WHAT MATTERS NOW
THE STAR OF THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS
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.”
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.