Shots Fired‘s Sanaa Lathan talks to Awards Daily about starring on FOX’s ripped-from-the-headlines drama from Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood.
There were days on set when it felt like we were ripping from the headlines and we weren’t. We’d get chills in terms of how there was such a parallel with what was happening.
There are a number of shows on the air that seem timely given the current social climate. The idea for Shots Fired, starring critically acclaimed actress Sanaa Lathan, came over five years ago when director and screenwriter Gina Prince-Bythewood’s son reacted strongly to the shooting of Travyon Martin and George Zimmerman subsequent acquittal. The FOX show looks at all perspectives after a white man is killed by an African-American police officer. To help us all understand each other better, we see the different perspectives of the lawyers, the parents, the community, the police and the lawyers.
Shots Fired makes for gripping TV not just for the show’s timing but also the outstanding performance. Sanaa Lathan stars as the street-smart investigator, Ashe Akino, with support from Underground‘s Aisha Hinds, who plays a pastor with her own motivations. I caught up with Lathan recently to talk about the ferocity of her character and the responsibility of being on a show that could be pulled directly from the headlines.
What was it like when you got the script and read what happens in that first episode?
I was super thrilled because it was with Gina Prince-Bythewood who directed Love and Basketball, and we had been wanting to work together for many years. There were a couple of near misses and nothing ever came together. I’m also really good friends with her husband who is also an amazing filmmaker, and even before I read the script, I was already certain that I was going to sign on.
I read the script and saw the tour-de-force that is Ashe Akino. I wanted to sign up immediately. Who doesn’t want to play this? It just gets juicier and juicer with all the things this character has to go through. It’s grueling and emotionally taxing for her, but for an actor, it’s a dream role.
To be set in this world that reflects the world we’re living in right now, and to be entertaining as well as enlighten and get people talking, that’s the perfect storm of all the elements that you look for.
Ashe is a great character. She’s strong, not blonde or brunette, and TV is great in that way. You have a diverse character in a high-powered role.
I call her #BadAshe. She is a superhero in terms of her job. She is so good and relentless in her pursuit of justice and will do whatever it takes, even if it’s illegal. I love that she’s really so passionate about getting to the truth and getting justice. Yet, she is so flawed and is very vulnerable in certain areas. That was important to me because people are so multi-dimensional, and you really get to see her be weak as well as bad ass. She’s going through a crisis in her life with her daughter and having to navigate both of those at the same time is really interesting to me.
When did you start shooting the show because there’s so much going on in the news and it’s very topical?
It is so topical. We started shooting around March last year and finished in July. The thing about this topic is it is topical, but it’s also been going on for hundreds of years. It’s just now getting talked about because of camera phones. These incidents are happening, and they’re getting recorded and so we can’t sweep it under the rug. As a nation, we’re having to face this dirty little secret that has been around forever.
Reggie [Rock Bythewood] came up with this idea maybe five years ago. Remember the George Zimmerman trial? Reggie’s son who was 12 at the time was so upset that Zimmerman got off. Reggie showed him a documentary to give him a bit of a history lesson about race relations in this country. His son went on to write a short story about Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin meeting in heaven. That was the seed of Shots Fired. The story is so beautiful, and you see it in the fifth hour. Back then, they didn’t know it was going to be on TV, but the idea started years ago.
There were days on set when it felt like we were ripping from the headlines and we weren’t. We’d get chills in terms of how there was such a parallel with what was happening. One day we came to set, and we couldn’t start the day because there was a record number of police shootings that month. The night before, Philando Castile had been shot. We came to work the next day, and we just needed to take a moment of silence for him and regroup because it was just too much. You also realize how important the show is with its subject matter, and we need to remind ourselves of our responsibility.
What is that like for you to go to work with that going on?
It’s that eerie synchronicity with art imitating life and life imitating art, this more than ever. It was heavy sometimes, but we have a great crew and little community. We would do stuff on the weekend to take our mind off of it. Otherwise, it would be too much to be in that space 24-7. It was probably one of the most grueling shoots I’ve ever had. We did ten hours. It’s like doing four movies in the time it would take to shoot one movie.
We shot in five months in the middle of Summer in North Carolina, and it was like working in a sauna. We were shooting for Fall wearing heavy coats, boots, and jeans. It was grueling in that respect and taxing emotionally.
How did you prepare for the role?
I had two women who I shadowed. I shadowed Cheryl Dorsey who was a patrol cop with the L.A.P.D. Being in law enforcement is a high-stress job because you don’t know if you’re going to lose your life at any given moment. Being a woman is hard, and being a black woman is also hard. She talked about the sexism and racism that she had to deal with. At one point she felt suicidal. It is not for the faint of heart.
I spoke to Francesca who is a Latina, and she had the very same job as Ashe. I got to go to work with her, and she helped me a lot. She’s very feminine and not the stereotype of what you’d expect. She talked about changing hats when you get to the job. I learned a lot from her about entering a room, how you hold your gun, to how to talk to someone.
I’m a happy go lucky, give everyone the benefit of the doubt person. Ashe is the complete opposite. She is looking over her shoulder and on the defensive. I just did mixed martial arts which is a great workout, but the biggest benefit was the coach was constantly giving me scenarios such as walking into your house and someone jumps out at you. That really helped me get into the mindset of someone on the defensive and is always looking for the threat.
One scene that stands out is “Hour Five: Before The Storm” when you see Ashe in handcuffs and thrown on the floor. Logically, you think she’s not going to get killed off, but the fear on her face was such a moment.
I know. The script came in quickly, and that came to me. It was one of those scenes that was put on at the end of the day. We weren’t meant to shoot it that day, so I had to go on instinct with that. Remember Sandra Bland?
If you see her on Facebook, she’s someone who would have been my friend. She did not seem like a “bad character.” She didn’t have any suicidal tendencies. She immediately came to me when we were shooting. This is what it’s like for somebody to be pulled over. Nowadays you just don’t know.
I also feel the media has made some people numb to it in a way, then they’ll focus on one story and make that a focal point even though it’s happening all the time, every day.
Yes, that’s been going on for the whole history of our country. That’s why doing a show like this is entertainment, but there comes that responsibility. There’s a long legacy of artists who raise consciousness through their art. I feel that, as a group of artists working on this show, we want it to be entertaining. We want people to think about the other side.
That’s what so great about the ten hours is that we get to explore all the sides.
You mentioned it at the beginning being reunited with working with Gina again.
It’s like working with one of your close girlfriends. We have Love and Basketball. We have that trust between each other, and we know how we’re both perfectionists and want the best product. She always jokes about being in the editing room, how she can hear us talking shit to each other. If you didn’t know us, you’d think we hated each other. It’s such a treat to work with your friends. Reggie is a good friend of mine too. Every set is the first day of school, and when you don’t have to go through that, it feels really good.
Next up, you’re working on American Assassin. Tell us what’s so exciting about this because this character was written specifically in a different way.
In general, over the course of history of film, there are roles or characters written and the general thing was to hire a white woman. With American Assassin, I didn’t know about this series. American Assassin is an international bestseller, and it’s like Jason Bourne. It’s huge. People love it all around the world. Irene Kennedy is the main character, and in the book, she is white. I’m playing her, and for once, they went the opposite way.
I want to start reading the book because I read about that, and I thought, “Damn. You go girl!”
Yes. She’s another strong one. Ashe is trying to save herself and these mothers and this community. Irene is trying to save the world. That was great. We shot it in London right after Shots Fired. It was so funny because I was looking forward to chilling after Shots Fired, but as soon as we wrapped I was on a plane because I could not pass it up. Michael Keaton and Dylan O’ Brien are in it.
Shots Fired airs Wednesdays on FOX at 8pm ET.