Renée Elise Goldsberry on her latest role in Henrietta Lacks, story-telling in its purest form, and staying humble.
BY PHOEBE DE CROISSET
Renée Elise Goldsberry’s career has been prolific; she has made waves across television, film, and theatre, but her most celebrated role by far came last year with her Tony Award-winning performance of Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton. From that moment on, Renée has focused on telling the stories of important women throughout history, and her latest role is no exception.
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Phoebe de Croisset The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the true story of an African American woman whose cells were used without her knowledge for medical research in the 1950s. Were you surprised to learn that this happened, and is still happening today?
Renée Elise Goldsberry The greatest surprise was learning about the miraculous power of Henrietta Lack’s cancer cells, and discovering how this beautiful African American woman changed the world, with no recognition for so long. I was also surprised to learn that even today, though they now label such samples with a series of numbers for anonymity as opposed to using the initials of the donor, the biological material we leave behind in hospitals and doctor’s offices can still legally be used for any kind of research without our consent. Most people don’t know that, and I think people should be aware.
I am most disturbed by what happened to her family in the 1970’s, long after Henrietta died. Another group of scientists came back to her family to conduct more research under the guise of helping them. Those scientists told her family they were collecting samples to ensure that they were not vulnerable to the same disease that killed their mother. That was a lie. They were only there to gather more data for their research.
We all benefit so greatly from medical research. I wouldn’t say no if I were asked to donate. When I look into the future, and I think of the advances made in the illnesses that my family members have passed away from, or the advancements in the fertility industry, skin care… We are all praying for breakthroughs! Anything that makes life better, longer, healthier, more beautiful, more comfortable, anything that helps our children… I want to support research in any way possible. I think we all feel that way. And still we hear this story and think ‘how could they do that to this family, and not even give them healthcare in return?’ That’s still the question that demands a fair answer.
You have to know that nothing is below you, or above you. That keeps you humble.
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PC The film is told through the eyes of Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter (played by Oprah) who searches to find out about her mother (played by you) who died when she was a baby. What was it like working alongside Oprah? Did anything surprise you about her?
REG Oprah is inspirational to everyone, whether they have met her or not. We all feel like we know her because she shares so well. As she says herself, even as a kid, she wanted to scream, “Try this!” about anything she liked or found helpful.
This movie is one of many times Oprah used her platform to shine a spotlight on something important. We all benefit from her mission to do that.
And I am happy to report that Oprah is also genuinely beautiful and generous with herself on a one-on-one basis. I have met a few people that exhaust themselves with the good work they do publicly, leaving little left. My experience working with Oprah is that somehow she still has enough left to share on a personal level. She is just as giving and open and lovely in her work as an actor and in her interactions as a friend.
PC Did she offer any advice on or off set that stuck with you?
REG She gave me some really wonderful advice – in the form of a book! It’s called The Conscious Parent, written by Shefali Tsabary. It’s a wonderful book on parenting, and I love it so much that I now give it to friends. This is what inspires me about Oprah. If she sees an opportunity to enlighten someone, I don’t think she can help herself!
PC Your role as Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton shines a spotlight on another important woman in history whose story was relatively unknown until recently. Do you think that role prepared you for Henrietta?
REG Distilled into its purest state, acting is an act of service. When I started the journey of being an actor and storyteller, I was not able to articulate that. Then I was blessed with Hamilton, and given the honor of playing Angelica Schuyler. Like Henrietta, Angelica was a powerful woman that we don’t know about, and we should. These women can teach us so much. And playing them could have been a very daunting task. There is a huge responsibility to get it right. But Thomas Kail, the director of Hamilton, used to always remind us that some stories are bigger than all of us. Some stories are so powerful and so ready to be told that we can’t mess them up. Having experienced Hamilton helped me recognize that same power in Henrietta immediately. It is freeing to forget about yourself and just be grateful for the honor of introducing the world to a powerful woman who is ready to be known.
PC You’ve said: “I feel in my heart that a kid should be able to take their mom just being there a little for granted.” Understanding that you can’t always be there, that women today are working more than ever, how do you find that balance of being a mother to your two children while working at a career you love?
REG As a kid I used to watch this show Biography on A&E. It fascinated me. Even if I didn’t know who the person was, I loved how these stories were told. Growing up, I pictured the biography of my life being written. Before anyone in the world cared to chronicle my story, I was imagining it. Everything that happened to me was about me and the telling of my Biography.
And then I had children. All of a sudden it became clear that the biography was theirs. I am only that first chapter of their story, the part where they talk about the parents. And that chapter only exists as a launching pad, so that you know where they came from and have some context to understand who they become.
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I am serving the things that have been given to me. And the most important thing that has been given to me is my family.
I love that. Anything that happens for me and to me is really only about what it to does to them and how it will impact their lives. It’s not my story anymore. This puts my career in perspective.
I believe things happen in my career for a reason. And I believe that the right things will have a positive impact on my children. This assuages the guilt associated with work responsibilities that demand my time and pull me away—sometimes. It also helps me to say no. There’s another version of my life where I assess every career opportunity by how it benefits my career. I cannot do that, and I do not feel bad about it. Because I am not serving my career. I am just serving. I am serving the things that have been given to me. And the most important thing that has been given to me is my family. So…what works in that balancing act for them, is what I feel I am supposed to do. I don’t always get it right. I question myself all the time. But I’m trying really hard because their Biography is going to be a good one!
PC What is the best advice you ever received? Greatest lesson you’ve learned in life thus far?
REG Humble yourself. I am always reminded of that. And I never have to go too far out of my way to find humbling opportunities – life provides a lot of that for me! When I was in kindergarten, I was sitting at a table with my classmates while our teacher was handing papers back to us. The boy next to me was handed a paper with a frowny face on it, and I started laughing loudly. Isn’t that awful? I had never seen one and I found it very funny! Then the teacher handed me my paper and there was an even bigger frowny face on it. I learned my lesson! To this day, I NEVER laugh at anybody, unless they are laughing themselves. I never think that I am above any misfortune that has happened to someone else. But for the grace of God go I. I carry this sentiment with me professionally and personally. And the opposite is also true. If something wonderful happens to someone else, you also have to know that you are worthy too, and you have to be open. You have to know that nothing is below you, or above you. That keeps you humble.
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PC Where and when are you happiest?
REG I am happiest when I am with my family. They are my core. Any combination of people can be included in our group. We love having extended family or friends around us… Friends with children, friends who are not married and don’t have kids, friends from work, friends from school… But the core group is always family. We could be anywhere, doing anything. Eating, laughing, playing, talking… as long as we are together. They are my greatest joy, and I thank God for them.
PC What do you look forward to in your career as you grow as an actress and performer? What are some of your hopes for the future?
REG I am grateful for every opportunity to tell an important story. I look forward to supporting the vision of great storytellers. I have worked with the best, and I know how much there is to learn from them. But what I find most challenging is the prospect of creating my own projects. There are women that I want the world to know more about – and being the force behind those stories being told – I am excited and intimidated by that prospect. Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail, Oprah Winfrey, George C Wolfe. They believe in something enough to see it through to fruition. I would love to graduate to that level. It’s challenging when you are wearing different hats; when you serve somebody else’s vision and also try to push forward your own. But I feel I have a really good team of people around me, a lot of support from my family, and I have been given a platform. Perhaps that’s why.