TV legend oprah Winfrey on how Henrietta Lacks’ death changed medicine and inspired her new drama…
NEW drama The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks thursday / sky atlantic / 9.00Pm
In 1951, in the US city of Baltimore, cells were taken from hospital patient Henrietta Lacks, a 31-yearold woman dying from cervical cancer. Those cells would play a crucial part in creating the polio vaccine, but Henrietta was unaware of her role in the medical research, and her contribution remained unrecognised for decades.
That’s the story of Sky Atlantic’s The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks, adapted from the bestseller by writer Rebecca Skloot (Damages star Rose Byrne in the drama) and told through the eyes of Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, played by Oprah Winfrey.
Here, Oprah, 63, reveals why the story is so important and reveals her fears about returning to acting…
When did you first hear about the story of Henrietta Lacks? The story came to me through someone in my office. I read the book and I thought, ‘How is it that I am a black woman and I don’t know this story?’ I could not believe that I, as an African-american student of this culture, had never heard of her. And if I hadn’t heard about her, I was sure there would be many other people who hadn’t either. How could that be?
What relevance does it have for a contemporary audience? I think it would be an important story to tell if we were telling it in 1961, 1991 or now. The fact that Henrietta Lacks is an African-american woman who most people had never even heard of until the book was published is incredible – and I count myself among those people. I lived in Baltimore from 1976 to 1983. I was an active member of the community. I worked on the streets of Baltimore, where I was a general assignment reporter on the news every day. I’ve been to Johns Hopkins Hospital many times covering stories, but I never once saw a sign or even heard the name. How did the drama come about? It’s been quite a journey to get the story told. The director, George Wolfe, helped me do it. When I read the book, my curiosity was spurred – but it’s only because George created a script that worked for me that I could see my way in. There had been previous scripts that focused too much on the science. But then George came along and said, ‘I know how to turn this into the story that you’re looking for’. This story is about a daughter who yearns to find her mother’s identity. She figures out who she is through the mother.
How does it feel to return to acting? I was really afraid to do this role, but George said to me, ‘What are you scared of ?’ He goes, ‘You need to trust me and surrender’. I trusted and surrendered to him. I told him from day one, ‘George, I just don’t want to make a fool of myself ’.
Why were you so worried?
I’ve only done five movies that I can think of. When you ask Rose Byrne how many movies she’s been in, she’s done hundreds since she was about five years old. I was like, ‘Oh God, please don’t ask me’. Usually, I don’t put myself in situations where I’m out of control and I don’t know what I’m doing. I did it for The Color Purple because I loved that book so much. I was afraid with this project because it’s a very challenging role.
What else influenced your decision to act in the movie?
I had other ideas and suggestions about who I thought should play the role, but it was only after I heard Deborah’s voice on tape saying that she wanted me to do it that I thought, ‘Well, maybe I am supposed to do it’.
Henrietta Lacks, who died aged only 31 in 1951
I was really afraid to do this role
Oprah as deborah Lacks, with rose Byrne as journalist rebecca Skloot