Sanaa Lathan transitions from actor to director in “On the Come Up,” now streaming on Paramount+ and based on the Angie Thomas novel of the same name. Lathan, having been in a teen…
Sanaa Lathan transitions from actor to director in “On the Come Up,” now streaming on Paramount+ and based on the Angie Thomas novel of the same name. Lathan, having been in a teen theater group, explained that she was attracted to the story’s central character, Bri. “That was the seed. But also, I grew up around the arts. I was there, right on the outskirts when hip hop was being born. So, I have a real appreciation for the art.”
Lathan was joined by the film’s stars Jamila C. Gray, who plays Bri Jackson and Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who plays Aunt Pooh. The trio sat down with Variety‘s senior artisans editor Jazz Tangcay as part of the artisans screening series to talk about the film.
In casting the film, Lathan joined the project later, replacing another director who said there had been over 200 audition tapes for the role of Bri. And yes, she did watch all 200 tapes. “I couldn’t keep my eyes off her,” Lathan told Tangcay. “All the actors had to do 16 bars after their scenes, and her bars were real swaggy, and so the opposite of Bri.” Lathan continued, “She had a vulnerability and a depth that I hadn’t seen. We screen-tested her and she got the part.”
Gray said to tap into the role of Bri, a young woman trying to make it in the world of rap by joining rap battles, she wanted to understand what made the character tick. “It was to really understand why she is so reactive in certain situations,” Gray said.
Lathan suggested the young actor watch “Raging Bull” and battle rap. Gray said, “The biggest thing for me is going and doing research and asking my friends, who had been through similar situations as Bri, How do you feel about this? How do you feel about that? So I could really capture the essence of who she was and the emotions could be truthful in scenes where I did have to be a fighter.”
Randolph reveled in talking about hair and not having to wear a wig. The film embraces the strength and beauty of natural hair on Black women. Randolph explained the natural hair she wears in the film was a happy accident. Over a Zoom meeting with Lathan, she had not been wearing a wig. Randolph explained, “She’s looking at my hair and we’re talking. At one moment she said, ‘Can you turn around?’ And I’m like, ‘No. Why?’ She goes, ‘Your hair is so pretty.'” Randolph continued, “For me, I’m always wigged in every project… Sanaa said, ‘Ooh, why don’t we do your own hair?'”
And so, except for one scene, Randolph wears her own hair in the film. Added Lathan, “She became one of those Black women or women where every time you see them, they have a different hairstyle and I loved that character trait.”
Watch the full video above.