'Harriet' Screenwriter Says Studio Head in '90s Wanted Julia Roberts to Play Harriet Tubman

Cynthia Erivo and Julia Roberts
Focus Features and Amy Sussman/Getty Images for WarnerMedia

"It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference."

Harriet has now hit theaters with Broadway powerhouse Cynthia Erivo at the helm, but it took decades to find the right actress to portray Harriet Tubman. 

In a new Q&A for Focus Features, screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard opened up about the long journey he's been through to have Tubman's life play out on the big screen. Tubman's vast story includes her escape from slavery to the Underground Railroad, her role as a military leader during the Civil War and her work as a suffragette before her death in 1913.

"When I got in the business, I wanted to tell these historical stories by turning them into entertainment. I didn't want to give history lessons," Howard explained. "I wanted to turn Harriet Tubman's life, which I’d studied in college, into an action-adventure movie." 

Howard noted, however, that back in the '90s the "climate in Hollywood was very different," noting that one executive had a shocking pick to play Tubman. 

"I was told how one studio head said in a meeting, 'This script is fantastic. Let's get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman,'" he said. "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.'"

Howard noted that 12 Years a Slave and Black Panther really paved the way for helping Harriet to be made. Both films went on to be honored with several Oscars, with 12 Years a Slave winning Best Motion Picture of the Year in 2014.

"I told my agent, 'You can't say this kind of story won’t make money now,'” Howard said. 

The script writer added that the film is his "valentine to black women." 

Howard recently spoke with ET about the project, also praising the series Underground for getting people interested in Tubman's story.  

“Nobody thought a slave narrative could make any money, let alone be a hit TV show,” he told ET. 

Erivo, who portrays Tubman in the movie, recently opened up to ET's Lauren Zima about the possibility of winning an EGOT. 

“It feels a bit like a dream,” Erivo told ET. “I mean, I didn’t expect that would happen. I came here to do a Broadway show. I didn’t know that you could get all that from a Broadway show because that was the dream. And to be here now is amazing.”