Screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard revealed the news in a Q&A with Focus Features earlier this month.
Howard is the screenwriter and producer of Harriet, which tells the story of Tubman and how she escaped slavery as well as the dangerous missions she led to liberate hundreds of others through the Underground Railroad.
“I wanted to turn Harriet Tubman’s life, which I’d studied in college, into an action-adventure movie. The climate in Hollywood, however, 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.'”
When someone suggested Roberts could not play the role, Howard claimed the executive responded: “It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference.”
Roberts was not cast for the biopic, and 32-year-old British actress Cynthia Erivo played the role of Tubman.
Howard also spoke about “two films” that “really changed the climate in Hollywood to allow Harriet to be made.”
“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 during the Q&A.
Howard said he felt Tubman’s story would make a great movie because she was “bigger than life.”
Many people took to Twitter to criticize the idea of casting Roberts as Tubman.
Tubman, whose original name was Araminta Ross, was born into slavery in 1820 or 1821 on the eastern shore of Maryland. In 1849, she fled to Philadelphia, after which a reward for her recapture was posted. But Tubman returned to the South to lead other slaves to freedom, helping more than 70 people through the Underground Railroad network of abolitionists.
She worked as a scout, spy and nurse for the Union Army during the Civil War. In 1863, she helped lead 150 black soldiers on a gunboat raid in South Carolina. With Col. James Montgomery, she rescued more than 700 slaves. Tubman also became a noted suffragette before dying in 1913.
Harriet was released to theatres on Nov. 1.
— With files from the Associated Press