'Harriet' writer says studio boss suggested Julia Roberts for the role of abolitionist Harriet Tubman

Ben Arnold

British actress Cynthia Erivo is courting possible Oscar glory for her role as Harriet Tubman, the African American woman born into slavery who turned abolitionist and activist, in the biopic movie Harriet.

However, at one point, things were different. Depressingly different.

A studio exec suggested Julia Roberts could play Harriet Tubman, claims writer. (Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP-Getty)

The movie's screenwriter and producer Gregory Allen Howard has revealed one particularly dispiriting meeting about the long-in-gestation movie, back in 1994.

In an essay by Howard in the LA Times, he said that one studio president suggested Julia Roberts for the role of Tubman.

Howard charitably explains that the 'climate' in Hollywood back then was somewhat different.

He says that he was told by the studio head: “This is a great script. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman.”

Howard goes on to say that when the studio boss was told that Harriet Tubman was an African American, he replied: “That was so long ago. No one will know that.”

Eviro as Harriet Tubman (Credit: Focus Features)

He adds that films like Steve McQueen's Oscar-winning 12 Years A Slave opened the door to Harriet finally reaching the screen.

Read more: Cynthia Erivo on playing Harriet

“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,” he added.

Julia Roberts arrives at the "Homecoming" FYC Event on Sunday, May 5, 2019 in Los Angeles Angeles. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

It’s worth mentioning, however, that Erivo's casting last year did not go down spectacularly well either.

The movie was criticised for casting Broadway star Erivo, from Stockwell in south London, as the iconic figure in the US civil rights movement.

It was suggested that 'to cast a non-American, non-descendant of slavery was disrespectful to black Americans', reported The Root, with both Erivo and the movie’s director Kasi Lemmons coming under scrutiny.

Portrait of abolitionist Harriet Tubman (Getty)

However, Erivo defended her position, saying in a post to Instagram: “I struggled a little with whether or not to post anything about this role, because even though there is so much celebration and encouragement coming through, there’s also anger and offence spurred on by my being from the UK.

“I guess there is a bigger conversation to be had about heritage and experience, also about who Harriet really was. That can not be had in an Instagram post, what I will say is that my journey to this woman has been long and detailed and one I have not taken lightly.

“People speak of foreign privilege and truthfully life would be unbelievably easy if that were applied to me but that is not my portion… I cannot tell how protective I am of this woman and her story.”

Co-starring Leslie Odom Jr, Joe Alwyn and Janelle Monae, Harriet is released in the UK on 22 November.