"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.'"

If you were to think of the most out-of-left-field actress to play Harriet Tubman in a movie, you still wouldn’t stumble upon the person one executive allegedly suggested.

Harriet, the historical drama based on Tubman’s life released earlier this month, stars Cynthia Erivo. But the film’s screenwriter and producer, Gregory Allen Howard, says when he first started working on the movie in 1994 that one studio executive suggested Julia Roberts to portray the legendary slave turned abolitionist. Yes, that Julia Roberts.

In a Q&A with Allen published earlier this month by Harriet studio Focus Features (and reiterated in an L.A. Times essay published Tuesday), Allen recalled how “the climate in Hollywood … was very different” some 25 years ago.

“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. “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.'”

Julia Roberts, Harriet Tubman
Credit: Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images; Corbis/Getty Images

Thankfully, for everyone involved, Roberts was not cast as Tubman. Decades later, the film has become a reality, which Allen said is thanks to two groundbreaking films that changed the game for representation.

“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,” Allen said.

The writer, who’s also behind acclaimed movies Remember the Titans and Ali, also discussed why he chose Erivo, an African British actress, to play an African American activist.

“I first saw her when the other producers flew me to New York to see her in The Color Purple,” Allen said. “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.'”

Tubman’s story has long been in various stages of development in Hollywood; Viola Davis was set to produce and star in such a biopic at one point. The new movie, directed by Kasi Lemmons, also stars Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, and Janelle Monae.

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