Kyanna (Kee Kee) Simone Simpson, daughter of AT&T (No. 4 on the 2016 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies list) employee Anita Simpson, had a lifelong dream of playing Oprah Winfrey in a movie. Now she's starring in the HBO adaptation of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks starring Oprah Winfrey.
It is a true story of how an African-American woman's healthy and cancerous cells were taken from her without her knowledge. The cells became the base of the immortal cell line known as HeLa, which has been used across the world for medical research. After her death, Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, found out about the incredible use of her mom's cells.
Deborah is played by Oprah – and by Kee Kee in the younger years.
"When I was younger, I always said I would play Oprah in a movie," said Kee Kee. "My cheer squad even had 'Oprah' embroidered on my cheerleading jacket! She has always been an inspiration to me. This is my largest acting role to date and the biggest dream come true."
The road to Oprah
"When I was younger I was obsessed with so many careers," Kee Kee said. "Fireman … chef … I realized I can portray any job and personality as an actress. Through acting, I'm able to do it all."
Kee Kee pursued acting in the 7th grade.
"Kee Kee was into so many different things – band, chorus, cheerleading, acting, and scholastics," Anita said. "We went to an acting competition in Dallas with 500 females, ages 5 to 60. She won it. I realized then we had to do it. It was no longer just me thinking my daughter's the greatest."
Anita, a principal member of tech staff on automation platforms development, moved with her daughter to California to immerse themselves in the film industry. Kee Kee did her first film at age 16.
"Each time she went to an audition, she would sing the song, Billionaire," Anita said. "It has references to Oprah, like, 'I wanna be on the cover of Forbes magazine smiling next to Oprah and the Queen.'"
Kee Kee's first HBO debut was as the daughter of actress LaTanya Richardson Jackson on Show Me a Hero.
"LaTanya told Kee Kee she looked like her friend, Oprah," Anita said. "My child is acquainted with trustworthy actors who are phenomenal role models. She has grown up to be gracious and kind. As she started getting roles like this, I knew this was something that would take off for her."
Years later, LaTanya's comment would come full circle.
Hard work leads to big rewards
"For me, it's been a privilege to watch my daughter work with Oprah and other phenomenal role models," said Anita. "And while Kee Kee is pursuing her acting dreams, she hasn't abandoned her college goals."
Kee Kee took all of her courses online with the Georgia online virtual school while she was in Hollywood.
"I had to be harder on myself," Kee Kee said. "I didn't have teachers giving me deadlines to help me complete my assignments on time to prepare me for college."
She is currently attending the University of Georgia for a degree in Entertainment Media Studies with minors in communications and Spanish. The discipline she instilled in herself helps her multitask between work and college too.
"My manager called me and said she had the perfect role for me," Kee Kee said. "I was so stressed out from classes, but then she told me it was to play the younger version of Oprah Winfrey's character. I told her this is what I've been waiting for … it's made for me."
Kee Kee reached out to LaTanya, who was good friends with the director as well as Oprah, to help her get an audition for the role.
The initial audition was on June 13, 2016.
"I was super prepared," Kee Kee said. "I'm not usually nervous for an audition, but I wondered if Oprah was going to be there. Afterwards I went back to school and took my calculus test."
Two weeks later, her manager called with good news. The director wanted to meet her.
"I called my mom and I was screaming, going crazy," said Kee Kee. "I usually don't dwell too much on one audition, but this one meant the world to me."
The session with the director was on June 30 for 45 minutes.
"He helped me with the character," Kee Kee said. "We went over lines, talked about the character, and what I wanted to do in life. I knew I had laid everything on the table."
She left and took her Spanish exam that same day. Then she immersed herself in studying for finals.
On July 28, while she was helping her mentor in her classroom. Kee Kee told her about the big role.
"My mentor prayed with me right then," Kee Kee said. "An hour later, I got a call from my manager. She said, 'Hey Deborah! You booked the role of young Deborah Lacks.' I was so thankful and grateful."
Four days later, Kee Kee was doing a table read for the movie and met Oprah.
"She said, 'Oh, so you're playing the younger me!,'" said Kee Kee. "I said, 'OMG, YES' and I hugged her. Initially, I was so nervous, but she made me so comfortable."
Kee Kee still managed to take her finals 2 days after the job began.
Women in STEM
"This film has so many different aspects – empowering women and African-Americans and shining light on science," Kee Kee said. "Being a black female who loves science and math made the story even more amazing."
Kee Kee learned so much more about the science world. Most people have been affected by HeLa cells in some way.
"Her cells have gone onto to do so many things," Kee Kee said. "She changed the world."
Kee Kee got to meet the real Lacks family when they filmed in Baltimore.
"It was amazing to meet Alfred, my character's son in real life," said Kee Kee. "I spoke to him on set and had lunch with him. He spoke about living through this period in the movie."
"I think this movie and other trending STEM movies are empowering in that they highlight the application of STEM to solve real world problems," Anita said. "Something as phenomenal as creating an immortal cell line that advances science is remarkable. My daughter participated in a movie that sheds light on that matter."
Clearly, she's a proud AT&T tech mom.