Come Monday, expect to see many people thinking twice about sharing drinks, hesitating to board crowded trains, or doing anything whatsoever without wearing Hazmat suits. The impetus of such cautionary living will be the new film Contagion (opening nationwide tomorrow), an A-list thriller directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, the Ocean’s Eleven series, and Che, amongst countless other movies).

A fast-paced suspense machine, Contagion follows an out-of-control disease that first infects a businesswoman (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) visiting Hong Kong and rapidly spreads throughout the world via basic human contact. With an emphasis on casual details, Soderbergh extends seemingly routine shots for maximum impact; a character opens a door, and, rather than following said character into the next room, Soderbergh’s camera holds on the door’s handle, just to remind us all that, if a disease of this nature ever surfaces in real life, we’re all screwed.

Contagion’s cast is loaded with marquee names, including Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, and Marion Cotillard; central to the film’s civilian storyline, though, is Sanaa Lathan, who plays the wife of Laurence Fishburne’s world renown doctor, who heads the Center for Disease Control and is the media’s point person on all outbreak updates. When Fishburne’s character obtains some crucial information that’s being withheld from the general public, he naturally tells his wife, who, in turn, tells a friend and initiates widespread panic.

For Lathan, a romantic drama veteran (Love & Basketball, Brown Sugar), Contagion represents a shift into darker big screen territory that the Tony Award nominee (for the 2004 Broadway production of A Raisin In The Sun) hasn’t dabbled in since 2004’s Alien vs. Predator. Complex recently spoke with the New York City native about how Contagion is the ultimate horror flick, why she all of the sudden can’t get enough of hand sanitizer, and why The Cleveland Show is an actor’s dream come true.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

Complex: Immediately after the Contagion screening that I attended, a few of the people made concerted efforts to not touch one another, and one guy looked at the door strangely after someone held it for him. Needless to say, Contagion definitely makes you think twice about ever touching another person again.
Sanaa Lathan: [Laughs.] It’s true. When I first read the script, the script had that same kind of feeling. The one thing I thought was so powerful about the project is that, really, if you think about it, it’s the ultimate horror film, because it taps into those fears of things that really could happen. It’s not some big, bad monster that’s not actually out there in the world waiting to kill you; it’s something that’s really possible.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen these kinds of things happen, with things like the bird flu. All of these new things that have sprung up throughout recent years and have caused mass hysteria because of the press and the Internet—you don’t know what it is because they don’t know what it is. I just thought that it was really powerful because it makes you think, “Damn!”

The film has been receiving tons of coverage from various horror outlets, and, though at first one might question why that’s the case, it really does make sense.
It’s horror in the sense that it horrifies the viewer; it’s not “horror” in the traditional sense of the ax murderer chasing people around in the woods and hacking them up. [Laughs.]

Prior to first hearing about the film, was the fear of widespread, germ-caused diseases already in the back of your mind?
I’m not that kind of person, actually; I’m definitely not a germaphobe. I do have a close friend, though, who always brings her own sheets to hotels, and pillowcases. I remember this one time when we went to New York on a trip, and we were on the subway and she wouldn’t touch the handlebars on the subway trains. At the time, it struck me as a little odd, but now, after working on Contagion, I completely understand why; it is real for a lot of people. When we finished shooting, I was washing my hands a lot more, and overusing my hand sanitizer. [Laughs.]

Contagion has a unique structure, where it weaves in and out and multiple perspectives and never really takes a breather. In a way, no one character is more important than the next. Was that something that appealed to you about the project?
Yeah, I love that kind of movie. I’ve always been a really big fan of Soderbergh’s; I think he’s one of the true master filmmakers working today. So, for me, it was a thrill to work with him, and then to work directly with Laurence [Fishburne], who I have known and have always been a fan of, it was just something that I jumped at the chance to work on. I really love stories that interweave different storylines, and you get to see how all the dots are connected. I especially love, how at the end of the film…. It’s very chilling how they went back to show how Gwyneth Paltrow’s character originally got the disease in the Hong Kong casino. It’s just fascinating to me how they track that.

It’s a really interesting final shot, yeah. It shows the viewer that the film’s monster—the disease—can easily be caused by any random bats and pigs in real life. Not exactly a pleasant thought to leave the theater on, though.
[Laughs.] It’s a crazy movie, because it grips you from the opening shot, keeps you on the edge of your seat, and then releases that grip by reminding you just how realistic the disease actually is. As a viewer, when I saw it at a screening recently, I was just wowed by that.

Your character is important because, unlike the doctors and scientists played by Kate Winslet and Laurence Fishburne, and the superstar blogger played by Jude Law, she’s an everyday woman. Was that the character’s appeal for you?

 
As the viewer [of Contagion], you automatically think about all of the door handles you touch in a day. It’s really scary.
 

Well, for me, I totally understood her whole dilemma: Do I tell my loved ones what I know about the disease’s seriousness, or do I keep it to myself? That’s a real dilemma; you’re supposed to keep a secret, but you know that keeping the secret could potentially be the cause of somebody’s death. What do you do? What is that line? That was really interesting to me.

If that situation presented itself to you in real life, would you also go against the government’s wishes and tell loved ones the truth?
Absolutely. I feel like she doesn’t do anything wrong; she’s just looking out for the people that she loves. If anything, she’s not being selfish—she’s looking out for others. Like, “Don’t tell anybody else, but, trust me, you have to get out of town.”

Even if they get out of town, though, they can’t run away from door handles, which is the kind of mundane object that Steven Soderbergh lets the camera linger on for uncomfortably long periods of time.
[Laughs.] Exactly! It’s like he’s saying, “This door handle is potentially a hotbed for deadly diseases!” And then, as the viewer, you automatically think about all of the door handles you touch in a day. It’s really scary to think about.

Aside from Alien vs. Predator, which was based more in fantasy than reality, of course, you haven’t done many films nearly as dark as Contagion. Was that also attractive for you?
For me, I don’t really care about a film’s genre; it’s more about the script and how it’s different from what I’ve done before. But, yeah, I definitely want to do more projects of this caliber, with a director as amazing as Soderbergh and a cast as packed as this one. It can be a comedy, it can be a drama, or a thriller—anything.

It’s certainly darker than your other high-profile job these days, as the voice of Donna on Fox's The Cleveland Show.
Yeah, Cleveland is just so fun and silly—this is definitely on the other end of the spectrum. And, I have to say, working on Cleveland is the best job in the world, because you literally get out of bed and go to work. You don’t have to worry about hair and makeup; you’re in and out in 45 minutes, you laugh your butt off, and you get paid for it. It’s just great. And I can do it from anywhere. I was in New York recently doing a play and I was able to record for the show, and I just finished a movie in New Orleans and I was able to record there, too.

The movie I just shot in New Orleans is actually very dark, as well. It’s called Vipaka—that’s the working title—and it’s with Forest Whitaker and Anthony Mackie and Mike Epps. It’s another psychological thriller, but this one’s about the secrets that people hold from one another. It’s intense, and I’m so excited for people to see it. Shooting in New Orleans was great—really hot, but still great. It was like working in a steam room. [Laughs.] But I was still able to do The Cleveland Show while there.

What’s that film about exactly?
Anthony Mackie and I are married, and Mike Epps is his brother-in-law. There’s kind of this past that Mike and I have that Anthony doesn’t know about, and then there’s this major…. They committed a major crime that we don’t really know about until the end, and Forest’s character is this mysterious guy who comes in and, it’s kind of in the convention of a horror film, but he comes in and basically gets us to confess all of these secrets. It’s a horror film/heavy psychological drama.

Between that film and Contagion, it seems like you’re tapping into a darker side of yourself.
I know, right! That’s just how it happens to be these days. It’s not like I’m making something like Hatchet, where I’m going to cut everyone’s head off or anything. But it’s pretty fun to switch things up a bit.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)