Could a 6-8, 380-pound actor win an Oscar?
Michael Lewis' 2006 book "The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game" is a riveting, often heart-wrenching story of Michael Oher, a 6-foot-5, 350-pound African American teenager who is transformed from a homeless vagabond to a star football player, largely thanks to Leigh Anne Tuohy, a dynamic evangelical Christian who helps provide him with a surrogate family and a shot at success in life. When Allen Barra reviewed the book for the Washington Post, he was full of admiration for Lewis' writerly skills.
But as Barra put it, the tale of Oher's rescue from a hellish life in the Memphis projects "is so improbable that it wouldn't survive a meeting with a producer of made-for-TV movies. For one thing, who would play Oher? Six feet 5 and 350 pounds as a teenager ... Oher, in the words of one scout, 'looked like a house walking into a bigger house. He walked in the door and barely fit through the door.' "
As it turns out, "The Blind Side" attracted enough Hollywood interest to make the leap from made-for-TV to full-scale feature film. John Lee Hancock, who directed the 2002 hit "The Rookie," is writing and directing the film, which begins production next week in Atlanta. The film stars Sandra Bullock as Tuohy, with Tim McGraw set to play her husband, Sean, a Memphis businessman who first discovers Oher. But the real challenge, as Barra and other readers of the book suspected, was finding an actor who could play a young athletic behemoth who is slated to be a first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft.
"It was obviously an unusual challenge," Hancock told me in a phone interview from Atlanta, where he's gearing up to start his first directorial project since 2004's failed version of "The Alamo." "You don't call CAA and say, "Hey, I'm looking for a star who looks like he could be a 6-6, 360-pound football player who audiences would believe is going to be a first-round draft pick in the NFL.' There just aren't a lot of actors who fit that bill."
"The Blind Side" is also a book about the arcane art of athletic talent scouting. This is a familiar subject for Lewis, whose bestseller "Moneyball" was a revealing look at how Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane used statistical analysis to discover an entirely different type of baseball prospect. "The Blind Side" mines similar territory. The book's title is a football term for a right-handed quarterback's left side, which is vulnerable to a pass rush from Big Gulp-sized defensive linemen. They have mauled so many quarterbacks that NFL teams put a premium on drafting equally big and agile offensive left tackles--like Oher--to protect their most valuable player from undue harm.
The film was originally developed at 20th Century Fox before Alcon Entertainment stepped in to finance the picture, which will now be distributed by Warner Bros. When the project was at Fox, the studio's casting department did a nationwide search in urban areas looking for suitable African American acting candidates. "We found a lot of good actors, but the first order of business was size," Hancock recalls. "You can do a lot of things as an actor, but you can't act taller. We found a lot of 6-3 guys, but they didn't have the heft we needed--they looked more like basketball players."
Then Hancock got lucky. After watching hundreds of auditions online, one of his casting people called and said the magic words: I think I've found your guy. He was Quinton Aaron, a 24-year-old actor from New York who, being 6-feet-8 and 380 pounds, didn't have to act taller. "I watched him read a couple of scenes from the movie and I thought he was terrific," Hancock recalls. "The real Michael Oher is a gentle giant and Quinton has that same quality. For a kid to be that large and still have an innocence about him was a pretty unique thing."
Hancock flew Aaron to Los Angeles--which Aaron later said was his first-ever plane flight. The two rehearsed and put more scenes on tape. Soon Hancock was sold. "After spending time with Quinton, I just had a gut feeling that he was right. In some ways, he's really cast for what he brings in through the door. He's a sweet, soulful quiet guy who's lived a lot of this role himself and he has the same effect on people as Michael does. He just makes people feel good."
In other words, Hancock isn't trying to coax a big performance out of his lead actor. "In fact, in some ways my job is just not to mess with what Quinton already has," he says. "I just want the audience to feel what we've already felt when he came in through the door. My goal is to let him succeed at being himself."
Of course, the question I wanted to ask Quinton Aaron was what anyone might ask such an unlikely aspirant--what prompted someone of his towering size turn to acting as a career? Once you get past Michael Clarke Duncan, the 6-foot-5, 300-pound actor who earned a best supporting actor nomination for "The Green Mile," it's a pretty short list of Really Big Men who've succeeded in dramatic roles. What made him believe in himself? Keep reading:
Born and raised in the Bronx, Aaron moved to Augusta, Ga., where he attended middle school and high school before eventually moving back to New York. He admits that when he roamed the school corridors, he often found himself being recruited to play football. "It was the thing to do I guess," he told me. "The coaches were always begging me to try out. They'd always say, 'You gonna play ball? You gonna play ball?' I played football for one season, in ninth grade, but it really wasn't for me."
In fact, Aaron always had his heart set on performing. One reason he moved back to New York after high school was so he could audition for "American Idol." "For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to be an entertainer, either a singer or an actor," he says in a quiet voice, carefully choosing his words. "I started doing stage plays in school and I knew it was right. I always felt good doing it. It was just something I always wanted to do, to go after something I really loved instead of settle for some regular 9-to-5 job. I know there aren't a lot of roles out there for guys my size, but I also knew that all it would take was one great role to make a difference."
He credits his mother, who died last September, for offering constant encouragement. "Rest her soul, she always pushed me and encouraged me to think I could do anything. She was the person who always believed that whatever you wanted to do, you could do. That kept me going, knowing that when it's time, it will come."
It's not like Aaron has been unemployable. He's appeared in three different episodes of "Law & Order," playing bouncers or bodyguards. He recently performed in a short film, "Mr. Brooklyn," where he plays a dockworker who dreams of landing a record deal. He also appears in Michel Gondry's "Be Kind Rewind" as a bully in a video store who tries to strong-arm Jack Black and Mos Def. "I didn't get a lot of lines--and they ended up cutting the ones I did have--but it was a good start," he says. "You could see me on screen and I got to spend time with real professional actors. Everyone treated me well, so for me, it was a dream job."
Aaron has been working with Hancock, who has advised him to keep things simple. " I think Michael Oher and I have a lot of similarities. We're both pretty shy guys who were never violent or bullying types. John told me that I should just think about putting myself into the character, so I'm concentrating on making it as realistic as possible."
For Aaron, the big thrill has been telling his friends that he's landed a high-profile acting gig. He acknowledges that not everyone believed in him as much as he did. "People have been real happy for me, but there were some doubters," he says. "A couple of people really didn't think something like this would happen. And I've got a few friends who don't even know about the movie yet."
He falls silent, as if savoring the moment yet again. "I guess I've got a few friends who are in for a big surprise."
Photo of Quinton Aaron by Anne Cardinez
Here's a look at the real Michael Oher and his real-life struggles: