The late August sun is ablaze over the Farmer’s Market at the corner of Third and Fairfax in Los Angeles, and Sanaa Lathan is running late for her one o’clock interview—but with good reason. Tomorrow night is the fourth season premiere of FX’s monster-hit series “Nip/Tuck“, on which she’s now starring as an enterprising, couture-dipped mysterious young woman married to an aging businessman played by Larry Hagman (yes, it’s J.R. from “Dallas“). Sanaa’s consumed with pulling together her red-carpet look, which took longer than she expected. At half past noon, her publicist calls to request a 15-minute reprieve. Then at 1:17 p.m., a remorseful Lathan herself calls from her car phone. “I’m just crossing Melrose,” she explains. “I’ll be right there.”  

When she pulls up at a few minutes shy of 2:00 p.m., the only hint of makeup on her heat-flushed face is the crimson gloss on her lips. Dressed in an orange, yellow and green V-neck sundress and wearing sandals, Lathan, chewing a piece of gum, apologizes for her tardiness and leads the way to Ulysses Voyage, a quaint little Greek restaurant. As we get settled at a corner table on the patio, we realize that we’re sitting along the path of a kid-friendly trolley, but fortunately, all the commotion seems to evaporate when our flaming cheese appetizer arrives. “This is like a grilled cheese sandwich—without the bread,” Lathan says with a laugh as we both dig in, “but I have to stop!” After all, she’s got to squeeze into a strapless fuchsia dress, courtesy of Escada, in just 24 hours.

It’s not been quite a decade since the New York–born, bicoastally raised Yale School of Drama alum landed one of her early film roles as Wesley Snipes’s mother in “Blade” back in 1998. Lathan, 35, has done her time in “the girlfriend” zone. She began warming us up to her cool-sister-next-door charm in 1999’s “The Wood” opposite Omar Epps and “The Best Man” opposite Taye Diggs. Within a year, she was reading for meatier roles, like spirited hoop star Monica in “Love & Basketball“; aspiring singer–songwriter Zora in “Disappearing Acts“; and ambitious magazine editor Sidney in the hip-hop–inspired flick “Brown Sugar“. In 2003 she steamed up the screen with Hollywood’s finest, Denzel Washington, in the romantic thriller “Out of Time“, and the next year she slew extraterrestrials in “Alien vs. Predator“. “I created a rule for myself early in my career,” she says. “I won’t do something that I’m not passionate about. It’s very hard for me to work just for money, which I’ve paid for in the past. The work is more important; the money will come.”

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