Um, A Studio Exec Wanted Julia Roberts to Play Harriet Tubman

Michael Prieve 3 Min Read
3 Min Read
"August: Osage County" New York Premiere - Red Carpet
Julia Roberts attends the "August: Osage County" premiere at Ziegfeld Theater on December 12, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images)

A studio executive once suggested Julia Roberts play abolitionist Harriet Tubman, according to screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard.

What you talking about Willis?

In a Q&A about the 25-year journey, it took Howard to get his Tubman biopic produced, Allen said “the climate in Hollywood … was very different” in the 1990s and pointed to the extremely baffling casting suggestion he received when he originally began working on the script in 1994.

“I was told how one studio head said in a meeting, ‘This script is fantastic. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman,'” Allen explained.

Premiere Of Focus Features' "Harriet" - Arrivals
Cynthia Erivo attends the premiere of Focus Features' “Harriet” at The Orpheum Theatre on October 29, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

“When someone pointed out that Roberts couldn’t be Harriet, the executive responded, ‘It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference.'”

The script wasn't picked up by the producers who commissioned it, and Howard said it was rejected by all of the people he went on to pitch.

It wasn't until 12 Years a Slave won the Best Picture Oscar in 2013 that he knew Hollywood was ready for Harriet. “Hollywood has a herd mentality,” he wrote. “There was no herd around the story of a former slave girl who freed other slaves.”

Heavenly Bodies: Fashion & The Catholic Imagination Costume Institute Gala - Arrivals
Cynthia Erivo attends the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion & The Catholic Imagination Costume Institute Gala at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 7, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Getty Images)

The fact he found a producer and Harriet was released this fall shows the push for diversity in Hollywood is working, and the “important thing is there was no longer hostility to the idea,” he said.

Howard, who has been a screenwriter for decades, said he's “enjoying the warmth of the Hollywood climate change, and the diverse stories that are bathing in that sunlight, happy that Harriet's other journey is now finally complete.”

2019 Toronto International Film Festival - "Harriet" Premiere - Arrivals
Cynthia Erivo attends the “Harriet” premiere during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival at Roy Thomson Hall on September 10, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Howard also shared why he ended up choosing Cynthia Erivo for the lead role. “I first saw her when the other producers flew me to New York to see her in The Color Purple. As soon as she opened her mouth, I thought, ‘Yes, that's Harriet.'”

“Afterwards I emailed the other producers, ‘That's Harriet. She's a little stick of dynamite.'” Harriet is now playing in theaters, but you can watch the trailer below.

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