Q. Can you tell me about who Henrietta Lacks is and why she is called “immortal’”?
A. Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman. She died in 1951 of cervical cancer. At that time, her cells were taken without her consent or knowledge. Her cells went on to become the first human cell line to grow outside the body. Most cells would die after two or three days of being cultured and hers just doubled, tripled and went on to become this force of nature. Her cells helped develop the polio vaccine, HIV cocktails, chemotherapy, and vitro-fertilization; the list goes on and on. Her cells were sent all around the world. Literally, all of our lives are better because of what this woman was able to give to the world. This is the story of her family who were, unfortunately taken advantage of, trying to get them repatriations and to find out more about their mother. She had five children and they didn’t really know what happened.
Q. A lot of us don’t know about Hela cells even today. Did you know about this subject before you did this movie? And what made you take up this part?
A. I had read an article in the Times in the early 2000s on the Hela cell line and on Rebecca Skloot. So when George Woolfe called me, I knew vaguely what he was talking about. It’s funny because I had just had a baby and I was like, “I don’t really want to go back to work”. But I read the script and I was like, “I just..damnit..I can’t say no. I want to be in service of this story ... it’s an incredible story. I want to work with George Wolfe [director]. I want to work with Oprah.” It is such an incredible story, right? What a legacy for this African American woman whom nobody knew. I just couldn’t say no.
Q. Did you feel any performance anxiety when you were on the set, considering that you were working next to Oprah Winfrey, and you had to do justice to the legacy of Henrietta Lacks?
A. I know, right? It was a big responsibility. We all felt it on set but we all leaned on each other and we had great support from the Lacks family which was incredible. We tried to also have fun.
Q. You play Rebecca Skloots, the journalist and author who went on a dogged pursuit to tell this story, to form this friendship with Deborah, to help her discover her mother. What did you learn when you met the real Rebecca?
A. Rebecca is really a force of nature. She is incredibly smart but incredibly determined and if she has her mind on something, she will get it. There aren’t a lot of people who can be as wilful. She is a very impressive person and I got to spend a really solid amount of time with her. She was very candid and shared quite a lot of stuff with me that was not in the screenplay or the book. I was so lucky because she had so much footage with photos and audios of her and Deborah talking.
Q. How was your experience of working with Oprah Winfrey?
A. I was intimidated by her obviously. It was really without vanity, this performance. It wasn’t a glamorous part and she was fantastic. She was very meditative throughout the shoot. I think she was preserving her energy because the role was very demanding, physically, emotionally and spiritually. It came with lots of responsibilities. She transformed during this role, she even looked different and she had to move with a limp. I understood that and totally respected her for that process; that she was just conserving her energy.
Q. Do you think a book or a movie can really influence hearts? Does art have the power to bring about social change?
A. I believe so. Absolutely. I definitely think that art has the power to motivate people, to educate people, to inspire people. I know it does so for myself. So I really hope that this film sheds a whole new audience on the story and on the novel. I felt very honoured to be a part of it, to serve the story and bring the story to a bigger audience.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks premiered on 13 January on Star Movies Select HD