Opens up about role
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’.”