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A medical marvel
Rose Bryne always wanted to work with Oprah Winfrey, a lady who depicts power
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the story of three extraordinary women: Henrietta Lacks, a Baltimore woman who died young, and whose cancer cells changed the course of scientific history; her daughter Deborah, who persevered against incredible odds to find out more about her mother; and Rebecca Skloot, the author of a nonfiction bestseller about both. It’s now being converted into a TV movie with the same name.
Can you tell people who Henrietta Lacks is and why she is called “immortal?”
Henrietta Lacks was an African- American woman. She died in 1951 due to cervical cancer. At that time, her cells were taken without her consent or knowledge. Her cells became the first human cell line to grow outside the body. Most cells would die after two or three days of being cultured but hers doubled, tripled and went on to become a force of nature. Her cells helped in developing the polio vaccine, HIV cocktails, chemotherapy and in-vitro-fertilization; the list is unending. Her cells were sent all around the world. All our lives are better because of what this woman was able to give to mankind. This is the story of her family who were, unfortunately taken undue advantage of, trying to get them repatriations and to find out more about their mother. She had five children and they were unaware of what happened.
A lot of us don’t know about Hela cells even today. What made you take up this part?
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 just couldn’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.” The legacy this African American woman left behind depicts the power of profile.
There is Oprah, a bestseller book and the legacy of Henrietta Lacks. That’s a lot of pressure.
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 also tried to have fun.
You play Rebecca Skloot, the journalist and author who went on a dogging pursuit to tell this story, to form this friendship with Deborah, to help her discover her mother. What did you learn after meeting with Rebecca?
Rebecca is really a force of nature. She is incredibly smart, determined and if she has her mind on something, she will get it. Not many people can be as willful as her. She is an impressive person and I spent a 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 lucky because she had so much footage with photos and audios of her and Deborah talking.
Oprah said that she was intimidated to take on this role. What was it like working with her?
Isn’t that funny? Oprah, of all people. But it’s incredibly humbling to hear that from someone like Oprah. I was intimidated by her . It was without vanity, the 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 was a lot of responsibility. She transformed during this role, she even looked different and she had to move with a limp. I understood it and respected her for that process.
Do you think a book or a movie can really bring about change in hearts and the perception of the society today? What do you think?
I believe so. I definitely think that art has the power to motivate people, to educate people, to inspire people. So I really hope that this film grabs the attention of a whole new audience about the story as well as the novel. I felt honoured to be a part of it, to serve the story and bring the story to a wider audience.
(The TV movie will air on January 13 on Star Movies Select HD at 9pm)
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