During this virtual interview with Collider, which you can both watch and read, Lathan talked about what drew her to this world, how engrossing the scripts were, collaborating with the showrunners on her character, exploring the relationship between Naomi and Segev, and how important the locations were to the story. She also talked about joining Season 3 of the hit HBO series Succession, her experience on The Affair, her stand-out episode of The Twilight Zone, and the long-lasting impact of Love & Basketball.
Collider: This is such an engrossing story. When this came your way, how much did you get to know about it? Did you get somewhat of a sense of what this full story would be, or did you not have much to go on?
SANAA LATHAN: They gave me the first four episodes in script form, and I read them. I knew I wanted to be a part of it because I couldn’t get up when I was reading them. I didn’t get up until I read all four and I wanted to find out what happened next. I was like, “Okay, this is a good sign. If it’s this good on paper, it’s gonna be good after we shoot it.” I knew up until I Episode 7, and then they were writing as they were going along, so we were surprised as well.
This is something that creates its own world and also has all of these really interesting characters that inhabit it. Was it one thing versus the other that most drew you to it, or was it both things?
LATHAN: It was definitely both things. I knew I was drawn to the world. I loved the idea of this investigative journalists, world traveled, sophisticated, layered woman who’s feeling stagnation in her life and wants to be passionate again about life, and in comes this story that she has to help crack. I loved the showrunners, Dawn [Prestwich] and Nicole [Yorkin]. I loved the fact that it was an international story that we were bringing together Tel Aviv and New York, these two great cities. I loved so much about it. And I loved that I got to shoot in New York in the fall.
Are you someone who likes to get involved, as far as establishing a relationship with the showrunners and having a say in your character, or do you hand over your trust to them once you start shooting?
LATHAN: One of the things I loved about collaborating with Dawn and Nicole was that they had ideas about Naomi, but they were definitely very open to input. I helped come up with a backstory with them. It’s just a more satisfying experience, if a character’s been created and you can help create that.
Is it refreshing to play someone that seems to know who she is and makes no apologies or excuses for who she is?
LATHAN: Yeah, it is. I have a lot of respect for Naomi. I don’t know that I would put myself in the situations she puts herself in, but it’s all for the truth and justice. She’s a seeker of truth and justice, and she’s gonna do whatever it takes to get that.
You’ve previously talked about how the process of acting is similar in approach to investigative reporting. Was that something that you’d realized or ever thought about prior to playing this character, or did delving into her world help you see those similarities?
LATHAN: Definitely delving into her world, talking to people, talking to investigative journalists, I was like, “Oh, yeah, each story is like a different character.” The way that I approach acting is really a holistic process with lots of research. For me, it’s really investigating the whole world of where that character comes from. And so, yeah, there are a lot of similarities.
At the point in the story that we meet her, it seems as though Naomi feels a bit stuck with her work and unable to progress in a way that she’d like to be able to. Learning about this story that falls into her lap, what do you think it is about the spark and the chase of a good story that really gets her going and really sort makes her feel like she’s found that again?
LATHAN: She’s alive. I think that it’s addictive for her. It’s like putting a puzzle together for a puzzle aficionado. Once she starts and she gets hooked, she can’t stop until she follows it. She is feeling stuck in her life and her going on this journey makes her feel alive again.
I love the weird energy between Naomi and her husband, and Segev and Ron, and the weird moments between the four of them. What were those scenes like to play and explore? What was the atmosphere on set like for those scenes?
LATHAN: They were fun. It was really fun. Everybody was a great sport. Even though there was a lot of tension in the show and intrigue, it was a pretty friendly, light set with lots of laughter. Sometimes there was too much laughter and I was like, “Okay, let’s focus now.” But it was cool. It was fun.
What did you most enjoy about exploring that relationship between Naomi and Segev? It’s such a complicated and complex relationship, and we get to see relationships like that very often.
LATHAN: Yeah. I’m friends with a bunch of my exes. I feel like it’s a different kind of relationship because she’s married, but also because they have a history. It’s more than friends, but it still has to be platonic because they’re no longer together, and I just find that interesting. It’s interesting to watch and interesting to play, and you feel that coming across, with the relationship between Segev and Naomi.
It was so great to see you in the trailer for Season 3 of Succession. I’m excited that the show is coming back and I’m excited that you’ve joined the show. It’s interesting because over the last year, I’ve asked a lot of actors what TV show they’d want to guest on and probably 99.9% of them said that it would be Succession. What’s it like to actually join the show?
LATHAN: It was great. Honestly, I had never seen Succession when I got the offer, so I had to binge it and it was the funnest research I had ever done. I was like, “Oh, God, this is so great.” It’s such good writing and such good actors. I had a blast working on it.
What can you say about your character?
LATHAN: Nothing. I can’t say anything, except that it’s gonna be more of what everybody loves about it. There’s this crazy Roy family and how their drama unfolds will be just as compelling as what you’ve been used to.
Is it intimidating to join a show and a cast like that, or is it just fun to get to play with such great material?
LATHAN: Honestly, I’ve been doing it so long and I’ve done it on different shows. I definitely always get nervous when I start a new job, but it was more excitement than nerves. They were a great group of people. They’re so welcoming and just consummate professionals, so I had a good experience.
How was your experience with joining The Affair so late in its run? What did you learn from doing that show?
LATHAN: It was similar. With The Affair, I had been watching it. I was a fan of it from the beginning and I really thought that it was some of the best writing and best acting on TV. For me, it was just cool that I got to go play with these actors who I really respected. It was similar in that respect. I was joining a cast that was already together, so you do feel like the new kid at school at first, but you get used to it.
Your episode of The Twilight Zone was arguably one of the best from the Jordan Peele revival.
LATHAN: Oh, thank you.
It was such a great episode and part of that was because it really very directly took on race. Do you feel like those sorts of stories are better served when they’re very direct about the issues being discussed?
LATHAN: Well, I loved that. I really was so excited to be a part of that particular episode because it wasn’t direct and it was such a creative way to get into the mind of a Black mother and what Black mothers in this society have dealt with, for hundreds and hundreds of years, and still unfortunately have to deal with, day after day after day. To me, in a weird way, it’s more impactful to an audience because, if you’re seeing it on the news every day, you can get a little numb and you can get a little desensitized. The creepy, eerie way into that Black mother’s mind and seeing her having to relive this experience, over and over again, gives a different perspective and understanding of that reality.
Love & Basketball came out more than 20 years ago now, and that’s a movie that people still love and will likely always love. What impact did that film make on you and your life, and how do you view its legacy in film, in general?
LATHAN: It was my first starring role in a movie and I fought for it. I had to audition for five months. It was grueling. I learned a lot about myself during tha audition process. I almost quit, but didn’t quit. I think back on that like, “Wow, what if I did quit?” I had come from the theater, so I had been doing lots of acting and was confident in that area. I approached it like I had approached every role. When you’re on the set, you’re just going through the days. I remember shooting it, and then it was just over and I was like, “I hope it’s good.” You just never know. We had a premiere at Sundance, and then we got a five-minute standing ovation after and I was like, “Wow!” That’s when it hit me that it really worked. The script that I read, that I was fighting for and that I was so in love with, we did it justice. For me, that was everything. The fact that people are still coming up to me every day and tweeting at me every day, talking about how they still watch it, is just icing on the cake. It’s great.
One of the things I really love about Hit & Run is that typically these are very male stories and the female characters are there to serve some purpose for the male protagonist, and this character is not like that. Was that something that was also really important to you, that she have a very full story and this life?
LATHAN: Absolutely. You wanna play three-dimensional characters. You don’t wanna be accessories or just plot points that move the story forward. That’s important to me, in choosing my characters. I love that she was going through her own struggles and obstacles, even in addition to her obstacles of cracking the story. Even though maybe her husband wasn’t happy with it, she still made the decision to go forward with it.
I’m from Los Angeles, and I love it when a movie or TV show captures Los Angeles in a way that you’re not used to seeing. I feel like this really does that with New York. What do you like about the way that New York is portrayed in this?
LATHAN: First of all, I was just so thrilled that we were actually shooting in New York. There are so many movies that shoot New York, and you’re not shooting in New York. This was pre-pandemic and it was New York City in the fall, so that, in and of itself, was so attractive to me. I got to shoot in New York City in the fall. I thoroughly enjoyed it. There were lots of location scenes. We shot in Brooklyn and Queens. One day, we shot in the middle of Times Square. New York is really a character in it, as well as Tel Aviv. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to go to Tel Aviv. I was like, “Can I go?” You’ll see that this is really a true international story and I loved seeing how these two cultures are portrayed in the story. It makes it so worldly.
Hit & Run is available to stream at Netflix.
He also reveals the unusual way they film ‘Succession’ and why it’s a dream for every actor that works on the series.
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