'Harriet' Screenwriter Reveals Studio Exec Once Suggested Julia Roberts to Play Harriet Tubman

Tommaso Boddi/FilmMagic; Glen Wilson/Focus Features
(L-R) Julia Roberts and Cynthia Erivo in 'Harriet'

In a recent interview, Gregory Allen Howard said that when challenged on the casting, the Hollywood exec who allegedly floated the idea said, "It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference."

A Hollywood studio executive once suggested the idea of Julia Roberts playing the iconic abolitionist and activist Harriet Tubman in a biopic, according to Harriet screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard.

In a recent interview that has gone viral on social media, Howard was asked about the production history of the long-gestating Tubman biopic, which became Harriet. The scribe said it was his first Hollywood assignment and that it had been in development for 26 years. "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. I was told how one studio head said in a meeting, "This script is fantastic. Let's get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman.""

Howard adds: "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.""

Later in the same passage, Howard says that the production of Harriet was helped by the recent success of films with black themes and black actors. "Two films really changed the climate in Hollywood to allow Harriet to be made. 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.” Then Black Panther really blew the doors open," Howard said. 

Directed by Kasi Lemmons, Harriet stars British actress Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist and political activist who was born into slavery but escaped and helped rescue 70 people from similar circumstances using what became known as the Underground Railroad. The film also stars Janelle Monae, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Clarke Peters and Vanessa Bell Calloway.