Oprah Winfrey wasn’t looking for an acting project — but the fascinating story of Henrietta Lacks‘ life and legacy inspired her.
In an interview with PEOPLE and Entertainment Weekly‘s Editorial Director Jess Cagle for the latest edition of The Jess Cagle Interview, excerpted in this week’s issue of PEOPLE, Winfrey opens up about starring in and executive-producing HBO’s upcoming Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, an adaption of Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 best-selling book of the same name.
The film tells the true story of Henrietta Lacks, a working-class African-American woman whose cervical cancer cells were used without her consent to create the first immortal human cell line in 1951, spawning unprecedented medical breakthroughs and changing medicine forever.
Winfrey, 63, tackled the part of Lacks’ daughter Deborah — a role that had her feeling “intimidated,” she admits during the interview, which took place at The London West Hollywood in Beverly Hills.
Watch the full episode of The Jess Cagle Interview: Oprah Winfrey, streaming now on People/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN). Go to PEOPLE.com/PEN, or download the app for Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Xumo, Chromecast, Xfinity, iOS and Android devices. And for more on Oprah and Henrietta Lacks, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.
“This story is about a daughter’s yearning,” she says. “Her longing to know who she is and to find her own identity through the identity of her mother. If she can figure out who her mother is, she will know who she is. She can find herself through that.”
“It’s rare that I feel intimidated, but I felt intimidated,” she continues. “From the beginning, I said to [director George C. Wolfe]: ‘George, I’m putting myself in your hands. I can take direction and I just don’t want to make a fool of myself — please don’t let me embarrass myself.’ I sort of leaned into him and just let him guide me through it.”
Winfrey also touches on the real-life parallels between herself and Deborah, including the fact that they both suffered physical abuse when they were young.
“I’ve done a great deal of healing sitting on the other side of that microphone,” says Winfrey, explaining that her years hosting The Oprah Winfrey show was her “greatest therapy.”
“I just sort heal myself, heal my soul, heal me,” she says. “When I go back inside to reach into those parts of myself that still feel anger … I don’t have any rage. I don’t even have a pocket of rage. I can’t even find a little tinge of it over here.”
“I had similar things happen [to me], so I could relate and be empathetic,” she adds. “But trying to find the space of deep pain was harder for me. … It was easier for me to take on somebody else’s energy and somebody else’s pain than to tap into my own.”
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks premieres April 22 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.