Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” was a publishing and scientific sensation earlier this decade that spent 75 weeks on the New York Times paperback nonfiction best-seller list. The book told the story of an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks whose “immortal” cell line, known as HeLa, came from her cervical cancer cells in 1951. Skloot, as both narrator and author, traced the afterlife of these cells: HeLa emerged as one of the most widely used lines in medical research and helped establish the multibillion-dollar vaccine industry, cancer treatment and in vitro fertilization industry. This was all done without the knowledge of, the consent of or any compensation paid to Lacks’ family as it struggled with racism and poverty in Baltimore.
The movie adaptation, which debuts on HBO on Saturday, takes a different storytelling approach, focusing on the lives of Lacks’ children, particularly her daughter Deborah, played by Oprah Winfrey. George C. Wolfe, the movie’s director and co-writer, said that he shifted the point of view away from Skloot (Rose Byrne) to Deborah because he found her to be “a ferociously smart and incredibly creative, brave and daring” woman whose loss put her on a “journey to know her mother in essence to know herself.”
He continued, “That felt to me very profoundly intimate and the emotional propulsion necessary to drive a film and have strong enough muscle to hang everything else that developed.”
In a phone interview, Winfrey, 63, who was also an executive producer on the project, talked about the book’s resonance, her reluctant decision to star in the movie and why sharing the stories of women, particularly of African-American women, has become her life’s work. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: When did you first learn about the story of Henrietta Lacks?
A: I only learned about it after reading the book in 2010. And I said let’s get the rights. I wanted to tell the story because I lived and worked in Baltimore as a young reporter for eight years, and I never in all those years of reporting, of being involved in the community, going to church every single Sunday at Bethel AME, never once heard the name Henrietta Lacks. So I thought when I read the book, “Wow, if I don’t know this story, I’m sure that there are many many other people who also don’t know.”
Q: What was the appeal of starring in this film as Henrietta’s daughter Deborah?
A: I had noooo desire to act in this film. None. Len Amato (president of HBO Films) came to visit me and said, “I think it should be you.” I gave him some other names of people who I thought it should be, and he said, “No, we really prefer you.” So, it was only after George came on board, and George said definitely you should do it. I’d been talking to George for two years about doing a play on Broadway, and neither of those plays, one with Audra McDonald, have come to fruition. Audra said, “It will change your life and change you as an actress to work with George.” And she’s right. He was the person who was able to take a script that felt overridden by the science and re-adapt that into a story about a woman in search of her identity through her mother. That’s why it happened.
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Q: I read that you said you didn’t want to embarrass yourself.
A: I was so intimidated by my very first film that I cried every night. I thought I was going to get fired every day on “The Color Purple.” The other day, I was on set with Reese (Witherspoon), and I just happened to ask her how many movies she’s been in, and it’s over a hundred. And I was thinking, “God, I hope she doesn’t ask me, because I think it’s been five.” (She has actually starred in seven.) It’s not the primary thing I’ve done. I think I get better every time I do it, but I haven’t spent years fine tuning and working on it. It’s completely out of my comfort zone. So, I’m a bit intimidated when I walk on a set. I always think everybody knows more than I do and has done it longer than I have, which is true.
Q: One of the important themes of your work, from “The Color Purple” to “The Immortal Life,” is the sexual violence experienced by girls and young women. Why do you tell those stories?
A: I get to say, through the dramatic interpretation of these stories, what I tried to say (on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”) in 135 episodes of stories with child molesters, victims of child abuse, talking to the molesters themselves. I tried and tried to make an impression on the consciousness of America about what sexual abuse looked like and its long-term effects. At the end of the show, it was the one thing I said I thought I failed at. That I couldn’t get people to see it wasn’t about the act, it was about the way we consciously accepted it. So then I decided, let me try to dramatize it, and then maybe you can see it.
Q: How do the book and movie address another trauma of Henrietta’s legacy — that her cells were so instrumental to science, but she was virtually invisible in American history?
A: I live to tell stories that touch on what it means to be a black woman in the world, so I still feel it’s a miracle that we know it was an African-American woman who contributed all this to the medical field and we wouldn’t even know the story without Rebecca Skloot. I get really upset when I hear people complain (namely some members of the Lacks family) that Rebecca, or I or HBO, haven’t done anything. When one of the sons started a Henrietta Lacks Healing Center, I did make a six-figure donation to it. And we offered them to be consultants on the film, but a small portion of the family didn’t want to be a part of it. So I don’t know what they wanted other than the $10 million they wrote me asking for.
I don’t feel it’s my responsibility to now fulfill the role of the drug companies that have made billions off the cells. Do I think that her family should have benefited from that? Yes, I do. Do I think it’s my job or HBO’s job to make sure that happens? No, it’s our job to tell the story with as much integrity as possible.
Q: In the book “Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century,” sociologist Dorothy Roberts says that the story of Henrietta Lacks ultimately challenges the view that African-Americans were inherently inferior because her cells “although they came from a black woman, helped to improve the lives of people the world over and testify to our common humanity.” How could she die in a segregated ward and yet have her cells travel the world over?
A: How can you have Dorothy Dandridge come and sing at your club, and then she can’t use the bathroom and find a hotel? We certainly want to be entertained by you and appreciate you and make ourselves feel good from the experience of your art. But nope, can’t sit down, can’t eat. In 1951, all the people that benefited from those cells didn’t know that it was a black woman’s cells. It’s indicative of the times. This is the thing I choose to focus on. I’m obviously aware of and understand the complications of that. But look at what’s happened. I sit here my black self, with George Wolfe, and with the ability to get this film made. That’s progress.