TV mogul-turned-actress Oprah Winfrey was “intimidated” by her starring role in The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks because she didn’t want to “embarrass” herself in such an important story.
The new movie, produced for HBO, is based on author Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 bestseller, about the true story of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman whose cervical cancer cells were used in medical research to create the first immortal human cell line.
The film will be told from the viewpoint of Lacks‘ daughter, Deborah, who sets out on a journey to learn about the mother she never knew and how the unauthorized harvesting of her cells in 1951 helped change the medical industry.
Oprah had been developing the film for six years before agreeing to star as Deborah last year (16), but The Color Purple actress relied heavily on director George C. Wolfe to help perfect her character onset.
“This story is about a daughter’s yearning,” she explained in The Jess Cagle Interview. “Her longing to know who she is and to find her own identity through the identity of her mother. If she can figure out who her mother is, she will know who she is. She can find herself through that.”
“It’s rare that I feel intimidated, but I felt intimidated,” Oprah continued. “From the beginning, I said to (Wolfe): ‘George, I’m putting myself in your hands. I can take direction and I just don’t want to make a fool of myself – please don’t let me embarrass myself.’ I sort of leaned into him and just let him guide me through it.”
Parts of the film reminded Oprah of her own painful past as Deborah was also a victim of abuse during her youth, but the anger she channels onscreen was all for her character, as she learned to let go of her rage years ago, while hosting her daytime series The Oprah Winfrey Show.
“I’ve done a great deal of healing sitting on the other side of that microphone…,” she said. “When I go back inside to reach into those parts of myself that still feel anger… I don’t have any rage. I don’t even have a pocket of rage. I can’t even find a little tinge of it over here.”
She added, “I had similar things happen (to me), so I could relate (to Deborah) and be empathetic. But trying to find the space of deep pain was harder for me… It was easier for me to take on somebody else’s energy and somebody else’s pain than to tap into my own.”
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which premieres on Saturday (22Apr17), also stars Rose Byrne, Courtney B. Vance, and Renee Elise Goldsberry as Henrietta.