Though most people who watch Love and Basketball see it as the role that made Sanaa Lathan a star, looking back at it now, 19 years after the film’s release, the 47-year-old actress said shooting the project was a “miserable” experience.
“Gina [Prince-Bythewood] really wanted, and the producers, they really wanted a basketball player who could act as opposed to an actress who they could teach to play basketball,” she told LA’s KCAL, the CBS affiliate. However, that was very difficult to do, so while they worked hard to find basketball players who could possibly play Monica, they kept Sanaa around because they liked her reading of the part. She was sort of like a safety net, and because of that, she had to fight pretty hard to get the role.
“I would always get to the last step and they would throw in another basketball player,” she said. “They were giving the basketball players acting coaches.”
While the basketball players were being taught to act in the hopes of filling the role, Sanaa, for some time, was left on her own to learn basketball. When she would go in for basketball auditions, she said it would go horribly.
“Finally I demanded, ‘If you want me to continue, you’re going to have to get me a basketball coach because I hear you’re giving these basketball players acting coaches,’ and they did.”
She ended up training five hours a day for a while before actually getting the job. When she did, she said she felt like she was somewhat unwanted, which is why filming, for her, wasn’t as enjoyable as people might have thought it was.
“I was miserable [laughs]. I can laugh about it now,” she said. “I got the job and I think Gina finally got to the point where she had to hire somebody. It’s almost like she hired me because she couldn’t find somebody else, so there wasn’t a lot of joy and there wasn’t a lot of trust in me. It was her baby and it was her first time directing. It was a big deal for her. Here I am, nobody knows me really, and she has to hire me. She gets to the point where she knows it, she makes this decision with me, but yet, I was like the default. That’s hard.”
“They also surrounded me in all of the basketball scenes with real ball players,” she added. “I wasn’t ‘Sanaa Lathan,’ I was just some actress and I could feel them being like, ‘Why did this b—h get the part? She can’t play!’ So there was a lot of crying, a lot of crying behind the scenes for me.”
However, she got through it all by totally mastering Monica when it came to the actual acting. She already had more than 30 plays under her belt, and that gave her some of the confidence she needed to get through it all.
“If I had been an actress who hadn’t really done a lot, just a couple of acting classes, I would have probably been terrified. But I knew I could do the role,” she said. “The role for me was easy. I got this. So I wasn’t worried about that. It was the basketball.”
For the record, while she initially wasn’t crazy about Gina while shooting Love and Basketball, she considers her like family now and is grateful to have been a part of her classic film.
“We bonded quickly thereafter. By the end of shooting, we were cool and very close,” she said. “We went on to do Disappearing Acts and Shots Fired and I love her. She’s like a sister to me. She’s an amazing artist.”