The new star of 'The Affair' talks staying confident, embracing a balanced life, and finding true happiness.
Sanaa Lathan has a smart, simple self-care strategy that is totally worth stealing.
“I literally have a list. If I’m doing [certain] things most days, I’m good,” explains the actress, 46, over a glass of rosé at the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood. From working out in the morning to meditating twice a day to taking social media breaks, Sanaa has been cultivating these tricks since she first broke out in 2000’s Love & Basketball. It makes sense, right? When you take time for yourself, it’s easier to deal with the various things life throws your way. Which, in Sanaa’s case, includes things like balancing a busy work schedule (see her next in season 4 of Showtime’s The Affair, premiering June 17) and dealing with those pesky Beyoncé "biting" rumors that popped up this past spring (yes, we asked about them). “Whatever comes up against you, you have tools,” she says.
Sanaa is wearing: Topshop Cashmere Off Shoulder Cropped Sweater ($68; topshop.com)
Taking time to focus on her well-being also gives Sanaa the energy and emotional wherewithal to carry out important projects. One example: her upcoming Netflix movie Nappily Ever After (due out this fall). It’s a story about a woman whose self-esteem is tied to men. Eventually her character realizes she needs to determine her own worth and, in a declaration of independence, cuts off her long hair—something Sanaa decided to do IRL instead of faking it for the film. When Sanaa is not taking on buzzy acting gigs, she’s working on the Sanaa Lathan Foundation, which offers summer camp and educational support to at-risk kids.
Sitting back on a couch, Sanaa opens up further about the importance of putting yourself first and also shares how she learned to stop her debilitating panic attacks, how shorter hair has empowered her, and what kind of love she’s looking for in her life.
Sanaa is wearing: Fenty Beauty Pro Filt'r Soft Matte Longwear Foundation in 360 ($34; sephora.com), Fenty Beauty Match Stix Matte Skinstick in Caramel ($25; sephora.com), Fenty Beauty Gloss Bomb Universal Lip Luminizer ($18; sephora.com), and Fenty Beauty Killawatt Freestyle Highlighter in Lightning Dust/Fire Crystal ($34; sephora.com).
We must talk about your shorter hair. What were you thinking right before you shaved your head for Nappily Ever After?
It was terrifying! But to me, it’s so much a part of her journey. My character is in crisis, and everything that she thought she knew is unraveling. So the emotions were all over the place for me—because I’m playing Violet, but I’m also shaving my head! It was actually really powerful and kind of weirdly cathartic and freeing. You know, I was crying, I was laughing...
Did you carry yourself differently after that?
I’m a very casual person during the day. I don’t like wearing makeup; I’m in sweats and flip-flops. But with the bald head, I felt like such a boy! So it definitely made me make more of an effort with my clothes. I felt like I was gravitating toward more sexy clothes. But you’d be surprised, a lot of my exes...so many guys were calling me, saying, "I wanna rub your head," and I was like, "What are you into?" [Laughs]
How do you feel about your look now?
It was kind of a perfect time in my life to do it. I have a lot of hair, and it’s thick. I was just so over it. If I got it straightened and then I worked out, it would go right back into the original—the Afro. And I couldn’t do braids for a week; they’d get frizzy. My girlfriends would even be like, "Why aren’t you doing anything with your hair? You look crazy!" So in terms of me being lazy, it’s just so easy. [It feels like this is time] in terms of women of color coming into this amazing renaissance of owning who they are, and owning all of their beauty in whatever shape, size, color it is. There’s no more cookie-cutter, like, “This is the ideal."
When do you feel your healthiest overall?
I recently went for three weeks to this detox kind of place where you eat raw food and wheatgrass every day, and you do wheatgrass enemas—it’s, like, seriously crunchy, hippie. [Laughs] But you come out of there sparkling.
OK, that’s next-level if you’re getting wheatgrass enemas. Do you follow a vegan diet?
I’m vegan-ish. If I’m gonna go to a restaurant, I’ll have some eggs, or I need to have sushi every now and then. I’m not hardcore, but I try to make it more than half of my diet.
Do you care about calories much or think about your weight?
I have to, yeah. But I’ve never been a skinny girl, and I don’t really aspire to be that. I’m a foodie; I love food. When I was a baby, they used to call me “Eat More Sanaa." I was like, "Thanks...thanks a lot."
When you say you don’t aspire to be a “skinny girl”—which is great—why is that?
Because I’ve grown. And as an actress, you’re a storyteller—you’re reflecting humanity and women are every size— you know what I mean?
What’s something you do every day to stay healthy?
One of the biggest changes in my life is that I meditate every day. Four years ago, my best friend died. She got the flu, and four days later she went to the doctor and soon after she was just gone. It was so devastating to me. I had a weird kind of PTSD, because she was healthier than me. I started getting panic attacks. Before that, I didn’t think they were a real thing. I remember my girlfriend having them, and I was like, "Girl, just breathe," you know? "Just relax."
Meanwhile, when you’re having a panic attack, you feel like you’re dying!
I was getting them three to five times a day. They wanted to put me on anti-anxiety medication, but I was like, “I really don’t wanna take drugs, that’s just not me.” I’d had a meditation teacher a couple years before, so she gave me a refresher course. The day that I started Transcendental Meditation, it was as if I was taking a pill. They went away. So anyway, that’s my thing. I meditate 20 minutes, twice a day.
This is our “joy” issue. How do you define joy for yourself?
I imagine it to be a spectrum: You could have a peaceful joy, you could have an ecstatic joy—and everything in between. I’m in my joy when I’m acting or doing anything creative. And I’m in my joy when I’m doing my foundation work, because whenever you’re giving, it’s like a gift to yourself.
Sanaa is wearing: ATM Anthony Thomas Melillo T-Shirt ($85; barneys.com).
Which is funny, since we often think, "The more I have, the happier I’ll be."
It’s the opposite! You have to give everything away. You can’t take it with you. But you know what is a real happiness killer? Social media. I don’t think it’s healthy for humans to constantly compare themselves. By nature, even if you see someone who you adore and they’re in Fiji, automatically you go, "Well, damn, I’m here." I think the key to happiness is keeping your eyes on your path. Rarely are you going on [social media] and [thinking], "Ooh, I’m happy!” It’s always a shift toward a darker emotion. So I have to take social media breaks.
On the topic of social media, how did you first hear about the infamous “Beyoncé bite” news?
Yeah, it blew up. And I think it’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever been involved with. Thank God I’ve been in this business for 20 years and have had so many rumors about me. They used to devastate me in my 20s, but in order to survive in this business, you just have to let it roll. I adore Beyoncé. I would never do anything malicious like that—to her, or to anyone. It’s so bizarre.
I thought it was the funniest thing ever that it was a news story.
It’s so crazy.
Moving on! You talked once about keeping a gratitude journal. Do you still?
I don’t do it every day, but I will if I’m hurting, and it works. If you turn the lens around and say, “Look at all the things I have,” it will change your mood. I have great girlfriends, and I have a great family— that’s why I work with foster kids, because I want to support kids who don’t necessarily have that. I write down every little thing. It really shifts your perspective.
Are you dating anyone now?
I always wanted—and I dream about having—a life partner, but I am completely happy, and I love my freedom. I do date, but I do not want anything less than something that’s amazing. And if it’s not gonna be that, I’m just gonna keep being my free- spirit self. I was talking to a friend of mine who’s around my age, and there is a thing when people look at you, and they’re like, "So..." as if you’re failing because you’re not married. I have so much love in my life. And maybe I will have a life partner. But I don’t know.
Your happiness doesn’t depend on having a partner...
No, it doesn’t. And that’s what I love about not being wrapped up in the fairy tale. It’s kind of [the message] you’ll see in Nappily Ever After—saying, "You know what? I’m whole already. I don’t need somebody to complete me." So if there is that person who is a partner out there, then bring it on. But I’m not gonna be with somebody for the sake of what it looks like.
When you’re feeling self-critical, what’s the best thing you say to yourself?
There’s a mantra I learned called ho’oponopono. It’s a Hawaiian practice, and it’s basically, "I love you. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. And thank you." It’s basically letting go and letting God. So those four phrases—whatever you’re coming up against?—you can just repeat those in your mind. My mind is going too much sometimes, and I just repeat that in my head. It’s letting go. It’s just...letting go.
Styling by Hayley Atkin for the Wall Group. Hair by Larry Sims using Smooth ’N Shine for Forward Artists. Makeup by Mylah Morales using Dior Beauty for Exclusive Artists. Manicure by Christina Aviles using Dior Vernis for Opus Beauty.