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Sanaa Lathan on Finding an Emotional Arc Inside a Twilight Zone Loop

Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for HBO

Sanaa Lathan keeps pushing forward, but that doesn’t stop her from playing characters whose lives get stuck in a loop. Since earning an MFA in drama from Yale, and especially since her breakthrough appearances in The Best Man and Love and Basketball, Lathan’s alternated working in theater, film, and television, always staying busy and appearing in a wide variety of projects, from Shakespeare to romantic comedies to The Cleveland Show to her current work on The Affair.

Each has undoubtedly come with its own challenges, but Lathan’s latest role has an added level of difficulty. In “Replay,” the third episode of CBS All Access’ revived Twilight Zone, Lathan plays Nina, a woman driving her son Dorian (Snowfall’s Damson Idris) to his freshman year at college, toting an old camcorder along to commemorate the trip. Along the way, she learns the camcorder has a magical property, allowing her to rewind time to relive — and correct — the recent past. This proves indispensable when Nina and Dorian have a run-in with Officer Lasky (Glenn Fleshler), a racist cop who pulls them over under a flimsy pretext, and who then pushes the situation toward violence. Nina attempts to correct the situation by turning back time, only to find she can’t avoid a confrontation with someone determined to stand in the way of a young black man’s success.

The episode asks a lot of Lathan, as her character lives though one difficult experience after another, often more than once. We spoke to her about her role in “Replay,” the chunkiness of old cameras, and what she’d like to do if she ever returns to The Twilight Zone.

How challenging is it to play a character who’s going through the same thing twice?
It was very challenging because everything was done out of order. You know, usually you don’t have the luxury of doing things in order, just because of location and budget constraints. We did everything out of order. For instance, everything that was in the the diner had to be done on the same day or in a couple of days. So you might start with a beginning scene and the next scene is at the end [of the story], and because of my character’s emotional journey, I had to kind of practice where she’s going to be and get there.

So, for me, it was a challenge, but it was fine. That’s the kind of challenge that I live for as an actor. When I read the script, I immediately called my agent, like, “sign me up,” because this is the kind of role you dream of. You want these meaty, challenging roles.

I picture you having some sort of chart, where’s it like, “In this take I’m happy,” or “In this take I’m just broken.” Did you study any similar performances, like Groundhog Day, just to get a sense of what others had done in similar roles?
No, the script was so well written and I’m a trained actress. I studied drama. I’ve done lots of theater and I have many, many years of experience. So, for me, it was really just about diving into the character and starting where she is emotionally. Acting is a craft, and I think that, especially in America, we as a culture don’t talk about it. I think in England and elsewhere, they kind of give it a little bit more respect.

Part of the tradition of The Twilight Zone is having episodes like this that have a really strong element of social commentary. It that part of what drew you to this script in particular?
Absolutely. I mean, I didn’t know when the script came to me what it was about. I was so excited. I grew up watching the reruns of The Twilight Zone and vividly remember several episodes that kind of stayed with me. And so, the combination of that with Jordan Peele — who I think is one of the most exciting filmmakers out right now — I was just so excited to read it. And then I read it, it was “Sign me up.” This role was so juicy and it’s the kind of role that, as an actor, you dream about playing.

Was it difficult working with the now-ancient technology of the camcorder in this episode?
[Laughs.] I had to take that camcorder home and completely rehearse and kind of carry that camcorder with me for a couple of days, just get used to acting with … it’s like another character.

Did you have one of those growing up? I think you and I are about the same age, and when I see something like that treated as an antique, it makes me feel old.
I know. It’s so funny because I remember when those were a hot thing. I remember when Sony Walkmans were … I was dying to get a Sony Walkman. They seemed so advanced at the time. I think I had an uncle who had one, we didn’t have one. I wanted one.

When you’re doing a role like this where you are completely antagonistic to another character, do you avoid being friendly to the actor playing that character, like Glenn Fleshler here?
No, Glenn and I, we did Shakespeare in the Park together. We did Measure for Measure. We know each other, and I was just so thrilled. It kind of makes it great when you have that kind of camaraderie already. Especially if it’s an antagonistic, dark thing, because then you call “cut,” it doesn’t linger.

What are your memories of watching The Twilight Zone growing up?
I was a real bookworm growing up and the one where the guy who has Coke bottle-thick eyeglasses who loves to read, and he just wants everybody to go away, and then he gets his wish and the end of the world comes. Everybody dies and he’s alone with his book and he’s so happy, and then his eyeglasses break. So he’s all alone with these books and he can’t read them. That to me was so haunting. That one and then the one where the woman was considered so disgusting and she had a classically beautiful Hollywood kind of face and everybody around her looked like pigs. Do you remember that one?

For sure. “Eye of the Beholder.”
Of course, the one I think that gets everybody is the airplane. The one with John Lithgow and then the one with William Shatner. Once you see that, you don’t forget that, because we all fly. I’ve thought about that a million times.

Shatner was in a couple of episodes. There’s a tradition of actors coming back to The Twilight Zone. If you came back, what kind of character would you want to play?
I don’t have any kind of preference, but whatever it is, I would like to play someone completely, 360 degrees the opposite of Nina Harrison. I don’t know what that is, but that would be fun for me.

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