Emmy-nominated actor Sanaa Lathan is excited to be making her directorial debut with the feature “On the Come Up,” which had its world premiere last week at the Toronto International Film Festival and will be released by Paramount Plus on Sept. 23.
Lathan, who starred in the 2000 film “Love & Basketball,” always knew she wanted her movie to premiere at a film festival, because “they honour films and they really care about film and the art of filmmaking. I wanted my baby to be birthed into the world through a community like this and Toronto was perfect because of the timing.
“Also, I knew that ‘The Hate U Give’ had premiered here,” Lathan said in an interview at a downtown hotel.
“The Hate U Give” was the debut novel of bestselling YA author Angie Thomas, whose book “On the Come Up” was adapted into the film. It follows 16-year-old Bri (Jamila C. Gray), who wants to carry on her late father’s legacy and be one of the greatest rappers to come out of Garden Heights.
Lathan saw a lot of herself in Bri and it was one of the reasons she chose to direct this film herself.
“My childhood had its challenges and, at around 15, I joined a youth theatre group in downtown New York. It became a channel for all of that angst and it was healing for me … Bri is very familiar to me in terms of my childhood and being raised by a community of strong women who are also vastly different. So that and then the love of music and the love of language, it was just kind of the perfect storm.”
To bring Bri to life, Lathan looked through more than 200 audition tapes and found newcomer Gray. “I stopped on hers, as there was something that made me stop … She has a different energy about her and it felt unique. I just wanted to work with her and see if we could go further.”
Like Lathan, Gray found similarities with the character of Bri. “I think the character’s life and my life had a lot of parallels as far as finding her authentic voice goes,” she said during the interview with Lathan.
Lathan, who is the daughter of actor Eleanor McCoy and filmmaker Stan Lathan, not only sat behind the camera but cast herself as Jayda, Bri’s mother, bringing added pressure and commitments.
There were several factors behind her decision, some deeply personal. “I grew up with a lot of addiction in my family and I’ve seen people get recovered and I love that story,” Lathan said. “I love the fact that (Jayda) came from such a low place and she was fighting for her life. I thought that that was beautiful.
“Acting for me is a spiritual thing,” she continued. “Storytelling is a spiritual thing. I believe that it can be healing to the artist as well as the people who watch … so I knew it could be healing for me. Also, I’m very picky and the women who I wanted to see play Jayda were not available.”
Gray felt that she performed better because of Lathan’s dual roles. “I think her coming from being an actor to a director helps her understand certain things that someone who has never been an actor would not understand. So especially in vulnerable scenes, she prepped me for the day.”
The key messaging of the film is inspirational: finding your authentic voice despite what other people think of you. Asked if she could recall the moment she found her authentic voice as both an actor and director, Lathan, who’s 50, said, “I think at my old age, I feel like I’m finally finding my voice now.”
“I just feel comfortable in my skin. I feel like I’m doing what I want to do at the level that I’m wanting to do it. I understand myself and I understand my weaknesses. I understand my faults and I’m working on myself.”
Lathan credited Mike Barker as an influence, who was a director and producer on the 2021 crime drama “Hit & Run,” in which Lathan co-starred. “He’s the kind of director I want to be because he was not only so proficient and really excited about the technical camera, lighting and knew his stuff, but he was also great at working with actors.
“He helped me a lot as a mentor when I got the job in terms of the process; I just wanted to pick his brain. I’m a big believer in picking people’s brains that you admire … so he was definitely one of those people.”
The New York-born Lathan also credited Gina Prince-Bythewood, director of another TIFF world premiere film, “The Woman King,” and her dad, Stan, as influences.
Whether Lathan will continue to direct depends on which projects come her way — as long as it’s something she can connect with and is passionate about. She said she is going to be picky because “On the Come Up” did take two years of her life “and at my stage they don’t pay as much,” she laughed.
Marriska Fernandes is a Toronto-based entertainment reporter and film critic. She is a freelance contributor for the Star’s Culture section. Follow her on Twitter: @marrs_fers