Oprah Winfrey Says She Was Reticent to Star in ‘Henrietta Lacks’ Film Adaption

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From left: Reg E. Cathey, George C. Wolfe, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Oprah Winfrey, Rose Byrne, Leslie Uggams, Kyanna Simone and Courtney B. Vance

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.”

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SOURCE: The Hollywood Reporter – Jenna Marotta