Sanaa Lathan has a smart, simple self-care strategy that is totally worth stealing.
“I literally have a list. If Im doing [certain] things most days, Im 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 2000s Love & Basketball. It makes sense, right? When you take time for yourself, its easier to deal with the various things life throws your way. Which, in Sanaas case, includes things like balancing a busy work schedule (see her next in season 4 of Showtimes 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). Its 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, shes 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 shes 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, its 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 Im playing Violet, but Im 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?
Im a very casual person during the day. I dont like wearing makeup; Im 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 youd 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 its 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 couldnt do braids for a week; theyd get frizzy. My girlfriends would even be like, "Why arent you doing anything with your hair? You look crazy!" So in terms of me being lazy, its 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. Theres 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—its, like, seriously crunchy, hippie. [Laughs] But you come out of there sparkling.
OK, thats next-level if youre getting wheatgrass enemas. Do you follow a vegan diet?
Im vegan-ish. If Im gonna go to a restaurant, Ill have some eggs, or I need to have sushi every now and then. Im 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 Ive never been a skinny girl, and I dont really aspire to be that. Im 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 dont aspire to be a “skinny girl”—which is great—why is that?
Because Ive grown. And as an actress, youre a storyteller—youre reflecting humanity and women are every size— you know what I mean?
Whats 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 didnt 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 youre having a panic attack, you feel like youre 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 dont wanna take drugs, thats just not me.” Id 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, thats 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. Im in my joy when Im acting or doing anything creative. And Im in my joy when Im doing my foundation work, because whenever youre giving, its 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 Ill be."
Its the opposite! You have to give everything away. You cant take it with you. But you know what is a real happiness killer? Social media. I dont think its healthy for humans to constantly compare themselves. By nature, even if you see someone who you adore and theyre in Fiji, automatically you go, "Well, damn, Im here." I think the key to happiness is keeping your eyes on your path. Rarely are you going on [social media] and [thinking], "Ooh, Im happy!” Its 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 its the most absurd thing Ive ever been involved with. Thank God Ive 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. Its so bizarre.
I thought it was the funniest thing ever that it was a news story.
Its so crazy.
Moving on! You talked once about keeping a gratitude journal. Do you still?
I dont do it every day, but I will if Im 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— thats why I work with foster kids, because I want to support kids who dont 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 thats amazing. And if its not gonna be that, Im just gonna keep being my free- spirit self. I was talking to a friend of mine whos around my age, and there is a thing when people look at you, and theyre like, "So…" as if youre failing because youre not married. I have so much love in my life. And maybe I will have a life partner. But I dont know.
Your happiness doesnt depend on having a partner…
No, it doesnt. And thats what I love about not being wrapped up in the fairy tale. Its kind of [the message] youll see in Nappily Ever After—saying, "You know what? Im whole already. I dont need somebody to complete me." So if there is that person who is a partner out there, then bring it on. But Im not gonna be with somebody for the sake of what it looks like.
When youre feeling self-critical, whats the best thing you say to yourself?
Theres a mantra I learned called hooponopono. Its a Hawaiian practice, and its basically, "I love you. Im sorry. Please forgive me. And thank you." Its basically letting go and letting God. So those four phrases—whatever youre 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. Its letting go. Its 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.