WHAT MAT­TERS NOW

THE STAR OF THE IM­MOR­TAL LIFE OF HEN­RI­ETTA LACKS

Albuquerque Journal - Parade - - Front Page - By Ali­son Ash­ton

Meet­ing Oprah Win­frey for the first time brings to mind the ad­vice of her beloved men­tor and friend, the late poet and civil rights ac­tivist Maya An­gelou: “When peo­ple show you who they are, be­lieve them.”

From first glimpse, Win­frey, 63, shows you ex­actly who she is: a woman who’s calm, cen­tered, present. She’s paus­ing at the win­dow to rel­ish the sight of a blus­tery Pa­cific with the sun break­ing through the storm clouds, look­ing to­tally re­laxed with her hair in soft curls and ca­su­ally dressed in a gray-and-beige striped sweater, slacks and sneak­ers.

“Wow! That’s an amaz­ing view!” she de­clares with the air of a woman who doesn’t need—or want—to be any­where else at that mo­ment.

But there’s plenty to nib­ble at Win­frey’s at­ten­tion. We’re catch­ing up on the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia coast on a busy day in a busy week in what’s shaping up to be a big year. She re­cently launched her cook­book, Food, Health, and Hap­pi­ness— and a big part­ner­ship with Weight Watch­ers. She’s shoot­ing A Wrin­kle in Time with Acad­emy Award–nom­i­nated di­rec­tor Ava DuVer­nay and will join CBS’

60 Min­utes as a spe­cial con­trib­u­tor this fall. The film adap­ta­tion of the book The Im­mor­tal Life of Hen­ri­etta Lacks, with Win­frey as an executive pro­ducer and star, pre­mieres on HBO April 22 at 8 p.m. ET.

A Chal­leng­ing Role

It’s not sur­pris­ing that Hen­ri­etta Lacks, the award-win­ning best-seller by science jour­nal­ist Re­becca Sk­loot, cap­tured Win­frey’s imag­i­na­tion. The book tells the in­cred­i­ble story of HeLa, a cell line sci­en­tists have used (and still use) in de­vel­op­ing the po­lio vac­cine, cloning, gene map­ping, in vitro fer­til­iza­tion and other re­mark­able dis­cov­er­ies. Sk­loot spent a decade trac­ing the ori­gin of HeLa to Hen­ri­etta Lacks, an African-

Amer­i­can woman who was treated for cer­vi­cal can­cer at Johns Hop­kins Hos­pi­tal in Bal­ti­more in 1951. Lacks died from her ill­ness. But doc­tors cul­tured her cells, with­out her or her fam­ily’s con­sent, and for decades gave away or sold them for research around the world, which made HeLa “im­mor­tal”—all while her own chil­dren strug­gled. It’s a story of re­mark­able science, ques­tion­able med­i­cal ethics in the era be­fore patients’ rights, and the tense re­la­tion­ship be­tween African-Amer­i­cans and the med­i­cal com­mu­nity.

“I thought it would be a re­ally in­ter­est­ing story to try to tell, be­cause I’d never heard of it,” says Win­frey. “I lived in Bal­ti­more from ’76 to ’83. I was re­ally ac­tive in the church com­mu­nity and so­cial com­mu­nity. I was re­ally en­gaged, but never once did I hear the name Hen­ri­etta Lacks. I was sur­prised at my level of ig­no­rance, and I felt that it was a story that needed to be told.”

The film adap­ta­tion cen­ters on Lacks’ grown daugh­ter Deb­o­rah, who part­nered with Sk­loot to un­cover her mother’s story. Deb­o­rah was ea­ger to learn about the mother she never knew yet was re­luc­tant at first to trust Sk­loot and fear­ful about what the truth might re­veal. Win­frey stars as Deb­o­rah, with Rose Byrne co-star­ring as Sk­loot and Renée Elise Golds­berry, who won a Tony for her role in the Broad­way hit Hamil­ton, as Hen­ri­etta. Deb­o­rah, who passed away in 2009, watched The Oprah Win­frey Show daily and al­ways wanted Win­frey to tell the story. “She and Re­becca used to talk about if there was a movie, she’d want me to play her,” says Win­frey. But Win­frey was re­luc­tant to tackle the role when di­rec­tor George Wolfe sug­gested she do it.

“I was re­ally kind of scared of it,” she ad­mits. “I’m about as far re­moved from the char­ac­ter as one could be. So, to live in an anx­i­ety-rid­den space and to al­ways op­er­ate from a fear­ful space, I had to do a lot of work to be able to get there.” She worked with act­ing coach Su­san Bat­son and lis­tened to hours of Sk­loot’s in­ter­views with Deb­o­rah.

And she knew she hit the mark when Deb­o­rah’s grand­son vis­ited the set to watch Win­frey and Byrne shoot the scene when Deb­o­rah and Sk­loot meet for the first time. “I was get­ting out of the car, and he was say­ing, ‘Oh, my God, I’m hav­ing flash­backs of my grandma!’ ” Win­frey says. “I thought, OK, that’s a good thing.”

A Strong Cen­ter

If Deb­o­rah came from a place of fear, Win­frey has been known for her ex­tra­or­di­nary

con­fi­dence. “I grew up be­ing an or­a­tor and have been do­ing it since I was 3,” says Win­frey, who was dubbed “the Lit­tle Speaker” as a child. She was so good at it that speak­ing en­gage­ments helped pay her way through col­lege.

“Peo­ple would in­vite me to speak to their churches, to women’s groups and so forth,” she re­calls. “And as I was leav­ing Nashville, I was 22, it was a Sun­day, and I was driv­ing my red Cut­lass to Bal­ti­more. I spoke at a church, and what I spoke on was that I don’t know what the fu­ture holds, but that I know who holds the fu­ture. That would be a defin­ing mantra for my life: I live in the space of com­plete cen­tered­ness that there is a univer­sal force, that I call God, that it’s go­ing to be OK. No mat­ter what, I’m go­ing to be OK.”

That stead­fast faith saw her through a rocky child­hood. Born to a young, sin­gle mother, Win­frey spent her early years liv­ing with her grand­mother in ru­ral Mis­sis­sippi. Later, while liv­ing with her mother in Mil­wau­kee, she was sex­u­ally abused by rel­a­tives and fam­ily friends from the age of 9 un­til she ran away at 13. At 14, she gave birth to a son who died shortly af­ter. It was a turn­ing point. She went to live with her fa­ther in Nashville, where she ex­celled in school, landed her first job on ra­dio and won a schol­ar­ship to Ten­nessee State Univer­sity. Bol­stered by faith and tem­pered by ex­pe­ri­ence, Win­frey stays on a re­mark­ably even keel. “I don’t get re­ally up­set about a lot of things,” she says. “I could count on one hand—and I wouldn’t use all five fin­gers—the times I ever raised my voice at some­body.” And that in­cludes St­ed­man Gra­ham, her part­ner since 1986.

Her Great­est Joy

She tries to cul­ti­vate that sense of equa­nim­ity in the young women she’s men­tor­ing through the Oprah Win­frey Lead­er­ship Acad­emy for Girls, founded in 2007 in South Africa. The first stu­dents are now young women at­tend­ing col­leges here in the U.S. and they still turn to “Mom” for guid­ance.

It’s a two-way street. “I started that school be­cause I thought it was go­ing to be help­ing them, but what they have brought to me is a height­ened sense of what it means to be a giver on the planet,” says Win­frey. “It’s one of the most re­ward­ing things of my life. It’s like I have 20 daugh­ters.”

Her ad­vice for her girls (and for the rest of us)? “Re­lax,” says Win­frey. “Find your flow, that’s yours and yours alone, and ride the wave that is your life. Every­body has their own cur­rent and their own flow, and your job is to fig­ure out where is yours.”

Win­frey’s cer­tainly mas­tered her per­sonal flow. “I’m most proud that I’ve grown and be­come more of who I am—cap­i­tal ‘I,’ cap­i­tal ‘AM,’ ” she says. “I’m not some­body who takes any of it for granted. I live re­ally well, with a lot of joy. I feel a sense of con­tent­ment. I only do what I want to do. You earn the right by 60.

“If you’re 60 and you’re still do­ing every­thing every­body else wants to do, you have not passed the test yet. You need an­other class.”

Hen­ri­etta Lacks

Win­frey, in cos­tume as Hen­ri­etta Lacks’ daugh­ter Deb­o­rah, chats on the set of the film with di­rec­tor George Wolfe. In 2012, she cel­e­brated with the first grad­u­at­ing class of the Oprah Win­frey Lead­er­ship Acad­emy for Girls in South Africa.

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