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Sanaa Lathan makes her directorial debut with 'On the Come Up'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, you may know actress Sanaa Lathan for her standout roles in film, stage and TV, like "Love & Basketball," "Succession" and "A Raisin In The Sun." But now she's flexing her acting and directing muscles in a new film called "On The Come Up," which she directed and where she plays the mother of a 16-year-old aspiring rapper named Bri.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ON THE COME UP")

SANAA LATHAN: (As Jay) I heard the song. Explain to me what you were thinking. Why would you say that stuff? Where's the gun you rapped about, huh? Show me. Tell me.

JAMILA GRAY: (As Bri) You're taking it out of context.

LATHAN: (As Jay) You said that stuff. There's no way to get around it.

GRAY: (As Bri) Would you listen to me instead of coming at me?

LATHAN: (As Jay) One, check your tone. Two, I am listening. I've listened long enough to hear my child rapping like a thug.

MARTIN: The film is Lathan's directorial debut, and we wanted to hear more about the movie and her journey to get here. And so she is with us now. Sanaa Lathan, congratulations. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

LATHAN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, I'm sorry, this is my first time talking with you. So before we talk about this new film, must give a shoutout to "Love & Basketball." Sorry, have to do it. You starred as a young woman athlete trying to figure out how to have both love and basketball. I mean, it was just so special. I mean, this came out at a time when very few movies centered a young woman who wanted something for herself other than love. It just did so many things. I just have to ask you, did you know at the time that you were making something special?

LATHAN: I didn't. You know, I was a young, hungry, aspiring actress in Hollywood. And for me, those were the days where it was like you just wanted to get the job. I knew that the script was great. I knew that it would be my first starring role in a movie. I had done many plays, so I was confident that I could do it. My job was just getting the director to believe in me, which wasn't an easy feat considering I had never played basketball (laughter). For me, it was really about just trying to be as believable as possible in the basketball 'cause I was surrounded by real basketball players. So for me, there was no thought about this movie coming out or becoming this new classic. It was really, how do I get through this day? How do I make this form look good? It was very vigilant in that regard.

MARTIN: So, again, no pressure at all, but in your directorial debut, you not only are directing the film, you're playing one of the central characters.

LATHAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: I'm just curious about that decision to do both. I mean, I know that in some situations, people don't want to fund a project because they said, well, I'll fund it if you're in it.

LATHAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: But was that the case here? I mean, it just...

LATHAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Seems like a lot for somebody making their first film.

LATHAN: It was a lot.

MARTIN: I was just curious, like...

LATHAN: It was a lot.

MARTIN: ...Why that...

LATHAN: So when I first got the job, I didn't have the intention of playing Jay. I fell in love with her on a real level. I grew up around a lot of addiction and grew up around a lot of people who struggled, who succumbed, who overcame it. You know, I know that process firsthand from many family members. And I just fell in love with her. Sometimes roles that I've played can be healing not only, you know, to me, but also to the audience. And so there was intention in that respect. But also there was, like, the practical thing of, we needed names (laughter) to get the green light. And that was a part of directing that I was like, oh, I have to do that too?

And so it was both of those things. I knew that if I was going to do it, this is the time because I have a true confidence and I trust myself and I know when I've done a good take. I don't have to look at the monitor. I don't have to see dailies 'cause I can feel it. And so I decided to play her. And it was interesting because as we were shooting, the days when I had the scenes and they would come be like, OK, you need to go to hair and makeup, I would be like, huh? I would never want to do it.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Wait, I'm busy.

LATHAN: I would never want to do it. I was like, no.

MARTIN: See, I never knew that a director was, like, the mom of the film. I never knew that (laughter).

LATHAN: Yeah, exactly.

MARTIN: I can't do my own hair and makeup. I have to do yours.

LATHAN: Exactly. It's so true.

MARTIN: How about that?

LATHAN: And so it was more of, like, a annoyance - you know? - to be torn away from, you know, the set. All in all, it was very satisfying.

MARTIN: Let's talk a bit about the story itself. As you mentioned, you play Jay. Jay is the mom of Bri, who's kind of the protagonist here. And as you alluded to, Jay is a recovering addict. She's made clear she's made some mistakes, but she's trying to make things right. Bri is a very interesting character. On the one hand, she's dealing with some heavy things, like the mom - you in the film - a recovering addict, an aggressive police presence at school. And I don't think it's giving too much away to say that she's also dealing with the loss of her father...

LATHAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Who was a noted local rapper in the fictional world that they live in who died from gun violence. So she's dealing with that, and she's trying to gain respect as a rapper. So there's a certain facade that she's kind of constructing for herself. You handpicked Jamila C. Gray, who plays Bri, out of more than 200 audition tapes. What stood out? What made her the one?

LATHAN: Yeah. We weren't on lockdown when I was casting, but we still were, you know, very much in the time that we're in. So we did all our casting virtually. So, you know, you have the luxury of just having tapes from all over. So you go through them pretty quickly. And when I got to her tape, I just was like, oh, who's this? - and played it over and over again. Her rap - we asked the actresses to do three scenes from the movie, and then they had to do 16 bars of their own. And her rap was completely the opposite of Bri. It was very melodic and kind of like nouveau soul, but it was so swaggy (ph). And she had a real feel for the rhythm, and she had a vulnerability and an interesting look. And so I was like, you know, I want to screen test this young actress. And there were a couple other great young actresses as well, and she just won the part.

MARTIN: One of the devices in the film is that you have - her voiceover is the...

LATHAN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Her constructing the raps in her head.

LATHAN: Yes, yes.

MARTIN: Yeah, tell me about that.

LATHAN: I love voiceover in movies. Usually you do voiceover in post-production, you know, when you're editing the film. And it just came to me one day that I was like, she's a poet, she's a rapper. The voiceover should rhyme.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ON THE COME UP")

GRAY: (As Bri) Monday - can't believe I froze. Maybe if I lay here long enough, I'll decompose. One word, three syllables - decompose. And then I could come back different, like a concrete rose.

LATHAN: And it just fits Bri so perfectly. It adds that kind of other dimension to the storytelling.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations. I mean, how do you feel now that you've made your directorial debut?

LATHAN: Oh, God. I mean, you know, it's interesting. Whenever you finish a project, there's always that feeling of - I don't know. It's a weird kind of numb feeling where you don't know how you feel because it is such a kind of huge effort. It's like climbing Mount Everest, you know? And then there's the comedown. I would say, though, that our premiere at Toronto Film Festival, we were in this theater called the Queen Anne Theater (ph), and it's a huge, beautiful screen and a beautiful theater. My whole family was there. And people were just so enrapt with the movie, and it was a life moment for me. It was kind of a full-circle moment to have this movie that - it was surreal - that I had directed being received in such a way, in such a beautiful space. It - that was a moment.

MARTIN: That was actress and director Sanaa Lathan. You can watch the film that she directed, in which she also stars. It's called "On The Come Up." You can watch it in theaters now or stream it on Paramount+. Sanaa Lathan, thank you so much for talking with us.

LATHAN: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE COME UP")

RAPSODY: (Rapping) Run up the numbers. My come up is on. Crown on me fitted, I'm born for the throne. Reciting these poems, they calling my phone. Name got a ring to it, holding my own. Path I belong, ain't walk it alone. Word to the family, loyalty, love. Daddy, he guiding me from up above. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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