When Gina Prince-Bythewood was looking for backers for her first film, Love and Basketball, Sundance sponsored a reading. The writer-director cast Sanaa Lathan as Monica, the fierce competitor who dreams both of being the first woman to play in the NBA and of marrying the boy next door. The reading excited the interest of Spike Lee, who immediately signed on as executive producer. Lathan, however, had to wait nearly a year for Prince-Bythewood to cast her in the actual film. Her father, TV producer Stan Lathan, told her to forget about the movie. Instead, Lathan worked relentlessly with a trainer on her basketball skills, even though she knew that Prince-Bythewood was auditioning real ballplayers for the role she wanted so desperately.
“I needed someone who could act and also be convincing on the court,” says Prince-Bythewood. “I kept putting off Sanaa’s final audition, hoping her basketball would improve.” When Prince-Bythewood’s ballplayer friends agreed Lathan looked like the real thing, she got the job.
The writer-director and the actress, who became close friends only after the film was completed, seem diametrical opposites. Prince-Bythewood, a tomboy who hates to dress up, put a lot of herself in Monica. She, too, had basketball dreams, but when she wasn’t recruited for the team at UCLA, she turned to film-making. And like Monica, she has managed to combine love and career. One of the first things she tells me is that she has a great husband.
Lathan, in real life, is extremely femme. You can’t appreciate how much of a stretch Monica was for her unless you see her offscreen. Her latest role, another collaboration with Prince-Bythewood, involves just as much of a makeover. Lathan gained 20 pounds to play the heroine of Terry McMillan’s novel Disappearing Acts. Gone is the sinewy, size 6 athlete, and in her place is a big, graceful woman.Lathan says she put on the weight because in the novel the character is a size 12, but she also thought it was important to show a real woman’s body on the screen instead of another skinny model. “Monica’s one kind of ideal,” she says, “and this is another.”
Produced by HBO, costarring Wesley Snipes, and currently shooting in Brooklyn, Disappearing Acts is also a switch for the director. “We’re shooting it handheld and eye-level—the fly-on-the-wall approach, like Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence. We don’t have the long lens or the slo-mos that we had in Love and Basketball,” says Prince-Bythewood. “It’s great to be working with Sanaa again. I was afraid after Love and Basketball that she would do something unworthy.”
“Unfair,” Lathan retorts. “I was offered a lot of girlfriend roles, but I wanted to do something that felt good in my gut. The only power you have as an actor is to say no.”
Prince-Bythewood says McMillan’s novel is “a relationship bible for black women.”
“It’s about modern black romance after the honeymoon,” Lathan adds, “about the struggle and knowing when it’s time to give in or give up.”