Forget trying to compress an unconventional 339-page nonfiction best-seller into a two-hour movie without sacrificing its magic or integrity. Or convincing a superstar like Sandra Bullock that surmounting cliched visions of a Christian Southern belle was just the challenge that she needed.
When writer-director John Lee Hancock set out to film Michael Lewis' "The Blind Side," the story of Baltimore Raven offensive lineman Michael Oher's rise from abject poverty and illiteracy to academic and athletic success, the filmmaker immediately saw what his toughest obstacle would be.
"Casting someone to play Michael Oher!" he said.
At that point, Quinton Aaron, the actor Hancock would end up with, had more experience with community and church theater than with movies. And Oher's football career held no prior interest for Aaron. "I played like one semester of football in high school," he says, "and wasn't good at it at all. It was something I did because everyone was egging me on to it. One kid said I was 'good for nothing, big for nothing.' I said he can't call me 'big for nothing.' "
Aaron soon learned he had the size but not the talent for the gridiron. But in other ways, Aaron's career trajectory reflected that of his "Blind Side" character. Several elements miraculously aligned to put the actor at the top of his game, including the talent-detector of a filmmaker looking for someone just like Aaron."We had a nationwide search trying to find our Michael Oher," says Hancock. "To play Michael you need a kid that can play the 16, 17, 18 range and is very, very large, and can move. I'd see a lot of people on tape and look at them and say, 'Yeah, he's 6 feet 6 inches tall, but he's a basketball player, a small forward, not a football player.' Or 'Yeah, he's really, really big, but he's too old.' Or, 'these guys are way, way overweight, just big fat guys.' And audiences had to understand that this is a guy that's bigger than you and faster than you."
Even rarer and more important than the right physique was the correct attitude. "So many kids would come in kind of girded for the street. I understand that kind of exterior toughness and attitude is a protective device, a defense mechanism. But I needed someone who could be more of a blank slate. I needed someone who, when he walked in a room - your first instinct would be to give this very large kid a hug. That proved to be quite difficult. But we found our guy in Quinton, and he's really good in the movie."
These days, Aaron has an inkling that he might be as special as Hancock thinks he is. Checking in on the phone from New York, two hours before the film's Northeast premiere, Aaron conveys what few actors do in the middle of a publicity blitz: a palpable sense of enjoyment.
Part of his zest comes from his genuine enthusiasm for the film. But part of it comes from his belief in its dual message. "The Blind Side" says that in a world divided between Haves and the Have-nots, Haves like the Tuohys, the rich Memphis couple who adopt Oher, should put their Christian faith into action and help Have-Nots like Oher develop their God-given talents.
"Two things made me jump on the film," says Aaron. "One is that it was a lead role - and the fact that I can play the main guy in a big picture is rare for an actor my size. But I also thought it would be a great story to put out, very inspirational. It could both inspire the youth of today, and trigger the heart of the part of the population that has the means to do something to help the less fortunate. And it's coming out just the right time of year for families."
Hancock sees parallels between Oher's story and Aaron's. The actor simply says there were enough to make it easy for him to play the character, with Hancock's help and attention. Although Aaron was born in the Bronx in 1984, his mother moved him to Augusta, Ga., after elementary school, because she didn't want him attending middle school and high school in a troubled borough of New York. (Although Aaron is 25, Hancock thinks that with his boyish face he looks younger than Oher did in high school.)
"The schooling was better and safer down there," says Aaron. "I got better at school - I graduated high school and there was a time when I didn't think I would graduate. When I was young I was trying to skip all the time. The teachers didn't pay attention to you. They were giving you work just to give you work, and they didn't seem to care if you would fail. Down there teachers took time and explained things to you. They gave you things to do that you could learn to do. You began to think that you could pass."
Aaron sang in the church choir from age 4 and performed in a Christmas play at age 9. After he graduated from high school he went back north to try out for "American Idol." Going by the posted Internet schedule, he arrived in New York on a Friday evening to spend the night at a cousin's house and get a jump on the Saturday-noon call. "I was a couple of hours early, but there were 4,000 people there already at the Jacob Javits Center." Aaron thinks he didn't have a chance because he came at the tail end of a glut of contestants.
A couple of months later he joined Teens in Motion, a Bronx-based organization that provides creative outlets, or maybe creative grounding, for at-risk teenagers. Alicia Keys' manager, Jeff Robinson, president of MBK Entertainment (the MBK stands for "My Brother's Keeper"), founded it with his brother, Conrad Robinson. Teens in Motion operates according to the "Blind Side"-like philosophy that "teens can be reached in spite of their circumstances." Aaron entered the group's theater program. Soon he was acting, first in a play about a Grunch (not a Grinch) stealing Kwanzaa (not Christmas), then as the villainous lead - a shady producer - in a farce about three open-mike artists who sign a Luciferian record deal.
His first on-set experience was Michel Gondry's whimsical comedy "Be Kind Rewind," set in a struggling Passaic, N.J., video-rental store. "I was brought on there as background. They needed a big guy for a scene in the movie store when a gang goes in and hassles Mos Def and Jack Black. Then they cast me as part of the group, so I was there whenever they went to the store."
Playing Michael Oher is a giant leap from small plays and bit parts in movies. But Aaron found it a good fit. Without knowing it at the time, he says, he related to the way Oher kept to himself in a white Christian high school and got his meaning across without speaking. "I was a lot like that in high school. I was shy; I didn't really talk a lot. But I think I would say much without saying anything, just with the expression you could see in my face."
Aaron made that personal connection with the material as soon as he read the script. And he found the shooting "easier than I expected. Maybe it was because most of the time I got to focus just on the emotions I needed for a scene instead of lines and emotions at the same time. I was never much for talking."
As for the physical demands of the part, "Today I'm a much better athlete than I was in high school." And Hancock provides confirmation. "He won't be starting for the Ravens this year, but, that said, he moves pretty well for a big guy." Of course, the Georgia Tech conditioning coach served as his personal trainer. And a nutritionist served him five small meals a day to speed up his metabolism and help him cut out carbs and fat. At 6 foot 8, he weighed 472 pounds when he arrived in Atlanta for training. He soon shed a hundred of them.
But his dramatic conditioning was ultimately more important to "The Blind Side."
In one of the film's many moving scenes, Oher sparks to classical storytelling and poetry when Tim McGraw's Sean Tuohy catches him up in the surging pleasures of Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade." Tuohy defines the words that befuddle Oher, like "league" or "saber." He discusses the poem's concepts of honor and courage.
Hancock did something similar for Aaron, the actor says. "He always had a way of breaking down exactly what he wanted and putting it simply for me." For Hancock, it was a pleasure. "He just has this quality, I can't describe it. You want to be around him."