Opens up about role

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - TASSLE LIVING -

AF­TER a life­time of pub­licly ex­or­cis­ing the demons of her trou­bled child­hood through her TV and me­dia em­pire, Oprah Win­frey is no longer in pain.

It’s a cel­e­bra­tory mo­ment for a woman who has spent decades in the lime­light and a les­son she learnt from div­ing head­long into an­other woman’s life.

“It taught me so much about my­self,” a can­did Win­frey says of star­ring as a tor­mented and men­tally frag­ile woman in the new HBO tele­movie The Im­mor­tal Life of Hen­ri­etta Lacks.

“It taught me that I am pretty damn healed from all of my past stuff.

“I came from a life of abuse, but I didn’t have enough charge on my own abuse to get the kind of rage and anger and fear (that this role re­quired).”

At first glance, Win­frey’s new project could have been dry as dust, given it tells the story of the HELA line, the first hu­man cells to be grown out­side a body – a break­through which led to count­less med­i­cal ad­vances which have saved mil­lions of lives.

Based on the best­selling book by science jour­nal­ist Rebecca Sk­loot, the film ex­plores the rel­a­tively un­known story of Hen­ri­etta, a young black mother with a fatal can­cer whose cells were har­vested with­out her knowl­edge or con­sent.

While a docu­d­rama about ge­netic theft which ex­plores is­sues of race and iden­tity sounds like heavy view­ing, the crit­i­cally ac­claimed fea­ture is saved from drudgery by sev­eral mas­ter­ful el­e­ments.

Among them is the charm­ing de­pic­tion of the friend­ship be­tween Hen­ri­etta’s daugh­ter Deb­o­rah (Win­frey) and Sk­loot – played by Aus­tralian ac­tor Rose Byrne.

While the dis­cov­er­ies from HELA in­clude vac­cines and treat­ments which have gen­er­ated bil­lions for phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies, the fam­ily has never re­ceived com­pen­sa­tion for the use of Hen­ri­etta’s cells – and some mem­bers re­main bit­ter, Byrne says. “There was this huge para­noia about an­other per­son com­ing in and want­ing some­thing, which is why Rebecca put her­self in the story,” Byrne says.

“She wasn’t go­ing to be in the book, but then she re­alised, ‘I’m an­other per­son, an­other white per­son, who’s com­ing to this fam­ily who wants some­thing’.”

Win­frey’s barn­storm­ing per­for­mance is the other fac­tor driv­ing rave re­views.

De­spite be­ing one of the world’s most in­flu­en­tial celebri­ties, the first black fe­male bil­lion­aire and an Oscar nom­i­nee, Win­frey is a cau­tious ac­tor.

“I was re­ally afraid to do this role,” she says. “I don’t put my­self nor­mally in sit­u­a­tions where I’m out of con­trol and I don’t know what I’m do­ing … I was afraid be­cause [Deb­o­rah’s] a very chal­leng­ing role. That is a chal­leng­ing thing to lay your­self out there like that.”

While Win­frey con­sid­ers her­self healed from the ter­ri­ble abuse she suf­fered at the hands of her grand­mother and other rel­a­tives, there was one “close-to-home mo­ment” she found par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing – where Deb­o­rah talks about the abuse she and her sib­lings suf­fered af­ter their mother’s death.

“There was one line that re­ally, re­ally got me, and ev­ery time I look at it I still feel it,” Win­frey says. “When [Deb­o­rah] says: ‘My mother would have stopped him from hit­ting me’ … that hit a nerve for me, be­cause ev­ery­body who’s ever been abused wished they’d had a mother that would have said, ‘You stop that, be­cause that’s my daugh­ter’.”

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