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Oprah Winfrey was initially reluctant to act in ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’

The former talk-show host stars in the HBO movie, which premieres Saturday, April 22.

Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” was a publishing and scientific sensation earlier this decade that spent 75 weeks on The New York Times paperback nonfiction best-seller list. The book told the story of a black woman named Henrietta Lacks whose “immortal” cell line, known as HeLa, came from her cervical cancer cells in 1951.

Skloot, as both narrator and author, traced the afterlife of these cells: HeLa emerged as one of the most widely used lines in medical research and helped establish the multibillion-dollar vaccine industry, cancer treatment and in vitro fertilization industry. This was all done without the knowledge of, the consent of or any compensation paid to Lacks’ family as it struggled with racism and poverty in Baltimore.

The movie adaptation, which debuts on HBO on Saturday, April 22, takes a different storytelling approach, focusing on the lives of Lacks’ children, particularly her daughter Deborah, played by Oprah Winfrey. George C. Wolfe, the movie’s director and co-writer, said that he shifted the point of view away from Skloot (Rose Byrne) to Deborah because he found her to be “a ferociously smart and incredibly creative, brave and daring” woman whose loss put her on a “journey to know her mother in essence to know herself.”

He continued, “That felt to me very profoundly intimate and the emotional propulsion necessary to drive a film and have strong enough muscle to hang everything else that developed.”

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In a phone interview, Winfrey, 63, who was also an executive producer on the project, talked about the book’s resonance, her reluctant decision to star in the movie and why sharing the stories of women, particularly black women, has become her life’s work. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: When did you first learn about the story of Henrietta Lacks?

A: I only learned about it after reading the book in 2010. And I said let’s get the rights. I wanted to tell the story because I lived and worked in Baltimore as a young reporter for eight years, and I never in all those years of reporting, of being involved in the community, going to church every single Sunday at Bethel AME, never once heard the name Henrietta Lacks. So I thought when I read the book, “Wow, if I don’t know this story, I’m sure that there are many many other people who also don’t know.”

Q: What was the appeal of starring in this film as Henrietta’s daughter Deborah?

A: I had noooo desire to act in this film. None. Len Amato (president of HBO Films) came to visit me and said, “I think it should be you.” I gave him some other names of people who I thought it should be, and he said, “No, we really prefer you.” So, it was only after George came on board, and George said definitely you should…

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