‘Harriet’ Writer Says Studio Boss Suggested Julia Roberts Play Harriet Tubman

Julia Roberts and Harriet Tubman (Credit: Jean Nelson, Library of Congress)

Long before Cynthia Erivo was cast as Harriet Tubman in the film Harriet, a movie studio executive suggested the role should go to Julia Roberts.

That’s according to Harriet screenwriter and producer, Gregory Allen Howard, who made the stunning claim in two separate articles.

Howard shared the story Tuesday in an essay published in the Los Angeles Times, as well as in a Focus Features Q&A posted online Nov. 1.

“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 said in the Q&A, which went seemingly unnoticed until his essay in the Times.

“Fortunately, there was a single black person in that studio meeting 25 years ago who told him that Harriet Tubman was a black woman. The president replied, ‘That was so long ago. No one will know that,'” he explained.

Related Story: ‘Harriet’ Star Cynthia Erivo Responds to Backlash: ‘See It and Then Make Your Judgments’

Harriet Trailer (Credit: Glen Wilson/Focus Features)
Cynthia Erivo plays the abolitionist in “Harriet.” (Courtesy Focus Features)

But he said Interest faded and the movie never got off the ground.

“Hollywood has a herd mentality. There was no herd around the story of a former slave girl who freed other slaves,” Howard explained.

Yet he remained determined to turn his script into a film.

“What I realize now is that the film was not going to get made until the environment in Hollywood changed — Hollywood had to go through its own climate change,” he wrote in his essay.

Howard said two movies ultimately opened the door for his biopic about the abolitionist to get the green light — the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave and the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther.

“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.

Harriet opened in the U.S. on November 1. As previously reported, the Kasi Lemmons-directed drama surpassed box office expectations in its opening weekend. To date, the Focus Features release has made $32 million on a $17 million production budget.