Oprah Winfrey Says She Was Reticent to Star in 'Henrietta Lacks'

The Immortal Life Of Hanrietta Lacks New York Premiere - Getty - H 2017
Mark Sagliocco/FilmMagic/Getty Images

The media magnate toasted her new HBO film at the New York premiere on Tuesday night.

“I didn’t want to do this film,” Oprah Winfrey unexpectedly told the 479-seat audience assembled on Tuesday night at Manhattan’s SVA Theater for the world premiere of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, airing Saturday on HBO.

“I was really scurrred — three r’s — because I hadn’t done a lot of films; it’s not where I feel the most at home, obviously, in front of the television camera, where I spent 25 years of my career,” she said. 

Though she always intended to serve as executive producer, Winfrey — an Oscar-nominated actress for 1985’s The Color Purple — suggested Viola Davis and others for the lead role of Deborah Lacks, a paranoid, persevering Maryland grandmother hell-bent on learning the story of her mother, Henrietta (played by Hamilton Tony-winner Renee Elise Goldsberry), who died at 31 from cervical cancer, just before Deborah’s second birthday.

In Henrietta’s cancerous tissue, doctors discovered the first cell line “that can survive and reproduce indefinitely.” Without her or her family’s consent, they masked her identity and shipped samples to labs all over the globe, where the cells helped engineer the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, in vitro fertilization, the “AIDS Cocktail” and more. In a 2010 Popular Science article, Rebecca Skloot — author of the best-seller that inspired the film — called Henrietta Lacks “the most important woman in medical history.”

Deborah “would have loved” the film, Winfrey told The Hollywood Reporter prior to the screening. “She would have been in line, on the red carpet. She’d have had on some really bright colors. … She would not have even been able to speak from joy about what is happening for this film, because this was her No. 1 goal: to figure out who her mother was for herself, and to be able to share that story with the world.”

Skloot, founder and president of the Henrietta Lacks Foundation and an executive producer on the film as well as a main character played by Rose Byrne, told THR that although her book proposal resulted in major motion picture interest, “I went with HBO in part because they had just recently made the Jack Kevorkian movie [You Don’t Know Jack, starring Al Pacino] and the Temple Grandin movie [Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes],” plus the network was enthusiastic about having her and Lacks family members consult. Skloot noted, “I felt like they were very good at making complicated science stories that didn’t oversimplify” or have to answer box-office prerequisites like, “Where’s the love interest?”

Director George C. Wolfe, who is also one of the pic's screenwriters, described the experience of watching the film alongside so many people as “strange, but good,” noting that the audience’s laughter and silences “were contributing to the rhythm of the piece,” akin to live theater. “You don’t hear that when you’re in the editing room.”

Meanwhile, executive producer Carla Gardini said at the TAO Downtown afterparty, standing just steps away from Tony Bennett dining alongside wife Susan, “I had my eyes on, actually, a few pastors in our audience,” including John Gray, whose reality series, The Book of John Gray, premiered Saturday on the Oprah Winfrey Network (Gray has recently been called out by LGBTQ supporters for past homophobic tweets). “We’ve always talked about this movie as a non-partisan movie, that it really bridges both sides of the aisle because of what it’s saying thematically,” Gardini continued. “So for me that was what was so powerful, seeing it touch so many people, and where there was humor that I wasn’t expecting people to pick up on.”

Another theater guest, Reverend Al Sharpton, said, “It really brought tears to your eyes,” while Goldsberry’s fellow 2016 Tony winner (for the Winfrey-produced revival of The Color Purple) Cynthia Erivo concluded, “There were just wonderful performances, and it stole my heart.” 

In terms of raising awareness, the filmmakers have undoubtedly succeeded: A woman erased from medical history 65 years ago now has her very own hashtag — making her immortal.