“To Me, She Was Awful”: Gina Prince-Bythewood Originally Didn’t Want Sanaa Lathan For Love & Basketball
Last night, the new Fox drama Shots Fired premiered. The project, starring Sanaa Lathan and written and co-created by Gina Prince-Bythewood, puts these two women together for the third time. They last collaborated on Disappearing Acts, and first worked together on Prince-Bythewood’s seminal work, Love and Basketball. But speaking on their first opportunity to work together all these years later, both women can agree that it wasn’t an easy task or time. During a chat on Essence.com’s Yes, Girl podcast, both Lathan and Prince-Bythewood recounted the struggle it was to even get started filming the movie that made Lathan a star since the director, for some time, didn’t want her to play Monica.
“When I met her, the first thing she did–you did a photo shoot…But she was in a bathing suit with the sexy pose and that’s the first thing she showed me,” Prince-Bythewood said. “I was like, ‘This is so not the character, dude.'”
Not only was Lathan not her first pick for Monica, but the individual who would go on to do the first reading of the script with Lathan as Quincy was not Omar Epps. At the time, it was Mekhi Phifer of all people.
“She was going to Sundance to work on scenes from the movie, the director’s lab, which is a very kind of prestigious thing for filmmakers,” Lathan said. “We literally sat on a stage with the scripts in our hands and read the movie. And Mekhi Phifer was playing the role of Quincy. Isn’t that funny?”
She continued, “The only reason I even got into the mix…is because the actress she had in mind for the reading got sick. And so last minute she had to replace her and that’s why she went on a search and found me.”
To that point, Bythewood admitted that she was less than impressed with Lathan before the reading, and not just because of any risque photo shoots.
“We did have a rehearsal prior to the reading. Sanaa comes from theater. She wasn’t giving me anything,” Prince-Bythewood said. “To me, she was awful. And I remember calling my husband after and saying, ‘Oh my God, I gotta find somebody else, she was awful. She’s going to kill it,’ because companies were going to come to listen because we were trying to set it up. I was trying to rack my brain of who we could call to replace Sanaa and we could not reach the person. I pulled her aside before she went home to get ready for the reading that night. You said I was rude. I told her, ‘This is how you have to come dressed — I need you to bring it.’ We got to the reading, I was sitting in the audience and literally, the first couple of words out of her mouth I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ She was truly brilliant.”
But just because Lathan killed it (in a good way this time) doesn’t mean she was given the role immediately following the reading. In fact, both women said that it was an “arduous” audition process that lasted months, with Lathan competing for the role against one other woman, who was a talented basketball player interested in trying her hand at acting. Not only did a producer think that Prince-Bythewood needed to pick a “basketball player who can act as opposed to an actress who can play basketball,” but she also initially felt that it was necessary.
“I played ball,” Prince-Bythewood said. “So when I see people who can’t play, play someone athletic, it sets women back years. I wasn’t going to be a part of that.”
We all know who the director eventually chose, but it took a while for Lathan to be picked (a waiting process she admitted wore her down emotionally). It also took consistent training to look like a convincing basketball player, as well as a change of heart from Prince-Bythewood for the star to be crowned Monica.
“She was training on her own, so props to her,” Prince-Bythewood said. “Again, this is why I love Sanaa and why we keep working together. She set the bar for anybody I’ve worked with since. We hired her a basketball coach, this woman who coached at UCLA. She trained every day with no guarantee of a part. Then the woman who was a ballplayer, we put her with an acting coach. So there were these parallel tracks that we were going on for a while, and honestly, I couldn’t make a decision. In the end, I had to say, ‘What is this film? Is it a basketball film or a love story?’ It’s a love story set in the backdrop of basketball. You can fake a jump shot at the end of the day, but you can’t fake a closeup.”
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Image via New Line Cinema