O: Rebecca, when did you realize your book wouldn’t be just a clinical account of Henrietta’s cells, but also a story about her family, specifically her daughter Deborah?
Rebecca Skloot: When I first called Deborah and heard her excitement. Although she had some reluctance, I could tell she wanted this story to be told because of the questions she had about the mother she never really knew: What was my mother’s favorite color? Did she like to dance? I spent a year uncovering those answers for Deborah to show her we had the same goal—to learn about her mom.

O: Jeri, how did you react to the book?
Jeri Lacks Whye: It was a mix of emotions. I knew about the polio vaccine, and that was it. All the other information was withheld from the family until Rebecca’s book came out, which was bittersweet. But it’s wonderful to now know about my grandmother’s contributions.

O: What was the moment you knew the film was in good hands?
JLW: During our first meeting with the director, George C. Wolfe, and Oprah. She came into the room singing, “Hello, Lacks family!” She was just so approachable.
RS: Oprah made it clear she was taking on a big role with a lot of responsibility. This story is as much about Deborah as it is about Henrietta. There isn’t a person in the world who hasn’t benefited from Henrietta’s cells. But we wouldn’t know that if not for this other heroic figure’s fight to know the truth about her mother.
JLW: But Rebecca, you’ve got to put yourself in that equation. It took you a year to get in touch with the family. No matter how much we ignored you at first, you kept going.
RS: And now you are, too! You’re keeping this legacy alive and making sure Deborah and Henrietta’s story goes on.

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the new film here.

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