UPDATED with Melvin Van Peebles casting: Courtney B. Vance and Leslie Uggams are among eight actors who have joined the cast of HBO Films’ The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, starring Oprah Winfrey. Reg E. Cathey, Reed Birney, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, John Douglas Thompson, Adriane Lenox, Roger Robinson and Melvin Van Peebles also have landed roles in the telepic.
The film tells the true story of Henrietta Lacks (Renée Elise Goldsberry), an African-American woman whose cells were used to create the first immortal human cell line. Told through the eyes of her daughter, Deborah Lacks (Winfrey), the film chronicles her search to learn about the mother she never knew and to understand how the unauthorized harvesting of Lacks’ cancerous cells in 1951 led to unprecedented medical breakthroughs, changing countless lives and the face of medicine forever. It’s a story of medical arrogance and triumph, race, poverty and deep friendship between the unlikeliest of people.
Vance, who’s up for an Emmy for his role as Johnnie Cochran in FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, will play Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield, a slick Southern con artist who tries to insert himself into the Lacks’ legal matters. Uggams, an Emmy nominee for 1977’s Roots, will play Sadie, Henrietta’s cousin and best friend. Cathey (Outcast) is Zakariyya, Henrietta’s youngest son and Deborah’s brother. Birney (House of Cards) will portary Dr. George Gey, who harvested the HeLa cells from Henrietta. Santiago-Hudson (Castle) is Dr. Pattillo, a doctor and professor of gynecology who facilitated Rebecca’s (Rose Byrne) communication with the Lacks family. Thompson (A Most Violent Year) will play Lawrence, Henrietta’s oldest son and Deborah’s older brother. Lenox (The Path) is Barbara, Lawrence’s wife who helped raised Deborah and Sonny (Rocky Carroll) after Henrietta’s death. Robinson (Custody) will play Day Lacks, Henrietta’s widower and father of their children.Van Peebles is Cootie, Henrietta’s first cousin.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is based on the bestseller by Rebecca Skloot, who is a co-executive producer on the film. George C. Wolfe is writer-director of the Harpo Films drama, which is exec produced by Winfrey, Carla Gardini, Alan Ball Peter Macdissi and Lydia Dean Pilcher.