An African-American woman living through the “peak of segregation,” Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, unaware that cells taken from her body would go on to transform modern medicine and history at large. Now known as HeLa cells, Henrietta’s “immortal” cells aided in the development of the polio vaccine, and remain an essential resource for medical research today—and yet for years, Lacks remained anonymous in and outside of the medical field, never acknowledged for the gift she gave to the world.
This is the potent true story that director George C. Wolfe took on with HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Adapted from Rebecca Skloot’s bestseller, the film follows the shared journey of Deborah Lacks (Oprah Winfrey) and Skloot (Rose Byrne), as they search for truths about HeLa and cast a deserved light on Henrietta, herself. Speaking with Deadline, Wolfe discusses working with Oprah on a ferocious and vulnerable performance and the value in placing a spotlight on stories lost to time.
How did you first come upon Rebecca Skloot’s book, and what made you want to tell this story?
I read the book when it first came out—I thought it was an astonishing read, and very powerful and moving. And that was that.
Then, when I got involved, I was intrigued by the challenge, because it’s set in 1951, then it’s set in the ‘70s, then it’s set in 2000. There were chapters just about the science and the HeLa cells, chapters about the family, and what all Henrietta’s children went through. The dynamic of Rebecca and Deborah was very intriguing to me, but also specifically the furiosity of Deborah’s determination to know her mother.
You have someone who looks at Jurassic Park and sees they’ve cloned a dinosaur, and she kind of halfway knows they did some cloning in relationship to her mother’s cells, so she gets the film, or she sees something in The Guardian about Henrietta.
I just was profoundly moved. I think Deborah is a very curious person, but I think even more than that, she was driven by the primal desire that we all have—to know who made us, who we come from. That becomes the aspect of the story that I really loved.
Was there a weight of responsibility you felt in taking on this film—not only to honor Henrietta and her memory but also to bring this story to light in a new way?
I think the way you honor people—to honor the book, Deborah—is by not beating yourself up, trying to honor them. [Laughs] It’s doing your job, creating a set where actors feel safe, so they can go to these incredibly complicated emotional places. Doing the research, and digging and digging, so that therefore, what you’re doing is coming from the deepest, and hopefully the smartest piece of who you are.
I remember when I directed Angels in America on Broadway, I was going “Oh my God! How do I direct a seven-hour play?” And then a voice inside my head said, “One scene at a time.” What you do is you make a commitment. You make a commitment to make sure this moment is true, and you keep on doing that.
If you are ferociously committed to telling the truth, and create an environment where people feel safe to discover, and explore, and fail—which is essential for telling the truth—then you end up honoring them by the purity of your investment in telling the story, your undiluted desire to make sure this story gets told in the most truthful way.
There’s a lot at play in this story, between its scientific and human elements. What was your conception of the way to frame and tell this story?
One of the things that the book does so brilliantly is that each chapter goes into unbelievable detail, and the wonder of the dynamics of film is, what’s going to happen next. You want a person at the center where you’re going to go, what’s going to happen next?
There is the potential to dismiss Deborah as being damaged, or crazy, or whatever, so what I was very interested in doing was helping to craft a story whereby we learn as Deborah learns. We don’t know anything about Henrietta until Deborah learns about Henrietta. We don’t know anything about the science until Deborah learns about it.
We learn enough, we know enough, to get us into the story, but every single time Deborah grows as a person, we grow in our understanding, as well. They aren’t just truths; they’re part of an emotional regiment of helping to heal Deborah. Our learning is Deborah’s healing so that every single piece of information isn’t just information—it’s an emotional, revelatory moment for Deborah, so that her fulfillment becomes our fulfillment.
Interestingly, Rebecca Skloot is a central character in the film and was involved in making it—though journalists don’t tend to want to put themselves inside the story.
I found really fascinating, this not putting yourself in the story, not being in the story. It becomes a perfect foil for Deborah, a character who requires subjective engagement with everybody. She stops at the gas station and she’s showing a stranger a picture, and explaining who she is. That became really rich, and really fascinating to me—someone who, in many respects, for better or worse, is hiding behind a tape recorder, and someone who is determined to not let anyone hide in her presence.
The film also dodges what might be a narrative tendency—to have a white woman enter the picture and dictate the story.
Yeah, I was rigorously determined not to do that, because there are enough films that have done that already. I don’t need to contribute to the phenomenon.
But also, I was very intrigued by the collaboration between Deborah and Rebecca.
Clearly, Rebecca has something unresolved inside of her. There was a line in one of the scenes that ended up getting cut—she says, “A story will latch onto you.” I loved that idea. Clearly, she was driven to tell this story, by virtue of being a person of science, by virtue of being an educated person. She is perpetually looking for facts.
By virtue of Deborah not having had access to information about her mother, she has evolved a mythology, and you have this woman going forth with mythology, and this woman going forth with facts; at one point, the mythology is going to transform into faith, and at one point, this person of facts is going to be confronted with the power of faith, which is what happens with her and Cliff. And where does that leave her?
Cliff says the most wonderful thing—he says, “Henrietta is those cells,” and in some respects, not only just spiritually, but scientifically, he’s correct. Contained within those cells is Henrietta’s DNA. All the things that made Henrietta Henrietta are in each one of those trillions upon trillions upon trillions of cells that are in laboratories all over the world. Henrietta is in those cells.
While Oprah secured the rights to Skloot’s book, she was also reluctant to take on the role of Deborah, despite her accomplished career as a performer. How did you work with her on this performance, which entailed such vulnerability?
Once she joined, whatever hesitance she had before, I never saw it. [Laughs] I think there was a degree of caution that she had—one of the things she said was she didn’t want to be foolish. I said, “Well, you’re not going to be. We’re not going to be. We’re going to work—everyday we’re going to work, and we’re going to make sure we find all the stuff that’s underneath the stuff, that’s underneath the stuff.”
She did a tremendous amount of work on her own, and then every day on set, we would play, and we would discover. She and Rose [Byrne] and I, or she and Reg Cathey, someone would throw something in her direction, and she’d slam the ball right back. It became this very fun journey that happened every single day, and she came every day to set with a ferocity and an openness that was astonishing and wonderful.
When you have every single actor coming to the material that way, then combustible, thrilling things can happen. [Oprah] nurtures all these young women from South Africa, and she was telling me that she talked to one of them just before she did a very challenging scene, and it helped to ground her. I find her to be a very skilled actor, a very generous actor, and incredibly open and available. Every day, in the scorching, horrifying Atlanta heat, we would go to work.
Rebecca Skloot’s book was a bestseller and a literary phenomenon. What does the medium of film contribute to the advancement of this story, and what is it about The Immortal Life that speaks to our current moment?
There’s this interesting climate right now of questioning the legitimacy of science, which I think is an interesting point where we are in our time. But one of the things that is really fascinating to me is Henrietta Lacks, on paper, born when she was born, dying when she died, in 1951—at the peak of segregation—a woman who was marginally educated, and a black woman. She is, on paper, without power. In her death, her cells continue to be unbelievably powerful. As discussed in the film, any time HeLa cells came near other cells, they would take over and dominate, and I find that this story of someone who could be construed by many people as without power, having cells that are of tremendous power, is a fascinating dichotomy. Everyone in this country, and around the world, has in some way—if they’ve gotten their medicine, or confronted any disease, or disability, or whatever—they have come into contact with HeLa cells. HeLa cells have helped them, in some way.
We have somebody who is easily dismissible, on paper, but as manifested in the medical profession, is profoundly powerful. To tell the story of someone where that dichotomy exists, I think is extraordinary to be told right now. I think it’s also extraordinary to tell the story of a person who is ferociously determined to know the truth—to not shy away from the truth, even if it’s awkward, uncomfortable, or scary. She is a force of nature who refuses to be stopped in her pursuit of truth.
Oprah worked for years in Baltimore and never once heard the name “Henrietta Lacks.” Like Hidden Figures—a Best Picture nominee—The Immortal Life tells a story that once was lost to time. What are your thoughts on what seems to be a movement right now, with important stories being unearthed and brought to light?
More to come, because those stories empower all of us. They empower all of us when we understand the complexity of our collective histories. Hopefully, the story of Deborah’s search for truth and Henrietta Lacks transforming modern medicine empowers all of us. We are all empowered when we are in the presence of stories because it lets us know, we’re all interconnected. Henrietta has healed you; she’s healed me. I had a kidney transplant. [Laughs] You what know I’m saying? Henrietta’s had a direct impact on my life. The thing which Henrietta died from is cervical cancer, which is caused by HPV virus. HeLa cells will help to come up with the HPV vaccine—which is stunning—so that other women will not die the way that she did.
The stories may have an incredible degree of specificity—i.e., African-Americans, African-American women—but what they are about, and what they contribute to the world, reaches beyond any boundaries of categorization. That’s extraordinary—they become American stories. They become world stories.