Actors Sanaa Lathan and Michael Ealy have been fixtures in Hollywood for nearly two decades. Audiences have watched the two evolve as actors as they’ve moved freely through comedy, drama and romance in both television and film—The Following, About Last Night, Barbershop and Think Like a Man for him, and Boss, The Best Man franchise, Love and Basketball, and Brown Sugar for her. Their consistent performances, gorgeous looks and bankable box office has helped to secure their artistic space in an industry that can sometimes be fickle and precarious for African-American actors.
“Comparing our film to an exceptional film like Fatal Attraction is a real compliment to us because that was one of the films that was an inspiration for us,” says Lathan. “It’s a classic suspense, [a] sexy thriller that really shocked the world when it came out. It was done so well, so that set the bar for us.”
Lathan and Ealy’s ability to work together in front of and behind the camera is on full display as they finish each other’s sentences and use words like “we” and “us” when interviewed about the film. Roughly four years ago, Executive Producer Clint Culpeper pitched the script to Lathan over dinner, and she loved it.
“It’s very rare for someone to go scene by scene of a script over dinner and actually keep your attention the entire time. I was on the edge of my seat and kept asking, ‘And then what happens?’” Lathan was excited about the project and said she was interested in seeing where it went, knowing in Hollywood that this type of excitement is often just that—excitement and not much else.
“Three years later, Clint calls me out of the blue and says he has the script. [Michael and I] came aboard the project pretty early, so we helped develop it, which is how we became producers on the film,” she says.
Ealy elaborates. “It was important to go behind the camera, take the script and make it into something that we all wanted to be a part of,” he says. “Developing the script created an experience and a process that is something that I’ll never forget.”
Ealy sheds his good-guy leading man image to bring the role of Carter to life. Carter is a handsome charmer who becomes obsessed with Leah, a beautiful, high-powered professional looking for love while recovering from a brutal breakup with her strikingly handsome, outspokenly uncommitted boyfriend, Dave, played by Morris Chestnut.
Lathan and Ealy thoroughly researched the topics of stalking and sociopaths in order to prepare for their roles. At one point Ealy sounds clinical as he describes his character, detailing how the actions of a sociopath go beyond “no meaning no.”
“The difference between a sociopath and me is genetic coding. A sociopath does not understand fear at all,” he says. “There are a lot of different emotions that they just can’t relate to or comprehend, and that’s not something that you choose. That’s something you’re born with. You can determine at the age of 13 whether or not someone is a sociopath, and that is frightening.”
The subject of the film is intense and required a lot of emotional and physical work and long hours. Lathan offers, “It can be really heavy—all of those long hours. There were some days when I would be walking up to him [Ealy] and I’d look in his eyes and I’d say, ‘Walking dead’ because he would be gone. There was nothing there.”
Ealy, who welcomed the opportunity to play a “really bad guy” on film, enjoyed working with Lathan, a highly skilled actress who helped him stretch and show his range in this thriller. “The good thing about scaring the s—t out of Sanaa is that she will make you believe that she’s scared. There were a couple of times that she was really scared.
Lathan chimes in, “I was really scared.”
Shooting such an intense film also gave them the opportunity to lighten the load between takes. Lathan credits meditation for her ability to manage the intensity, and Ealy credits his son with helping him keep things in perspective. “Let’s be honest—I don’t cure cancer. I’m playing pretend for a living, so when I come home, that’s real life,” says Ealy.
The intensity of the topic is enhanced by the on-screen chemistry of the actors. But both admit that shooting the sex scenes was “awkward,” and basically a choreographed routine. “Sex scenes are stressful. You’re dealing with somebody you don’t do that with and a bunch of guys looking on,” says Lathan. “The truth is, it’s like a dance. You actually have to choreograph it. We talk it out,” she adds.
Ealy departs from the awkward nature of shooting sex scenes and speaks bluntly about Lathan’s sex appeal. “Nobody can sell sex better than Sanaa Lathan. She’s really that good,” he says, laughing.
“There was one scene where we had to stop because the director didn’t yell cut,” adds Lathan.
Ealy chimes in, saying, “It was the longest scene, perhaps ever, that I’ve shot. It’s like, OK, I’m tired,” as they both chuckle.
Ealy likens his on-screen performance, particularly in a scene where Lathan’s character rejects him, to performing a jazz number with Lathan. “I was very uncertain about how the scene would work or come together. It came together, and it felt like we were playing jazz at some point. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the film,” says Ealy.
If Lathan and Ealy’s thoughtful and energetic discussion of this film is any indicator of the magic they possess in front of the camera, then box-office gold for The Perfect Guy shouldn’t be far behind.
The Perfect Guy arrives in movie theaters Sept. 11, 2015.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.