Discussing her new HBO film on Thursday night at an event in Los Angeles, Winfrey told moderator Elvis Mitchell that she prepared to play Deborah Lacks by seeking out the real-life woman’s childhood home.
“When we went to Baltimore last summer to meet with the family for the first time, I got the address where she used to live and stopped by her old house,” Winfrey said, on stage at the Bing Theater, as part of the Film Independent at LACMA series. “I just knocked on the door on a Sunday morning. Steadman was standing outside just in case something went down. The guy opens the door and there’s that moment…’Oprah?'”
It was a moment that almost didn’t happen, since Winfrey was reticent to take the part. She had fallen in love with the book that led to the “Henrietta Lacks” film, which charts Deborah’s quest to find out about a mother she barely knew and a medical legacy that never included her family. The unlikeliest of sources ultimately convinced her to take the part.
“We were able to hear, because of Rebecca Skloot, the author of the book, hours and hours and hours of real tapes of Deborah. That actually is the thing that finally convinced me to do it. I heard her, on tape, saying, ‘I saw Oprah today. She was doing a show about ancestors. She found her ancestors, I know I can find mine,'” Winfrey said, effortlessly slipping into character. “She was on the tape saying that she wanted me to play her.”
For “Lacks” director George C. Wolfe, the entry point for the character went back much further. “One of the things that I thought about very early on when I was working on this was ‘The Tempest.’ In the first scene Prospero tells Miranda her story and in the second scene, she defies him,” Wolfe said. As for “Henrietta Lacks,” “It’s really about who has the power, here. It’s about the passion of wanting to know.”
Winfrey hopes the film will draw more viewers and readers towards Henrietta Lacks’ life, one that she didn’t know about before coming across the book. “My feeling always is, if I read a book and I love the story, I figure I can get at least a million other people with me,” Winfrey said.
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” premieres Saturday, April 22 at 8 p.m. on HBO.