First things first. Sanaa Lathan wants it known that she's nothing like Kenya McQueen, the obsessive-compulsive, self-doubting, canine-phobic, hopelessly analytical, play-it-safe career woman she brings to the screen in Something New, a love story about stepping over boundaries - especially those imposed by race - opening in theaters today.
"I'm kind of the opposite of her," Lathan says over the phone from Atlanta, in the midst of a nationwide tour promoting the film. "I'm a real nature girl, I have a dog I'm in love with. I'm more like a free spirit, kind of bohemian. ...
"Some people," she says with a beguiling laugh, "call me a hippie; they say, 'You're in the wrong time.'"
But don't make the mistake of thinking all that makes the 34-year-old native New Yorker a pushover. "The only thing we have in common," she says, "is probably the fact that we are both driven in our careers."
Driven, but not in the sense that she's willing to do anything to further it. In a film career dating back to 1998's Blade (where, at 27, she got to play the titular vampire killer's mother), Lathan has chosen her roles carefully. She's avoided being cast as the wisecracking girlfriend or victimized woman, roles typically offered to African-American actresses, in favor of roles with more depth and potential. (OK, she appeared in Alien vs. Predator, but nobody's perfect. At least the film was a hoot.)
While that means she doesn't show up onscreen as often as some of her peers - "There's a lot of faith and patience involved between projects," she explains - when Lathan does show up, it's in movies people are apt to remember.
Her early TV work includes appearances on the standard sitcoms, shows such as In the House, Family Matters and Moesha. Among her first regular gigs was the sitcom LateLine starring Al Franken as a hopelessly egotistical reporter for a TV news magazine.
Onscreen, she's shone in movies like Love and Basketball (2000), in which she and co-star Omar Epps pass through adolescence and into adulthood, never completely abandoning their childhood dreams of stardom in the NBA; Brown Sugar (2002), where she plays a magazine editor tentatively falling into a relationship with Taye Diggs' hip-hop record mogul; and Out of Time (2003), a police thriller where she got to play alongside Denzel Washington.
"I'm not interested in just being in movies," Lathan says. "I want to do things that are important to me, and that are offering something to the world."
In Something New, Lathan's character is so obsessed with making her mark in the world, and with pleasing everyone who could help her do that, that she rarely leaves time for what she wants. That starts to change when she goes on a blind date with Brian (Simon Baker), a carefree, easygoing landscaper whose personality is basically the opposite of hers. He's also white, and Kenya, foreseeing the disapproval she knows she'll be subjected to from her parents, friends and even co-workers, is not at all certain she wants to open that can of worms.
Lathan says she liked the idea that Something New is being told from the point of view of a black woman, a perspective she's never seen onscreen before. She also liked that the story was told in distinctly personal terms; most of the tension is between Kenya and Brian, not between Kenya and Brian and the rest of the world.
"Usually it's the couple against the world, or the couple against the family," she says. "In this case, it's really Kenya dealing with her own demons, her own pressures. This is her own internal struggle, falling in love with someone who's outside of her race."
Sanaa Hamri, a music-video veteran making her big-screen directorial debut with Something New, says Lathan's instincts, her desire to work outside the conventional Hollywood box, made her perfect for the film. "I loved her because she wouldn't take any type of project," Hamri says. "She was very selective about the work that she did.
"I did not want to [use] that stereotypical African-American imagery in Hollywood because I feel that it has not progressed with society and the community. If you take somebody in a small town in Middle America and ask them, 'What does an African-American do?' they'll say either a rapper or a ballplayer, a pimp, a whore. Those are not accurate images of what truly is, and what African-American people are in this country. These people [in the film] are professionals. That was very important to me."
Lathan understands that being picky isn't always the best career choice for an actor; unlike most stars, she can't always cite the next movie she has coming out. She's still in the planning stages of a project with Love & Basketball writer-director Gina Prince-Blythewood, centering on a woman who sets out on a voyage of self-discovery while her husband is in prison.
So despite all the acclaim, the popularity, the good roles behind her, Sanaa Lathan can't say what's up next. And that's OK with her.
"Of course I want more, I'd like to know what the [next] two films are down the line," she says. "I made a decision a long time ago that I wouldn't make any decisions out of fear, any decisions where I'm only in it for the money, or because I'm not working."