Oprah Winfrey became obsessed with Henrietta Lacksâ story along with the rest of the world in 2010, but she never intended to star in HBO’s movie version,Â The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Saturday, 8 ET/PT).
âFor years, I was like, ‘I donât want to do it. I donât want to take this on. I just want to be a producer,’â says Winfrey, from her home in Montecito, Calif.
But she ended up taking a lead role as Lacks’ daughter Deborah, after optioningÂ the rightsÂ to produce a film based on the 2010Â bestseller.Â . Â The book chroniclesÂ how theÂ African-American Baltimore cancer patientÂ died in 1951, not knowing her tumor cells were harvested by researchers at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Henrietta’s cells, knowns as HeLa,Â wereÂ later duplicated into “immortal” cellÂ lines used by scientists for medical testing all over the world.
Author Rebecca Sklootâs nearly 400-page tome proved difficult to adapt. The non-fiction workÂ weaves together the story of Lacks’ descendants, many of whom couldn’t afford health insurance despite their mother’s medical contributions;Â HeLa’sÂ effect onÂ sprawling scientific breakthroughs, from the polio vaccine to cancer research; and the ethical repercussions of sampling body tissue without patients’ consent.
Early on, “there were some versions (of the script) where it was mostly science, and I was falling asleep,â Winfrey says.Â “We know, obviously, that getting people to digest science is a very difficult thing. Like, ‘Yes, you will enjoy spinach with a broccoli sauce.’ Being able to put it in a form where it is accessible and actually meaningful was the challenge.”
And hey, SklootÂ gets it. âIt took me 11 years to turn it into a book,â says the author, who had to persuadeÂ the Lacks family to trust her after they’d been burned by others hoping to profit from their story. (The familyÂ remains divided on the HBO film.)
Winfreyâs tune changed when director George C. Wolfe (Nights in Rodanthe) signed on and rewrote the script to focus on DeborahÂ and her quest to learn about what actually happened to her motherÂ inside the then-segregated walls of Johns Hopkins.
âThe biotech industry was born on the use of Henrietta Lacksâ cells,” Wolfe says. “HeLa is this incredible medical phenomenon. And then a few blocks away, there was a family that knew nothing about it.”
Rose Byrne (who “failed” biology and was a “miserable” science student) signed on to play Skloot, whose work âencompasses a lot of things: the line between science and ethics,Â race in America, the history of African-Americans,” she says. “Itâs a perspective from a young white journalist and an…