SINGAPORE, APRIL 11, 2017 – In 1951, a vibrant African-American woman was dying of cervical cancer at age 31. Under the bright lights of an operating room, surgeons harvested cells from her tumor that would prove to be astonishingly immortal and would change the face of medicine forever. Yet she, and any recognition of her involuntary donation, would long remain unknown. HBO Original Film THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS premieres same time as the U.S. on Sunday April 23 at 8am (SIN) on HBO with a same day primetime encore at 10:50pm (SIN). Also available on HBO On Demand and HBO GO.
The story is told through the eyes of Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks (Oprah Winfrey) who is aided by journalist, Rebecca Skloot (Rose Byrne). Deborah sets out to learn about the mother she never knew and to understand how the unauthorized harvesting of Henrietta’s (Renée Elise Goldsberry) cancerous cells led to unprecedented medical breakthroughs, creating a medical revolution that changed countless lives. It’s a true story of medical arrogance and triumph, race, poverty and deep friendship between the unlikeliest of people.
The cast of THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS includes: Oprah Winfrey (as Deborah Lacks), Rose Byrne (as Rebecca Skloot), Renée Elise Goldsberry (as Henrietta Lacks), Reg E. Cathey (as Zakariyya), Rocky Carroll (as Sonny Lacks), Courtney B. Vance (as Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield), Ruben Santiago-Hudson (as Dr. Pattillo) and Leslie Uggams (as Sadie). Directed by George C. Wolfe from a screenplay by Peter Landesman and Alexander Woo and Wolfe, the film is based on the book by Rebecca Skloot. Alan Ball, Peter Macdissi, Oprah Winfrey, Carla Gardini and Lydia Dean Pilcher executive produce; Rebecca Skloot co-executive produces. Additional cast includes Reed Birney, Adriane Lenox, Roger Robinson and John Douglas Thomas.
ABOUT THE STORY
Henrietta Lacks grew up as a tobacco farmer from Virginia and, in 1951, was a married mother of five when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer at the age of 31. Under treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, tissue from her malignant tumor was removed without her knowledge or that of her family, as was standard practice of the day. Her tissue was given to Dr. George Gey, who, at Johns Hopkins, had been trying for nearly 30 years to grow an immortal cell line. Scientists around the world had been making similar efforts with cell lines for decades for human testing that was impossible to do on living human beings.
Up until this time, no one was able to grow human cells in the culture of a petri dish. However, Lacks’ cells, multiplying at a feverish pace and accelerating the deadly cancer inside her body, continued to grow, inexplicably – one might say, miraculously – and multiply outside her body in laboratory conditions. What started as a doctor’s curiosity led to the birth of the biomedical industry and the use of what was known as HeLa cells in tens of thousands of research studies over the years. From the development of drugs for polio, leukemia, influenza and Parkinson’s disease, to cloning and gene mapping, to their inclusion in the first space missions to study the impact of zero gravity on human cells, Lacks’ cells have been bought and sold by the billions and continue to exist and multiply today.
Science journalist Rebecca Skloot spent ten years researching the story behind the HeLa cells, trying to bring Lacks’ story to light. Her 2010 New York Times bestseller, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” not only explains the scientific background of Lacks’ story, but follows her efforts to win the trust of the Lacks family and join Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, as they set out to discover the woman whose silent contribution changed the world.
ABOUT THE FILM
Multiple Tony Award winner, DGA winner and Emmy® nominee George C. Wolfe brings the book to the screen, based on an adaptation of the story.
“The book is massive,” explains Wolfe. “Massive emotionally, intellectually; it’s a science book and it’s an intimate book about families and race in America and economics and power. All these things are juggled in fascinating and interesting ways.”
Executive producer and star Oprah Winfrey became intrigued by the book before it was even published. Aware of the competitive bidding for the film rights while it was still in galley form, she called Rebecca Skloot to express her recognition of and appreciation for the ten years’ worth of determination it took for the young writer to get Henrietta Lacks’ story told.
Says Winfrey, “Had she not had the conviction to stay with the story, we still wouldn’t know about Henrietta; the world would not know about her story. Rebecca was able to put it within a context that the world could receive and understand, and now, we’ve taken it to the next level.”
Originally, Winfrey did not see herself participating in the project as an actor, because she couldn’t fully relate to the character of Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah. That changed when director Wolfe took a hand to the script.
For the screenplay, Wolfe decided to focus on Deborah Lacks’ determined quest to revisit her mother’s past, having lost her at age two, as well as her relationship with Rebecca Skloot, the eager young journalist who instigated her search.
Says Wolfe, “The story is about loss and identity, the power of knowing your own story and how it manifests itself inside of you. It’s about the desire to know so that you can be a more complete human being.”
“It wasn’t until I saw George’s breakdown of the script in such a way that I understood it was actually about a daughter in search of her mother,” explains Winfrey. “It’s about a daughter who is, really, in search of her mother’s love and connection in order to validate, verify and affirm for herself that she was loved. Knowing that part of the story is what allowed me to take it on.”
Several members of the Lacks family served as consultants on the film, including Henrietta Lacks’ children, Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman and David Lacks, Jr., and grandchildren, Jeri Lacks Whye, Alfred Carter, Jr. and La Tonya Carter.
THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS was filmed in and around Atlanta and in Baltimore, including an entrance to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where the real-life Henrietta Lacks entered and touched the foot of the huge religious statue in its atrium 65 years before.
The film’s talented crew includes: costume designer Paul Tazewell, casting director Cindy Tolan, music composer Branford Marsalis, editor Aaron Yanes, production designer Caroline Hanania and director of photography Sofian El Fani.
Written by Rebecca Skloot, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” was on the New York Times bestseller list for nearly six years and was the 2011 winner of the National Academies Communication Award for creative work that helps the public understanding of topics in science, engineering or medicine. Originally published by Crown Publishing in 2010, it has been translated into more than 25 foreign-language editions, has been added as an educational tool to school curriculums, and will be reissued in April in conjunction with the debut of the HBO Films drama.
Oprah Winfrey as Deborah Lacks, Henrietta Lacks’ charismatic, complicated daughter.
Rose Byrne as Rebecca Skloot, a young journalist who, in her effort to tell the story of Henrietta Lacks and her “immortal” cells, forms a close bond with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah. Skloot’s quest resulted in her New York Times bestselling book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”
Renée Elise Goldsberry as Henrietta Lacks, a young Baltimore woman whose cancer cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951. HeLa cells became one of the most important tools in modern medicine.
Rocky Carroll as Sonny Lacks, Henrietta Lacks’ third child and Deborah’s older brother.
Courtney B. Vance as Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield, a slick southern lawyer who tries to insert himself into the Lacks’ quest for knowledge and acknowledgment.
Reg E. Cathey as Zakariyya, Henrietta Lacks’ youngest child and Deborah Lacks’ brother.
Reed Birney as Dr. George Gey, who harvested HeLa cells from Henrietta Lacks.
Leslie Uggams as Sadie, Henrietta Lacks’ best friend and cousin.
John Benjamin Hickey as Bill Watson, Rebecca Skloot’s editor.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson as Dr. Pattillo, a doctor and professor of gynecology from Morehouse School of Medicine, whom Rebecca Skloot must first impress in order to gain access to the Lacks family.
Byron Jennings as Dr. Victor McKusick, a geneticist at Johns Hopkins.
John Douglas Thompson, as Lawrence, Henrietta Lacks’ oldest son and Deborah’s older brother.
Roger Robinson as Day Lacks, Henrietta Lacks’ widower and father to all their children.
Adriane Lenox as Barbara, Lawrence’s wife, who pulled Deborah, Sonny and Zakariyya from their Aunt Ethel and Uncle Galen’s home and finished raising them.
Gabriel Ebert as Dr. Christoph Lengauer, who first shows HeLa cells to the Lacks family.
Peter Gerety as Paul Lurz, an administrator at Crownsville Hospital.
John Beasley as Henrietta Lacks’ cousin, Cliff, from Clover, Va.
Kyanna Simone Simpson as young Deborah Lacks, Henrietta Lacks’ daughter.
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