Renée Elise Goldsberry knows a thing or two about walking in another woman’s vintage shoes. After winning at the Tony Awards for her portrayal of Angelica Schuyler in the original cast of “Hamilton,” the New York-based actress is tackling another historical figure as the title character in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Based on the best-selling nonfiction book by Rebecca Skloot, the Oprah Winfrey-produced film is about a woman who becomes a pioneer for medical breakthroughs in the Fifties after her cells are used to create the first immortal human cell line. We caught up with Goldsberry in advance of the film’s April 22 release on HBO.
WWD: How did you come to be involved in the project?
Renée Elise Goldsberry: Sometimes life just throws things your way. People would always say, “What are you going to do after you win a Tony playing Angelica Schuyler in ‘Hamilton?’” I wasn’t really sure. But I got an e-mail from [writer/director] George Wolfe that said, “Do my movie.” I didn’t know about this woman Henrietta Lacks. I knew it was a really big book, but I had missed it, I’ll admit shamefully.
WWD: What was your reaction once you read the book and learned her story?
R.E.G.: My mind was blown — in the way that my mind was blown when I heard the music and story of Hamilton. I found myself stumbling into two jobs that really elevate being an actor. My job is not to get an award. My job is to illuminate people about something that they should know. How do we not know it? I always say, “We’re not curing cancer. We’re actors.” Every once in a while, these stories of these characters — these real people that lived and existed — their stories change our lives and validate our lives. Every once in a while you have an opportunity to play one of those people.
WWD: What was it like working with Oprah Winfrey as both executive producer and costar?
R.E.G.: It was amazing. It reminds me of when Viola Davis was looking at Meryl Streep [at the Golden Globes] and talking about how it felt to work with her and not wanting to say “what you’ve meant to me.” We all know what that feels like. We’re so fortunate to be in this business. We meet and work with people all the time who we probably really admire, but we don’t want to make them uncomfortable and we try to be really cool and do our jobs. We don’t ever get to say what we think they hear too many times. But the truth of the matter is I feel that way about Oprah Winfrey. It makes me feel like I’ve done something in my life to be a part of one of the millions of things that she’s done that makes the world a better place.
WWD: What’s something you learned from observing her?
R.E.G.: She’s Midas. I always felt like, “I hope Oprah teaches a class to everybody when they get superfamous about how to use, responsibly, that blessing.”
WWD: Following “Hamilton,” how have you been handling “that weird energy” yourself? What type of reaction do you usually get from fans?
R.E.G.: That’s an interesting thing to experience, being on the other side of that. I’ve never been a stalker fan. I’ve always been a fan from afar. I never really wanted to meet somebody as a fan and I had the opportunity to meet a lot of people that I respect greatly after they had seen my work. It gives me the opportunity to have a conversation with people on a more personal level than, “Oh my gawd, I love you.” Hamilton did that for me. It gave me an opportunity to meet people on a level where [boundaries] were broken and you could have a conversation.