Studio executive wanted Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman in movie, screenwriter says

"It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference," the person said.

November 20, 2019, 10:17 AM

When screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard was trying to get his biopic on Harriet Tubman produced, he heard that a Hollywood studio executive suggested Julia Roberts portray the African American activist.

Howard was discussing how the film "Harriet" came to be over the last 26 years in a recent Q&A with Focus Features, the production company that released it, when he made the claim.

"I wanted to turn Harriet Tubman's life, which I’d studied in college, into an action-adventure movie. The climate in Hollywood, however, was very different back then," Howard said in the interview. "I was told how one studio head said in a meeting, 'This script is fantastic. Let's get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman.'"

PHOTO: Julia Roberts speaks onstage during the 47th AFI Life Achievement Award honoring Denzel Washington at Dolby Theatre, June 6, 2019, in Hollywood, Calif.
Julia Roberts speaks onstage during the 47th AFI Life Achievement Award honoring Denzel Washington at Dolby Theatre, June 6, 2019, in Hollywood, Calif.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images, FILE

Howard says he heard that when someone explained that Roberts could not play Tubman, the unnamed executive allegedly replied, "It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference."

The role of Tubman, a former slave who escaped and turned into a famed abolitionist, eventually went to Cynthia Erivo. The film opened in theaters Nov. 1.

PHOTO: Shown is a portrait of Harriet Tubman circa 1885.
Shown is a portrait of Harriet Tubman circa 1885.
Universal Images Group via Getty

Howard said the film was his "valentine to black women."

"I wanted them to be able to go to the movies on Saturday and see this young black woman take on this incredible power structure and triumph over it," he said.

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