cheever, a woman terrorized by a worldwide virus epidemic but who is determined to stay safe.


BET.com chatted with Lathan about Contagion’s realistic scary premise, why she loved playing a maid off-Broadway, and the rumors that her upcoming film Vipaka is a "voodoo movie."


It was a little unsettling watching Contagion. Especially since this deadly world virus spread so instantly and easily through the usual day-to-day casual contact we all engage in. Did shooting the movie change your daily habits?

The thing that’s absolutely so scary about it is that it’s so real. It’s not like some big monster or alien is coming to attack us. It’s something we could really imagine happening and has happened in the last couple of years. So yeah, when I was filming the movie I was washing my hands a little bit more than I usually do. I stocked up on the hand sanitizer. I think those hand sanitizer companies are gonna be happy after this movie comes out.


When I first saw you and Laurence Fishburne together in the film I wasn’t sure about your relationship. I thought you were his niece, not his fiancée. The whole May/December thing confused me a bit.

I love hearing that, that’s a great compliment.


But, that said, I also loved that in the midst of Contagion’s scary premise (and that people and their households were literally falling apart in every scene) that you and Laurence’s characters keep it together so nicely.

[Our director] Steven Soderbergh knew what he was doing when he made our characters Black. He’s such a smart guy and he’s aware of film history. We had a conversation on set and he said, "I wasn’t interested in this being another 'white man save the world' movie."  So Steven knew that he wanted Laurence really early on. I love him for that. Laurence and Matt Damon were two of the first actors cast in the movie. It was an enjoyable experience working with people who really get it.


You’ve starred in some of Black film’s best romantic comedies do you think there might be another one in your near future?

I’d love to do another romantic comedy again, but it would have to be different from the Love and Basketballs, the Something News and the Brown Sugars.  It would have to be a different story, a different character pushing me in different directions.  I’m very picky about it being something that doesn’t repeat — I’m always trying to elevate from what I’ve already done.


Even though now it’s being celebrated as the film with the number–one box office legs, Viola Davis originally spoke about getting flack from Blacks for playing a maid in The Help. But you embraced playing a domestic in your off-Broadway play Meet Vera Stark. Could you tell us more about why you wanted to play that role?

My character Vera Stark was a woman in the 1930s who was a maid. She made a living being a maid in real life and then she got her big break playing a maid in a movie and won an Oscar for it. This is all fictional and she went on to having a career playing maids in the 1930s and the play was just so brilliantly done. It explored the idea of "Would you rather be a maid or play dress up, get paid and be able to pay your rent?"


Sounds a lot like Hattie McDaniel’s professional career.

That play was inspired by all of those women.



So none of these roles are backsteps for Black actresses?

I feel like it’s getting better. I’m definitely a 'glass half–full' person, so I look for those examples of it getting better. I thought that the way The Help was executed was beautiful and I was thoroughly entertained. It was empowering to those women. I’m rooting for Viola Davis. I think she did an amazing job in it and I was deeply moved by her performance. There’s a possibility that Meet Vera Stark may go to Broadway next year. And if it does, I just want everyone to come out and see, because it’s such a tour-de-force role.


Movie audiences will go from seeing you in Contagion this year to Vipaka next year, which is the film you just completed. Tell us more about it.

We just finished it in New Orleans and I play Anthony Mackie’s wife. It’s kind of like a love triangle between my character, Anthony’s and Mike Epps’ character, who plays his brother. Mike Epps is doing a really dark, complicated edgy role. People are gonna be so blown away by him in this movie. Forest Whitaker plays a mysterious person who comes into all of our lives and makes us reveal secrets we have from each other and ourselves. So it’s like a horror film but it’s also a psychological thriller. I had a blast working with Anthony, Mike and Forest — that was a treat for me.


It's also been described as a voodoo film, so where does all of that fit in?

Really? There’s no voodoo or witchcraft. No, it’s more like one of those horror ghost stories of the grudge movie ilk. There’s definitely some freaky s--- in it. It will keep people on the edge of their seats. You’ll be jumping and screaming, but it’s also really deep and really layered. I’m not interested in doing a straight horror film.  I’m excited because there are good moments in Vipaka that I don’t think people have seen Black people do on screen lately.


Contagion hits theaters nationwide on Friday, September 9th.

(Photo: Frazer Harrison/GettyImages)

Written by Ronke Idowu Reeves


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