Oprah to star in, produce HBO movie of Rebecca Skloot's 'Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks'
Six years after it was optioned for the screen, Rebecca Skloot’s smash bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks will go before the cameras this summer.
HBO Films announced this week that Oprah Winfrey will be an executive producer, along with Skloot and Alan Ball (True Blood). Winfrey will also star in the film as Deborah Lacks, one of the main characters in Skloot’s nonfiction book.
Deborah is one of the five children of Henrietta Lacks. A poor, uneducated African-American woman, Henrietta died at age 31 in 1951 of metastatic cervical cancer. Before she died, her doctors took cell samples from her tumor to attempt to grow them for experimental use — something that had not been done successfully at that time.
Henrietta' cells, later dubbed HeLa cells, were the exception researchers wanted. The cells grew so abundantly that they have been used in hundreds of studies over the last six decades, playing a role in the discovery of treatments for polio, influenza, hemophilia, Parkinson’s disease, HIV and many kinds of cancer. Her cells, still in wide use, have helped scientists develop in vitro fertilization and cloning, map the human genome and study the effects of radiation from atomic bombs and in outer space. Their use has also raised complex questions about medical research (and who profits from it) and patient privacy.
Skloot’s riveting, deeply reported book about Henrietta, her cells and her family was published to wide critical acclaim in 2010 and spent several years on bestseller lists, selling well over a million copies. (Read my review here.) The author was in such demand as a speaker that she was on the road almost continuously for more than three years. (Here’s an interview with Skloot about “the immortal book tour.”)
Other casting for the movie wasn’t announced, but Skloot, 43, who spent 10 years researching and writing the book and reluctantly became a character in it herself, asked fans on Twitter to suggest who should play her.
Among those mentioned were Tatiana Maslany, Anna Kendrick, Emma Stone, Aubrey Plaza, Rachel McAdams and Skloot herself (“No chance,” responded Skloot).
She’s happy, though, about the big name announced. “Thrilled about this for many reasons. Top on list: Deborah Lacks dreamed @Oprah would someday play her in #HeLa movie,” Skloot tweeted.