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 who could play the young athletic behemoth?
"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 bigger.
"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 (the young actor's first 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. ". . . My goal is to let him succeed at being himself."
Of course, the question I wanted to ask 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.