Exclusive! Empowered by Oprah: The story of Henrietta Lacks
Oprah Winfrey’s inspired acceptance speech for the Cecil B DeMille award, the highest honour at the 75th Annual Golden Globes Awards is still doing the rounds on social media. And seemingly tied in with the momentous occasion, Winfrey is back on the small screen, set to charm viewers again with her performance in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a 2017 movie directed by George C Wolfe, and co-starring Rose Byrne.
The movie is based on the bestselling 2010 book of the same name by Rebecca Skloot. Inspired by a true story of a woman whose cells were taken unknowingly by a hospital when she came to be treated for cervical cancer in 1951, the movie is as gripping as the book.
Playing the character of Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, Oprah talks about being intimidated, feeling connected to Deborah and what the movie meant to her.
For all the people who haven’t read the book, tell us what The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is really about a daughter’s quest to know herself. She wasn’t trying to make any other discovery other than who was my mother, what did her cells really mean to the world, and how does that affect me and my family. So, I think the powerful dynamic of that, and yet the intimacy of that, is what makes it such a beautiful story.
When you took the role, you said you were intimidated, and didn’t want to embarrass yourself. Why is that?
I was genuinely nervous to take on the role of Deborah Lacks in the movie, because even though I have great respect for the craft of acting, I don’t consider myself most experienced when it comes to it. So, to take on a role like that, I was really afraid to do that. I was afraid I was going to make a fool of myself. I have such regard for what it takes to dismantle yourself, open yourself up vulnerably and let the energy and spirit of some other character come through — what it means to craft that. So, that’s why, to answer your question.
Can you underline Henrietta Lacks’ greatness in terms of what she contributed to medical science since 1951?
Her cells, which are still replicating as we speak, helped contribute to the polio vaccine, to the AIDS cocktail. Practically every medicine that is now in existence has some form of HELA (Henrietta Lacks) as a contribution to it. So, actually, the HELA cells have affected anyone who has taken any kind of medicine.
Is there anything you got to know as you delved into the story, which stunned you the most about what you learned?
Well, it became a story about Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks who I play — her search for herself. There was a big void in her life. I’ve done shows about people who don’t know who their parents are — you’re in search of your identity because you were adopted. Can you imagine that you have a mother, everybody knows she is your mother, but nobody wants to talk about her because back in the day, it was only referred to as a female problem — ‘She died, she had female troubles’? They didn’t even have a name for what caused her to die. So who was going to talk to her about that? Her father was not going to, all the people who knew her didn’t feel it appropriate. So, this woman Deborah Lacks had this longing to know who her mother was. She wanted to find out about her mother, and by finding out about her mother, she really learned about herself. It filled this big void inside her.
What kind of connect did you feel with Henrietta, who passed away just before the release of the book?
As we’re doing shows, talking to the press all around the world, I feel her presence so strongly. What I feel is that we did her proud. This is what she longed for. She longed to know who her mother was because that would give her her own sense of identity. She longed to have other people know what her mother had done, so she would be so proud. And it is prophetic, because from the tapes of conversation between Deborah and Rebecca Skloot, she actually says she wants me to play her character. So I feel this coming into fruition is a part of her dream. We always felt on set, anytime anything went right or wrong, we knew Henrietta and Deborah were there.
Apart from the immense contribution that Henrietta made to science, which nobody knew about, this is also a story of abuse. They even they tried to change her name, and call her Helen Lane.
Yes, they didn’t want anybody to know that those were her cells, and didn’t want it to be identified as of an African-American woman. You think of all the people who have benefitted from her cells through medical science, a lot of them don’t know that this is an African American contribution. So, we feel it’s a victory to get this story made.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks airs on Star Movies Select HD on January 13 at 9 pm.