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Sanaa Lathan on shaving her head for role: ‘It was just so freeing on every level’

‘Nappily Ever After’ actress explores emotional relationship black women have with their hair

Over the years, Sanaa Lathan has gifted us with characters who have staying power.

More than 18 years after her first film, Love & Basketball, in which she played a character who highlighted gender barriers in basketball, she delivers Violet, a marketing maven who took a razor to her head and found the type of freedom that has black women everywhere exhaling.

In her new Netflix movie, Nappily Ever After, Lathan explores the very emotional and, at times, complex relationship we black women have with our hair — it rules our very existence — and her character, Violet, discovers, well, herself.

And so does Lathan. “Just being a woman, let alone a black woman in Hollywood, every role, you have to figure out what to do with your hair. You have to do your workouts around your hair. Hair is always a first consideration. You decide if you’re going to go out. For me, if my hair’s not looking good, I’m not going out, if I can’t get it done,” she said. “Hair is running your life. And I was tired. I had hair exhaustion. And I think I was ready. Once I did it, the response was so overwhelmingly positive that I even kept shaving it for a couple months after. It was just so freeing on every level.”

The response to Nappily Ever After has been so overwhelmingly positive, specifically from other black women in Hollywood. What does the feedback and response from that community mean to you?

It means everything to me. My intention as an artist is to tell stories that not only entertain, but inspire, and uplift, and move the world. So when I get that kind of feedback, that’s the best gift, to me. Violet’s story, everyone fell in love with her, because, I think, it’s kind of like a love letter to all black girls who’ve been told that we aren’t the prettiest, that our natural beauty is not as good as the European standards of beauty. This is really a love letter to our little black girls, to remind them that they are beautiful just the way they are. And hair’s just a metaphor for owning your power, owning your beauty. And I think, to [own] who you really are.

Where does your courage come from? You shaved your head for your role in Nappily Ever After — that’s courageous!

“Just being a woman, let alone a black woman in Hollywood, every role, you have to figure out what to do with your hair.”

When it comes to my work, I have such a passion for the work, and I always kind of fall in love with my characters. And I think it was really that love for Violet, and a love for the journey that she was going on and a love for sharing that with the world. So it didn’t feel like courage. I don’t know that I could’ve done it myself, as Sanaa. It was almost like I got the courage because Violet gave me the courage. It’s like I was in service to her, and to her story, and to what her story was going to mean for women.

What’s a show or film that you’ve marathoned?

You know what I did watch the other day — which I thought was really fascinating and good? It’s called Wanderlust. It’s Toni Collette. She’s a fabulous actress. I love her. Wanderlust, it’s on Netflix. It’s like a six-episode British kind of dramedy about relationships. And it’s funny, and moving and well-written. So that was my last one. It’s so funny, because there’s so much content out there, I have anxiety. I’m like, ‘well, what am I going to watch next?’ And I don’t know where to start!

What do you do right before you step on a soundstage? Is there a routine that you have that puts you in the zone? And if so, what is it?

It depends. If it’s something that I’m doing like a public speaking kind of thing, it’s a different thing than when I’m acting. But coming from the theater, I have just a whole toolbox of things that I can pick from, depending on what it is. For me, if it’s on the set, and I’m playing a character, it’s just really about getting into the headspace of the character, and using my imagination to imagine that world. For me, I like to rehearse. I’m a rehearsal kind of person. Even if it completely turns out different, whether it’s a speech, I just have to have that base. I really believe in doing it again, and again, and again and again. Some people have the opposite thing. They don’t like to rehearse. But I just believe in that. I think that’s just coming from my theater background. If I’m really nervous about something, I do a 10-minute meditation that is grounding. So for me, it’s practical as well as spiritual.

What is your favorite throwback TV show?

Growing up, I loved Good Times. Me and my cousin, we were in love with J.J. We called him J.J., we’re like, ‘J.J.’s on, J.J.’s on!’ We loved him. Maybe I’m dating myself. I loved Good Times. I loved A Different World.

“Once I did it, the response was so overwhelmingly positive that I even kept shaving it for a couple months after.”

Do you have a favorite social media spot?

I’m kind of hating it all right now! I feel like it’s something I have to do for work. The one thing that I do love about it is, I get to connect with the fans. I like that. But everything else about it is, I’m really torn. One day I want to just erase all my accounts, and the next day, I’m trying to have a balance with it. It doesn’t always work. It’s very addictive, and it’s not, it’s mostly not positive. I try to stick to positive guidance and stuff. But it’s so easy in the split second to just get into a negative wormhole, right?

Who’s your childhood hero, and why?

The women in my family — my mother is just such a beautiful spirit, and a strong woman, and still so open … she is my hero. My mom, and the women in my family.

What was the first concert you ever attended?

My jaw was on the floor the whole time. I couldn’t even damn near dance because I just was mesmerized by him, and it was Prince. I don’t remember which album. It was truly watching greatness.

What will you always be a champion of?

I have the Sanaa Lathan Foundation — which I partner with organizations — and focus on underserved youth. Whether that’s foster or inner-city kids, there are so many youth out there that don’t have support and don’t have what I had growing up. And I want to make it part of my mission, in this life, to give them that support. We work with everything from young women to boys. We do all youth. I just recently did a fundraiser for youth mentoring connection … it was young women, and it’s all about building self-worth through putting them with mentors who will mentor them and give them a vision for the future.

“This is really a love letter to our little black girls, to remind them that they are beautiful just the way they are. And hair’s just a metaphor for owning your power, owning your beauty.”

Which throwback actor did you absolutely love?

When I was 5, I had a crush on Billy Dee Williams! I just thought he was so cute. I mean, not cute. I was 5, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, he’s …’ But Eartha Kitt and my mom did Timbuktu! together, and she took my mom under her wing. So I was around her a lot when I was really young. But I remember her, and I was just in love. I don’t know about working with her, but I would just love to sit with her and have a conversation about life, and art, and just how she survived, and how she thrived. That would’ve been amazing.

What’s one thing that you’re hoping to achieve in this next year?

I could give you a whole list! But I would just say, overall, I want to push myself outside of my comfort zone in every area. In my career, just kind of stepping outside of … Because just like Violet, I put myself in boxes as well. As well as the industry. And so for me, it’s just about stepping outside of that comfort zone. The quote that I would give you that’s really simple, but if you follow it, it’s really life-changing, is ‘Jump, and the net will appear.’ It’s about walking through fear and having faith. And if you jump, you’ll have that universal support.

Kelley L. Carter is a senior entertainment writer at The Undefeated. She can act out every episode of the U.S version of "The Office," she can and will sing the Michigan State University fight song on command and she is very much immune to Hollywood hotness.