Interview: George C. Wolfe talks about his career and directing Oprah for 'Henrietta Lacks'

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September 12th 2017

In the perhaps not so near future, we might be getting a play or movie or musical based on life in Frankfort, Kentucky, the hometown of Tony-winning Broadway producer George C. Wolfe. Frankfort, Kentucky sits along the Kentucky River in central Kentucky and is the state’s capital. It is otherwise notable for being the hometown of Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, who famously dissented the verdict in the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson case and is infamously where a Secretary of State was convicted of masterminding the assassination of its governor-elect in 1900.

Wolfe explains that he has been “Exploring it personally and creatively right now. I’ve never written specifically about where I’m from, so I’m sort of doing it now.” He chuckles as he continues, saying “It's very hard because there is the truth and then there is fiction. And truth can kill fiction.” Although, he says, “The town was for the first five, six, maybe even seven years of my life...segregated." It was a place of safety and security for him. He explains, “ I have very specific memories of growing up in a black community where I felt very protected.”  Wolfe is the second youngest of four children. He has an older brother and sister and a younger brother. As a child, he was obsessed with theater and with anything associated with Disney. He also intuitively knew that one day he would make his mark in television or film. As an adult, his cousins in Muncie, Indiana jokingly reminded him of a poignant moment from their childhoods. After watching a program together, his cousins turned to eight-year old George and asked him if he liked it. They explained to him that he, “walked over to the TV to the credits and said, “My name is going to be there. It wasn’t I’m going to be on TV it was my name is going to be there.” He is laughing as he says this, but as far as prophecies go, this was a pretty serious one. Wolfe has since won two Tony Awards for directing the seminal work Angels in America: Millennium Approaches about AIDS and homosexuality in '80s America and Bring in Da Noize, Bring in Da Funk starring tap-dance phenom Savion Glover. Wolfe had come to pre-eminence directing the critically acclaimed and 11-time Tony Award nominated Jelly’s Last Jam about famous Creole jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton. He has since moved on to also writing and directing for the big and small screens.

Photo: HBO Photo: HBO

A member of the esteemed Presidential Arts Committee until his recent resignation to protest President Trump’s policies, Wolfe also had a strong will when it came to carving out a place for himself in the area of performing arts. Though he didn’t encounter overt resistance to his theatrical aspirations, it was implicit in the norms of mid-century Frankfort, Kentucky society that once an adult, he would choose a different path. “At that time any degree of accomplishment be it academic or creative or a sense of social responsibility or political ambition, everything was applauded by your community it was celebrated by your community so all my creative endeavors were celebrated. But then at the same time, people expect that once you became an adult that you would do something responsible, like become a doctor or a lawyer or teacher. I was expected to pursue something much more practical.” Wolfe had other ideas. “I wanted to tell stories and I wanted to exist as my own definition of myself. I didn’t want to be defined by other people’s limitations. You’re not going to tell me what I can’t do. This is what I’m supposed to do. This is the path I’m gonna take, this what I’m going to study this is what I’m gonna write. No one was going to police my passion. I knew I had to leave where I was from.” He first went to California where he attended Pomona College, and then went on to New York City. He got his MFA in dramatic writing and musical theater from NYU.

It was in New York where Wolfe made his mark not just in creating plays and musicals that are now planted firmly in the canon of dramatic arts, but also as someone who shepherded the careers of some of today’s most heralded actors. Before he directed now Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis in his film, Nights in Rodanthe, Wolfe oversaw a play she was in at the Public Theater where he was the artistic director and producer from 1993 to 2004. He remembers Davis’ work there fondly. “I know her as an artist and an acquaintance and as a creative friend for a long time.” He says, “She has always been brilliant. When I was producer at the Public (Theater) it was in the '90s and she was in this play. She was brilliant. She and Phylicia Rashad were in a play written by Thulani Davis called Everybody’s Ruby and Phylicia played Zora Neale Hurston and Viola played this woman named Ruby who was involved in the murder of her white lover in Florida.” That play is based on the real-life sensational case that the play’s author described in a 1999 Playbill interview as, “An amazing untold story about sex, race, money and Southern mores.” Wolfe’s position as a theater director in New York City gave him a unique vantage point on many other acting careers as well.I gave Anthony Mackie one of his first jobs. He understudied in Topdog Underdog when it was at the Public. Or Liev Schreiber. What’s interesting is when you work in New York and especially when I was running the Public Theater, a lot of times you’re giving jobs to people who are just out of school. Jeffrey Wright very early in his career he did Angels in America. A lot of people when they get out of school they end up working at the Public, doing Shakespeare in the Park or a play downtown. I was there for twelve years so I just met these really smart people. At times I will check in with them and see where they are and how they’ve grown. I’ve sort of had that experience a lot so I’m very proud of that.” Aunjanue Ellis (Quantico, Birth of a Nation) was also someone who stood out in his mind back then.  He remembers, “Aunjanue, I gave her first job when she got out of NYU. She was in a production of The Tempest and she had this incredible spark back then.” He wraps up his thoughts saying, “It is this sort of fun journey that you get to go on with people where you meet them at the beginning of their careers if you’re able to create a situation where they do work that’s really wonderful.”

Photo: HBO Photo: HBO

Currently, Wolfe is gearing up for his nomination at this year’s Emmy Awards which will take place on September 17. Adapting the New York Times bestseller by Rebecca Skloot, he wrote and directed HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The film, which stars Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne, is up for Best Television Movie. Unsatisfied with two prior versions of the script, HBO sent the materials to Wolfe to see if he might want to take over. He recalls, “My agent sent it to me and I said ‘Ooh’. I instantly had a take on the material and I met with HBO and I talked about it and after a period of time they said ‘Okay, do it.’”

Wolfe expanded on what drew him to the project. “I think it is a phenomenal story Henrietta Lacks, a woman who with limited education, and a vibrant and colorful personality transformed modern medicine. When she died her cells gave birth to the biotech industry. I found it so fascinating that someone who on paper had limited power in death had tremendous power and that her family knew nothing  about it.” He was also gripped by the specific story of Lacks’ daughter who pushed for revealing her mother’s story. “Her daughter Deborah was on this ferocious journey to know the truth about who her mother was because she wanted to know the truth about herself. It felt important in an intimate way and important in a political way.” Perhaps a case where being Oprah has probably worked against her, Winfrey is not nominated for her acting, though it is some of Winfrey’s best work, and some of the finest acting on TV in the past year. She plays Deborah Lacks. Directing Oprah, who also executive produced, was one of the easier aspects of creating the film for Wolfe. Of Winfrey, he says, “She’s a wonderful, smart actor and a very generous collaborator. It was on a certain level, effortless. I mean just in the sense the collaboration was effortless the work she had to do, the work I had to do was effortful because to create good work, it takes a lot of hard work but she is a very generous and passionate and open collaborator.”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is now available for DVD, Blu-Ray and digital download purchase.