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A studio executive wanted Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman, biopic screenwriter says

Cynthia Erivo & Leslie Odom Jr. on "Harriet"
Cynthia Erivo and Leslie Odom Jr. talk "Harriet" 06:23

The Harriet Tubman biopic has been more than 25 years in the making. In the historical drama released earlier this month, Cynthia Erivo plays the legendary abolitionist — but one Hollywood executive initially thought the role should go to Julia Roberts. 

Gregory Allen Howard, the screenwriter and producer of "Harriet," recently revealed in multiple interviews that Roberts was suggested to play the lead role during a meeting with a studio president in 1994. 

"The climate in Hollywood… was very different back then," Howard said. "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 that a black person in the meeting said casting Roberts would be impossible because she is white. 

"That was so long ago. No one will know that," the executive replied, according to Howard. 

Howard was determined to adapt Tubman's life into an action-adventure movie after studying her life and the Underground Railroad in college. Now, his film is finally in theaters, with black British actress Cynthia Erivo in the starring role. 

"I first saw her when the other producers flew me to New York to see her in 'The Color Purple,'" Allen said of Erivo, who won a Tony Award for her role in the Broadway play. "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.'"

Cynthia Erivo: Playing Harriet Tubman changed me for the better 01:14

Howard credited two recent films with changing how Hollywood views representation, allowing "Harriet" to finally come to life on the big screen. 

"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.

He said he wants the film to inspire others to overcome insurmountable odds. 

"She must have been terrified every time she went back to the South, but she kept going back to save more people," he said of Tubman. "If that doesn't inspire you, then nothing will."

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