Seventeen years ago, Sanaa Lathan presented “Love & Basketball” at the Sundance Film Festival. This year, Sundance screened two episodes of Fox’s event series “Shots Fired,” which reunites Lathan with her “Love & Basketball” director Gina Prince-Bythewood, who created the show with husband Reggie Bythewood.
Lathan stars as Ashe Akino, a Department of Justice investigator teaming up with Special Prosecutor Preston Terry to investigate the case of a black officer shooting an unarmed white college student, and solve the murder of an African-American teenager. In addition to the 10 hours of story, the Bythewoods gave Lathan and her costars literal folders full of backstory to inform their characters.
“Shots Fired” is a serious drama — but Lathan was having fun at Sundance, as we saw in her hilarious social shares about the drama of moving from location to location in the snow throughout the week. We spoke with her about the show, its meaning and message, what it’s like working with the directors and doing television rather than movies, and more.
We understand you were given folders full of information and the arcs of your character. When you finally saw it unfold in the script, did it exceed your expectations?
Absolutely. Gina and Reggie, they’re just such great writers. They have so much integrity. I guess the fear is always that when you sign on to something, they’ll sell it to you and it doesn’t live up — but with them, we were just surprised every week. We were getting in the scripts literally days before we would shoot the hours…
Almost like we were the audience, we’d talk about it: “Did you see what happens? Oh my gosh, can you believe?” So it definitely lived up — I felt like it was even better.
Is part of that backstory is that Ashe went undercover with the cartels?
She had a long history in law enforcement. She went undercover as an undercover investigator in Mexico and Colombia with the drug cartels. She’s a badass woman and she really knows what she’s doing… She has a fearlessness about her. She’s relentless in her pursuit of justice, she’ll do whatever it takes to get justice. At the same time, sometimes it will be outside of the law.
Might we possibly see flashbacks to her time undercover?
It’s so funny, because that’s what’s so great about working with them. They encourage the kind of actor work that we do all the time. We do our history — you have to, if you’re going to bring a full performance. We actually had rehearsals where [Lathan and Angel Bonnani], my baby daddy, we had a whole rehearsal where we improv’ed scenes from our past when we were in Colombia: When you do that, it’s there. It’s just there.
I said to Gina, “It was so vivid for me — you should do something where you would see that life!” You don’t get to see that in this. You know what? You never know.
You’re right, the audience can feel if the history is there, even if it’s not explicit.
That’s good to hear.
And now Ashe is a plainclothes investigator?
Now, she works for the Department of Justice and kind of works job to job. She’s an investigator.
I think there’s an inner drive in her. She’s going through a crisis in her life… Behaviors that are kind of out of control, and it’s getting in the way of her being a mother, which means everything to her. It’s almost like she’s in pursuit of this justice, trying to save the world, in order to save herself.
Did you get to know the outcome of the mystery with those early folders?
She didn’t let us know that. That, to me, infantalizes an actor, and I told Gina this many times, but there’s a belief that you have to keep actors guessing…
Think about people who come from theatre: You work on a play for months before you put it on, and you may do 100,000 performances. For me, knowing may inform you, as the artist. We’re not the characters, we’re craftspeople — so that was my big thing, we would laugh and argue about this — because she’s like my sister — but I was like, “You can let me know!” And she was like No!
When you found out the result, was there any part of you that thought Gina was right?
No. I wish she was here! Because the thing is, people will say, and I’ve worked with other directors who’ll be like, “Well, so and so did it.” Like some big director did it with their actors, and they got out good performances. I guess it’s just a different philosophy and different belief of the process.
I agree with you, Sanaa. I don’t need things to be a surprise.
In order to act surprised — it’s kind of underestimating what we do, in a weird way.
Was the idea of doing a police story in the current climate important to you?
Absolutely. I mean, there were days on set where we literally were in tears between takes because of what was going on in the news, in real life, with police murders. This is a story that is very important. Thankfully now, it is being brought to the consciousness — even though it’s been going on forever. You have to admit you have a problem before you can address the problem.
At least as a culture we’re staring to say, “Okay, yes, this is a problem.” Now it’s time to address it.
“Shots Fired” premieres Wednesday, Mar. 22, at 8 p.m. on FOX. Edited for length and clarity.