Actress and executive producer Sanaa Lathan is passionate about literacy, which “releases the power of the imagination.” Known for her beauty and brains, Lathan graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in English and from Yale University with a degree in drama.
She grew up in a creative atmosphere that was richly fostered by her mother, Eleanor McCoy, a dancer and actress, and her father, Stan Lathan, a television and film director and an award-winning producer. In many ways, Lathan is living up to the meaning of her name, which translates to “art” in Swahili and “brilliance” in Arabic.
In September, the versatile actress will show another side in Screen Gems’ “The Perfect Guy.” Described as a “super high concept commercial with a nod to ‘Fatal Attraction’ in reverse, essentially, Sanaa Lathan as the Michael Douglas character and Michael Ealy in the Glenn Close role).” “The Perfect Guy” will open Sept. 21.
As we celebrate Literacy Month, the gifted artist shared her feelings about the power of the imagination and why James Baldwin is her favorite author.
AmNews: As executive producer of the upcoming novelist Omar Tyree’s series “Flyy Girl” in which you will star as Tracy Ellison, a successful businesswoman and workaholic who believes that money is always the key to happiness, I wanted to know more about other authors that have caught your imagination.
Lathan: There are so many books that I love. “Go Tell It On the Mountain” … anything by James Baldwin. I also love “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” children series by C.S. Lewis. I also love the work of William Shakespeare and plays [in general].
I am always reading. I like to read books that give you a different spiritual perspective. “The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment” by Eckhart Tolle—I always go back to that.
You mentioned your passion for the collective works of James Baldwin. In New York, the Film Society of Lincoln Center will be presenting “The Devil Finds Work: James Baldwin on Film” (Sept. 11-14).
Excellent. Excellent. If I could sit down and have dinner with anyone, it would be with James Baldwin. He was amazing and an outspoken civil rights activist and very eloquent about it.
In talking with Quincy Newell, executive vice president of CodeBlack, and producer Effie T. Brown (HBO’s “Project Greenlight” and the upcoming “Flyy Girl”) about the “Flyy Girl” series that they will be producing, we discussed the power of well-written source material.
I agree. I remember in acting school my [acting] teacher would always tell us to “make sure you read literature” because it’s “food” for the imagination. And the imagination is the beginning for any artist … whether you’re a painter, or a writer or an actor or singer. It all comes from telling stories, whether they come from your experience or by reading and using your imagination you can have experiences that you actually haven’t lived but you lived through by reading, you’ve experienced by storytelling.
Books are so great [because] they go so much in-depth. If it’s a great writer, you can really feel like you know these people and know their journey.
When you were a little girl, did you have a favorite bedtime story?
You know, my mother was really good at making up bedtime stories and one of things that she would do—and it was so great—I was just talking about this with her the other day—she would always find the climax, she would just make it up … and then she came to the climax of the story and she would say, “To be continued,” and I would always scream, “Nooooooo,” and she would say, “To be continued tomorrow night.”
Then I would be anticipating the whole next day, the next chapter of the story. She was really great at doing that!
Did your mother also provide the character voices to accompany her cliff hanging bedtime stories?
Yes, she was great and she did the voices as well. She was a dancer and an actress for a while, and she was a very animated … storyteller.
In doing my research, I discovered that you were the voice of Donna in Seth MacFarlane’s “The Cleveland Show.” It’s one of my favorite guilty obsessions.
(laughs) Oh, I love that! Thank you so much. I really had a blast doing that. We did almost 100 episodes, we are no longer doing that. It was a great job! I just had fun doing it. It had me in stitches.
Back to books. I understand that you are a “foodie.” Care to share your favorite cookbook?
(laughs) I am a foodie! A book that I love which isn’t really a cookbook but it’s one of my favorites, it’s called the “Forks Over Knives: The Cook Book,” and it’s based off a documentary that talks about how diet can change your life. I am a real “foodie” and I like to experiment. I like going online because nowadays you find anything. You can get 10 different recipes and decide what you want. So I go online for my recipes.