The HBO adaptation of the nonfiction book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” brings a fascinating story to the screen and features some talented metro Atlantans.
Oprah Winfrey executive-produces and stars in the movie, filmed largely in Atlanta and debuting at 8 p.m. Saturday. Working with Winfrey on such a momentous project was an honor for her young co-stars.
“Working with Ms. Winfrey had to have been the most impactful thing in my life,” said Kyanna Simone Simpson of Decatur, who plays a younger version of Deborah Lacks, the woman Winfrey portrays. “You always dream you’re going to meet your inspiration. I didn’t think it would be so soon. Every moment I spent with her was pure happiness.”
It’s not hyperbole to say most everyone walking around today benefited in some way from Henrietta Lacks. Her cells were harvested for research in 1951 after she died of cervical cancer. Unlike any other cells doctors had previously encountered, the HeLa strain as it became known multiplied exponentially, eventually numbering in the billions. The line has become one of the most extensively used in medical research, and scientific breakthroughs using HeLa have led to vaccines, cancer treatment and other medical marvels.
Yet the Lacks family was never informed, nor compensated. The book by Rebecca Skloot, portrayed in the movie by Rose Byrne, examines the ethical minefield and family strife created by the cavalier posture the medical establishment of the day exhibited. Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter, is central to the narrative, but Skloot had to persevere for months to gain her trust.
“There’s not anybody in the world who hasn’t been affected by HeLa cells in some way,” said Simpson, who is credited in the movie as Kyanna Simone. “It means a lot to me to be able to make sure her story is known.”
She is a second-year University of Georgia student who was busy with summer classes last year when she landed the role as young Deborah.
“On July 28, I found out I booked the job. I fell to my knees and started crying,” she said. “I get to play the younger version of Ms. Oprah Winfrey, my idol, and I get to tell this amazing story.”
Jaylon Gordon, a Paulding County 10-year-old, plays Deborah Lacks’ grandson Alfred.
“I remember telling her, ‘If I call you Grandma, I’m in character,’” the courtly young actor said. “It was an amazing opportunity. She’s nice, she’s humble. She just has a heart of gold.”
Jaylon’s brother Johnnie, 11, is also an actor. The brothers both appeared in a 2013 television movie called “A Christmas Blessing,” starring Omari Hardwick. As they are home schooled and their parents, Felicia and Johnnie Sr., own their own business, filming was a family affair.
“I got to meet Ms. Oprah Winfrey, too!” Johnnie said. “I watched them film. I was so proud of him, I was like, ‘Go ahead and do your thing, man.’ It was mind-blowing to me. I was like, ‘Wow, my brother is working alongside Ms. Oprah Winfrey!’”
Jaylon loves science in addition to acting and is intrigued by the medical aspects of the project. He boiled down the complexities of the decadeslong HeLa project with both childlike innocence and mature wisdom.
“It’s just like, Ms. Henrietta Lacks was a real person. Her cells were actually taken. Y’all named it HeLa so you could keep it a secret?” he said, referencing researchers’ failure to gain consent or make their work with the powerful strain known. “Y’all could have at least told the family. That would have given me the comfort of knowing y’all did right by them.”
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”
8 p.m. Saturday, HBO