Hollywood exec suggested Julia Roberts play Harriet Tubman, biopic screenwriter says

In the 1990s meeting, the studio executive apparently said people wouldn't notice if Roberts played Tubman because the famed abolitionist lived "so long ago."
Image: Julia Roberts and Harriet Tubman.
Julia Roberts and Harriet Tubman.AP; Library of Congress

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By Ben Kesslen

A Hollywood executive wanted Julia Roberts to portray Harriet Tubman in the leading abolitionist's biopic, the screenwriter of the new film “Harriet” said.

After studying Tubman’s life in college, about how she helped lead enslaved people to freedom on the Underground Railroad, screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard was determined to adapt her story into a feature film, he said in an interview with Focus Features, the distributor of “Harriet.”

When he met with a studio president about the idea in 1994, his script garnered praise, Howard wrote in an essay in the Los Angeles Times. It also received a casting suggestion.

“Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman,” the executive told Howard.

Howard said the one other black person in the meeting said that would be impossible, as Julia Roberts is white.

The president replied, “That was so long ago. No one will know that,” Howard wrote.

It took 25 more years for Howard to get “Harriet," which he also helped produce, to theaters. The film was released in the United States in November, and stars Cynthia Erivo, who is black, as Tubman, in a performance that has garnered Oscar buzz.

Howard, who did not immediately return a request to comment, said the climate has changed in Hollywood since he went to that meeting in the '90s.

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“When 12 Years a Slave became a hit and did a couple hundred million dollars worldwide, I told my agent, ‘You can't say this kind of story won’t make money now.’” he told Focus Features. “Then Black Panther really blew the doors open.”

Roberts declined to comment on the casting suggestion.

"Harriet" is distributed by Focus Features, an independent film label owned by NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News.