Sanaa Lathan hopes that her new TV series “Shots Fired” draws more attention to the violent deaths of young people and that it inspires individuals to talk more, to do more.
“Hopefully, it will create some discussion and some empathy and some compassion, because we need that right now,” said Lathan, who portrays Ashe Akino, an investigator from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Lathan describes Akino as a fighter, a loving mother and a “bringer of justice.” Living up to the hashtag for her character, #BadAshe, she truly brings it in this role.
While Lathan has portrayed many in-your-face characters, this one has more of an edge and she’s packing heat to back up her blunt talk. She won’t let anyone disrespect her or derail her quest for the truth in the killings of two young men — one white with lots of media attention; the other black with the lone voices of his family and friends.
“It’s a mystery thriller,” Lathan says of “Shots Fired,” which the cast likens to a 10-hour movie. “You’re going to be taken on this journey, and you have to put the pieces together week to week.” The series premieres today at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.
To get into character, Lathan practiced mixed martial arts to develop a fighter’s mentality and to be on the defensive for any situation. She also spent time with a real-life Ashe Akino and another woman who has patrolled the streets and dealt with sexism and racism as a police officer.
Filming autumn scenes in hot clothing and hot weather was a different story. “We just finished it last August, and I’ve been recovering ever since,” she said laughing.
“It was probably the most grueling work experience I’ve ever had, because it was in the middle of the summer in North Carolina,” said Lathan, who was wearing boots, jeans, leather jackets and a wig in all the heat. “It was like working in a sauna.”
It was also unpredictable. “We didn’t know what was coming each week,” she said. “Sometimes we’d get a script, and it would be two days before we had to shoot it, and I’m not used to that.”
“It exercised my muscles as an actress,” she explained. “You go to the gym for six months, and your body changes. In this respect, I went to the gym of acting. It was like boot camp in a way. Whatever role I have next, it will be like running with weights. It will be easy.”
The upside, she says, is working again with her friend, Gina Prince-Bythewood, who wrote and directed Love & Basketball, and directed Disappearing Acts. The mixed martial arts was Prince-Bythewood’s idea for “Shots Fired,” but Lathan learned to hoop on her own before auditioning for Love & Basketball. At the other extreme, she added 20 pounds to her 5-foot-7-inch frame for Disappearing Acts.
Lathan’s dozens of credits also include Brown Sugar, Alien vs. Predator, Now You See Me 2, Out of Time, The Best Man and The Perfect Guy, for which she also served as executive producer. She was nominated for a Tony Award for acting in A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway with other stage roles in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Vagina Monologues. On TV, she’s appeared in “Nip/Tuck,” “Boss” and “NYPD Blue.” She’s also been the voice of Donna Tubbs on “The Cleveland Show and “Family Guy.”
Next up, she will fight terrorism as CIA deputy director Irene Kennedy in the film American Assassin.
Acting is in Lathan’s genes. Growing up, she split time between her father, producer-director Stan Lathan, in Los Angeles and her mother, Eleanor McCoy, who has performed on Broadway, in New York.
Lathan initially took a different path, considering law school at one point. While studying English at the University of California at Berkeley, she became involved with the Black Theatre Workshop and ended up pursuing a master’s at the Yale School of Drama. Her parents cautioned her about the acting life, but supported her career choice.
Making an Impact
Being blessed with supportive parents fueled Lathan’s desire to pay it forward. Her goal is to empower and educate girls in foster care so that they have a solid footing and support system once they’re on their own. Through the Sanaa Lathan Foundation, she’s established scholarships, a summer camp, mentorships and partnerships with other youth organizations.
The 45-year-old actress views her work in “Shots Fired” as another way of making an impact while supporting the quest of the show’s creators to change the world through their art. “Unapologetically idealistic,” Gina Prince-Bythewood and her husband, Reggie Rock Bythewood, attribute the genesis of “Shots Fired” to their son’s dismay over George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the Trayvon Martin shooting.
So, Bythewood fired up his laptop and found a YouTube video about lynching victim Emmett Till. It was time for the same talk that his father, a former police officer, had with him back in the day.
The Bythewoods said that Lathan and her fellow actors elevate what they wrote on the pages of their scripts for “Shot’s Fired.”
On this, Lathan quotes Nina Simone. “She said an artist’s responsibility is to reflect the times, and I feel like that’s what we’re doing with ‘Shots Fired’ as well as entertaining.”
Yanick Rice Lamb, who teaches journalism at Howard University, is co-founder of FierceforBlackWomen.com. Nursing Wounds is her forthcoming debut novel.