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Yale alum Sanaa Lathan talks about the craft of acting and her latest role in the recently released movie “The Contagion.”

Kam Williams | 9/14/2011, 1:39 p.m.

I feel that every role is different regardless of whether it’s on the stage or on the screen. The great thing about the stage is that you have a structured month-long rehearsal period where you’re going in every day. You have to have lots of run-throughs with theater because there are no second takes in front of a live audience.

It’s very different with film. There, the preparation depends on the role and how much time I have. Each character speaks to me differently. I have to assess the demands of the role and what’s going to bring the character to life. So, I don’t have a set approach with film. But I’m always trying to get to a realization of truth with each character.      

For “Raisin in the Sun” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” you took on parts that had been made famous by others. Did you study their performances in preparation?

No, in fact, I made a point to not watch any of the movies. That is one of my rules. If someone has already done a role I’m about to do, I won’t watch the original until after I’m finished playing the role.

Why is that?

Because I believe the subconscious is very impressionable. At least mine is. Whenever I take on anything where I might be tempted to emulate a prior performance, I try to go off the text in order to ensure a fresh interpretation.

How do you think growing up in show business influenced you during your formative years?

Let’s see … I really don’t know, because I don’t know anything else. I was always around the arts. My mother [actress Eleanor McCoy] was in the original productions of “Timbuktu” and “The Wiz” on Broadway, and I was always in the way, running around backstage. And I was always taking art and dance classes.

One good thing I do have is compassionate parents who understand my trials and tribulations because they’ve been through it before as well.    

Bernadette has a follow-up. Are you interested in directing?

One day. I’m presently into producing. I have a partner with whom I’m developing some projects right now. Directing is something I might try further down the line. You never know.  

What African American icon would you like to portray in a movie?

I don’t think that way. I’m already living my dream having the opportunity to play Vera Stark, Maggie the Cat [in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”] and so many other wonderful characters. Instead of thinking about what icon I’d like to play, I am looking to be challenged. I want to be scared, I want to work with great actors and directors and I want to tell stories about women that will inspire people. It’s more about the quality than any particular person I’d like to portray.

Many young people think they can make it in the movie industry without an education. You earned a master’s degree at Yale University’s School of Drama. Was it helpful to you to have earned that degree?