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Renée Elise Goldsberry Hopes 'Henrietta Lacks' Movie Will Start Conversations

Apr 22, 2017

Back in 2010, science writer Rebecca Skloot published a book that sounded like science fiction — except it was real. Skloot told the story of how a tissue sample from a young African-American woman in Baltimore, taken without her knowledge or consent, went on to become "immortal." Her cells contributed to scientific breakthroughs across disciplines and around the world, and they even went up with some of the first space missions.

The woman's name was Henrietta Lacks. She died from cancer at the age of 31, and while her cells were helping to change the world, her four children were struggling to hold on to their memories of her.

Skloot's book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, became an international best-seller and now it's also a movie on HBO. Lacks is played by Renée Elise Goldsberry, who also appeared in the original Broadway production of Hamilton.

Goldsberry says the movie isn't meant to replace the book. "It's designed to be the gateway into more exploration into who Henrietta is and to really kind of see ... where we are in terms of how we're dealing with people's tissues."


Interview Highlights

On the most surprising part of Lacks' story

Here's what's surprising to me today, right now, in April of 2017, is that there's not really anything that happened to her that wouldn't be able to happen to me today. Legally, they do not have to get your consent to research your tissue samples. If you went and had a mole biopsied, anything that has been done to you, if that tissue is not connected to your body there is no need to ask for your consent to study it, to research it, to have it stored. There are banks all over this world filled with human tissue for researchers to study. And so, yes, today, right now today, we have not resolved this question. And if it disturbs you, this is something you should talk about and we should continue to have a conversation about.

On how what happened to Lacks could have happened to anyone

This is not an example of something that only happened to her because she was a poor black woman. I think that's important to know. ... They were doing this with everybody, whether you had a lot of money to pay for your doctor or not, the same things would have happened. They would have taken those tissues and they would have studied them. So I think it's important to just distinguish those things, because if we miss that then we fail to be able to address what's going on with privacy right now.

On what Lacks and her Hamilton character, Angelica Schuyler, have in common

These are two stories that are about two women who actually existed, who are hugely important and nobody really knew who they were. The writers, you know, both [Hamilton's] Lin-Manuel Miranda and Rebecca Skloot — I should actually say and Ron Chernow, since he wrote the biography for Hamilton — brought something to our consciousness that I can't believe wasn't there already. ... So as an actor it feels like the opportunity to perform a service, to portray somebody that the world really needs to know about.

On how both the HBO movie and the Broadway play are meant to start conversations

It's funny, I used to say if there was anything I would really want to have as I get older in my career, it would be wonderful to have relevance to somebody in some way so that I could continue to work on some level. And ... I think there will always be a relevance to Hamilton. It's nutritious. It's really hard to be commercially successful doing something that I think is so good for us. I feel that way about Henrietta Lacks as well.

There are endless conversations we could have about the themes that are brought up in Hamilton and the characters that we get to explore in Hamilton, and I feel the same way about Henrietta Lacks. And I am honored to be able to say that what I've done with my life is start some of those conversations, you know, and play some people that have really made me bring to the surface some things that I actually really aspire to be as a woman. I love that as well.

Radio producer Elizabeth Baker, radio editor Ammad Omar and digital producer Nicole Cohen contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

We mentioned earlier in the program that today is Earth Day, and there have been demonstrations for science around the world. In a few minutes, we'll hear from one of the celebrity scientists behind the march, Bill Nye, who has a new series out on Netflix. But, first, a story about a groundbreaking scientific discovery that raised questions about medical ethics and privacy.

In 1951, a young African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks entered Johns Hopkins seeking treatment for cervical cancer. She soon died from the illness leaving behind four young children and another legacy, the HeLa cell line. Doctors had discovered that Henrietta Lacks' cells were infinitely self-replicating, something that had never been seen before. And they started using and selling those cells for research without Henrietta or her family's knowledge or consent.

In 2010, science writer Rebecca Skloot published the story in a best-selling book "The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks." It focuses on Henrietta's adult children and their struggle to understand what happened to their mother's cells. It's now been made into a movie with the same title which premieres on HBO tonight. And playing the title character, Henrietta Lacks, is actress Renee Elise Goldsberry. Michel Martin caught up with her last week.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Renee Elise Goldsberry, thank you so much for being with us.

RENEE ELISE GOLDSBERRY: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Well, you've had many meaty roles before this, I mean, on television, on Broadway, but the role we have to mention is one that you just finished a few months ago. You were the original Angelica Schuyler in the mega Broadway musical hit "Hamilton." This project is very different. Tell us why you were attracted to it.

GOLDSBERRY: I kind of love to start with what's similar? And that is these are two stories that are about two women who actually existed who are hugely important and nobody really knew who they were. So as an actor, it feels like the opportunity to perform a service to portray somebody that the world really needs to know about.

MARTIN: Your role in this movie is relatively small you're mainly seen in flashbacks from Henrietta's daughter who is played by - I don't know - some newcomer Oprah Winfrey, I think the name.

GOLDSBERRY: Oprah Winfrey.

MARTIN: Yes, exactly.

GOLDSBERRY: She's is a young and up and coming actress, but her future is bright.

MARTIN: Was that a challenge, though, to have only a few minutes to get this character across?

GOLDSBERRY: It should have been, except for that I had that book. I have Rebecca Skloot's book. And I really want to encourage everybody to not see the film as, you know, the end all be all. It's a wonderful film, and it's designed to be the gateway into more exploration into who Henrietta is. And to really kind of see the history of basically what our government has - where we are in terms of how we're dealing with people's tissues.

MARTIN: I did want to ask about the medical ethics question because on the one hand, it is clearly true that Henrietta Lacks was not asked and her family, until a lot of other things happened, didn't get any direct benefit from what had happened. On the other hand, do we reduce everything to sort of a transaction? And I just wondered if you had some thoughts about that.

GOLDSBERRY: I have so many, and it's amazing. Here's what's surprising to me today right now in April of 2017 - is that there's not really anything that happened to her that wouldn't be able to happen to me today. Legally, they do not have to get your consent to research your tissue samples. We have - if you went and had a mole biopsy, anything that has been done to you - if that tissue is not connected to your body, there is no need to ask for your consent to study it, to, you know, to research it, to have it stored.

There are banks all over this world filled with human tissue for researchers to study. And so, yes, today, right now today, we have not resolved this question. And if it disturbs you, this is something that you should talk about, and you should - and we should have - continue to have a conversation about.

MARTIN: What is it about this whole thing, though, that - if I may use the word - offends or concerns you? Is it the fact that so many people literally profited? I mean, one of the advantages from a scientific inquiry standpoint is that Henrietta Lacks' cells were made available to researchers all over the world for free which allowed them to pursue their questions in a way that many, many people benefited.

But after a certain point, people did start charging, and a lot of people made a lot of money from it. So is that the idea that the people who benefit is so disproportionate to the people who actually participate or that who actually gave the cells or is it the privacy aspect of it? Is it - what is it?

GOLDSBERRY: I think the first thing to do is really to separate the difference between like, you know, what's happened in our - in the African-American community, what happens to two groups of poor people, that exploitation, you know, the Tuskegee experiment. This is not an example of something that only happened to her because she was a poor black woman. I think that's important to know. They were doing this with every body whether you had a lot of money to pay for your doctor or not.

The same things would have happened. They would have taken those tissues, and they would have studied them. So I think it's important to just distinguish those things because if we miss that, then we fail to be able to address what's going on with privacy right now.

MARTIN: So let's - before we let you go, we'd love to talk about you just a little bit more because you've had quite a year winning a Tony and a Drama Desk Award and also part of the Grammy Award for your role as Angelica Schuyler in "Hamilton." And I just have to ask, and I understand that, you know, as we said earlier, you've had a very big career before that. You've had a lot of meaty roles. But I do have to ask is there a before "Hamilton" and an after "Hamilton?" I mean, does it feel like that? Does it feel like this big punctuation mark?

GOLDSBERRY: It's funny. I used to say if there was anything I would really want to have as I kind of get older in my career, it would be wonderful to have relevance to somebody in some way, so that I could continue to work on some level. And I think that before or after for "Hamilton" is that I think there will always be a relevance to "Hamilton." It's nutritious. It's really hard to be commercially successful doing something that I think is so good for us. I feel that way about Henrietta Lacks as well.

There are endless conversations we could have about the themes that are brought up in "Hamilton," and I feel the same way about Henrietta Lacks. And I'm honored to be able to say that what I've done with my life is start some of those conversations, you know, and play some people that have really made me bring to the surface some things that I actually really want, aspire to be as a woman. I love that as well.

MARTIN: That's Renee Elise Goldsberry. She portrays the title character in "The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks," which premieres on HBO tonight. Renee Elise Goldsberry, thank you so much for joining us.

GOLDSBERRY: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.