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Sandra Bullock, family history and faith: 6 questions with ‘The Blind Side’ mom before she speaks at RootsTech

Leigh Anne Tuohy is one of the keynote speakers at RootsTech this year.
Leigh Anne Tuohy

SALT LAKE CITY — Leigh Anne Tuohy has a “fondness” for Utah.

In February of 2010, the mother who inspired the book and film “The Blind Side” was speaking at Utah Valley University with her daughter Collins when Sandra Bullock was nominated for her performance in the movie as best actress in a leading role, according to Tuohy.

At the conclusion of her UVU speech, Tuohy said the school’s communications director approached her with a pale face, unsure how to respond to several media interview requests.

“Look, you know better than I do, you have ‘communications’ behind your name. I’ve never done this,” Tuohy said. “Line them up and let them ask a bunch of questions.”

Leigh Anne Touhy, right, and her daughter Collins Touhy speak at Utah Valley University. They are the mother and sister of NFL football star Michael Oher. The movie “The Blind Side” is the story about Oher and the Touhy family that adopted him. Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010 Photo by Stuart Johnson
Leigh Anne Tuohy, right, and her daughter Collins Tuohy speak at Utah Valley University. They are the mother and sister of NFL football star Michael Oher. The movie “The Blind Side” is the story about Oher and the Tuohy family that adopted him.
Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

And so they did, although it was a somewhat unconventional press conference with mother and daughter calling the shots, Tuohy said.

“It was the most unorthodox, funniest thing. Thank goodness Collins was with me. She was like, ‘OK, you in the blue shirt, you want to say something?’ I was like, ‘I don’t think this is how it’s supposed to work, but we’re going to go with it,” Tuohy said. “So I have this fondness for Utah and UVU. They gave me blankets and stuff. I still use that blanket all the time.”

Tuohy, an advocate of adoption and charitable giving, will return to Utah next month as a keynote speaker at the RootsTech Conference. She will speak in the Salt Palace on Thursday, Feb. 27, at 11 a.m. For more information on the conference, visit RootsTech.org.

In anticipation of her appearance, Tuohy spoke with the Deseret News about the college football national championship, how Bullock accepted the role to portray her in the movie, an ancestor’s connection to the infamous bank robber John Dillinger and her interest in family history, among other things.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Deseret News: I’ve got to start with a college football question. Ed Orgeron was Michael Oher’s coach at Ole Miss. Were you happy to see Orgeron win a national championship with LSU?

Leigh Anne Tuohy: Absolutely. It was a tough call for us because (Clemson head coach) Dabo (Swinney) is a dear family friend, but so are Ed and Kelly (Orgeron’s wife). So we cheered for both of them but I was very happy for Ed. He has spent “a lot of time in the gym,” as we say in our family. He has done a lot of Xs and Os in his lifetime and worked very hard for that. So I was excited for the family. He’s got bright kids, a wonderful wife and he’s just a good guy. His antics and personality are not typical of everyone, but he has stayed true to that. That’s how he was when he coached Michael for three years and that’s how he is now. You don’t have to like him but that’s who he is. I love that he has stayed true to that and not changed who he was and how he is for the system or for people or anyone else. I just think that’s awesome.

DN: Why come speak at a family history conference in Utah? What appealed to you about this conference?

LAT: I turn down as much as I accept, so if I’m out doing it, this is something that is making a difference.

I think of dealing with Michael for 17 years. We all want to know our history and I literally cannot tell you what I went through to find four pictures of him below the age of 15. He was in 20 to 21 foster homes. We went back and asked, “Do you have anything? Do you have a snapshot? Do you have a picture?” As luck would have it, or God would have it, we literally landed on this woman, and she had three or four photos. They were crumpled up and I couldn’t believe she had them, it was just amazing. He looked at those things like they were gold. At that moment, I thought, you know most of us take for granted a mom and a dad. We take for granted an old family photo. We take for granted knowing what your grandmother’s name was. So don’t take that for granted.

I love what all these people are doing. I think it’s wonderful. You’re leaving a legacy. You’re leaving a footprint for generations and generations to come. You have no idea the time that you’re putting in on this, the difference it’s going to make for someone in the future. We all now at this point know someone that’s adopted or been adopted or is a half sibling or a stepsister or whatever it is. And so it’s now transcended beyond biology. Nonetheless, that doesn’t make you any different, you’re still family.

So there was a lot of reasons when I saw this, I thought, “I think this is a great group to go and talk to make sure that they know what they’re doing is truly worthwhile.” This is really something that you can grasp on to and hold onto. These were real people. This really happened. I just think that that’s a great thing. And I love the fact that there’s a conference and people get together to do this. I think it’s wonderful.

DN: What is the most interesting thing you know about your own family history or one of your ancestors?

LAT: Oh wow, that gets really deep. Depends on what side of the family that you’re talking about. My mother had, like her great-great-grandfather was mayor of Nashville. It was actually called Davidson County back then, it was where Nashville is. At the same time she had like a great uncle that ran with John Dillinger. I said, “So you had a criminal and a politician in your family? It doesn’t look like much has changed in 100 years.”

There’s some interesting things on my mom’s side. She was from West Tennessee. My dad was born and raised in Dearborn, Michigan. His great uncle was one of Henry Ford’s right-hand men. Not in the boardroom or the office, but he was like the geeky, techie guy, he was the Bill Gates of his time kind of. He helped tinker and put stuff together. People thought he was very eccentric and weird. Actually looking back at it, he was probably a genius. He got very little credit. There are some books if you look really deep, he’s mentioned in a bunch of them, especially if they’re interviews from Mr. Ford directly, he references him numerous, numerous times. So that’s kind of cool. I tried to read everything I could and find anything I could. Obviously now with Google and the internet, it’s all so much easier than it needs to be. It’s kind of crazy.

DN: I read that Julia Roberts was offered the role to play you before Sandra Bullock, and Sandra turned it down three times because of concerns about playing a devout Christian. Is that true and what did you think of her performance?

Quinton Aaron as Michael Oher and Sandra Bullock as Leigh Anne Tuohy in Alcon Entertainment’s drama “The Blind Side,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Quinton Aaron as Michael Oher and Sandra Bullock as Leigh Anne Tuohy in Alcon Entertainment’s drama “The Blind Side,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Ralph Nelson

LAT: She didn’t turn it down three times. My part was completely written for Julia Roberts by 20th Century Fox. She was locked, she was loaded, everything was great. We were on G waiting for O. At some point, she realized that there was a time constraint in this because John Lee (Hancock, writer/director) was very specific of how he wanted to film “The Blind Side.” She’d already had two commitments, and she could not fit that time frame and they worked, they tried to juggle and it just didn’t happen.

In the movie industry, when some production company has a movie and they end up not doing it, they can it, and if someone else picks it up, that’s called a “turn around.” So “The Blind Side” sat in the garbage can for, I don’t know, six to eight months, and Warner Brothers picked it up and started the turn around. Reese Witherspoon read, a bunch of people looked at it and said, “No, I don’t want to play an older woman” and whatever it was.

Then when it landed on Sandy and she was like, “I don’t think I want to do that, they’re a conservative Christian family, whatever.” John says, “I’ve been around them, I think you need to meet them. That’s their life. They don’t impose that on other people.”

So she came and hung out. We spent days together and I didn’t know that this was a tryout. I didn’t know she was investigating. Then all of a sudden John calls and says, “She loves it. She’s in. She wants to do it.” I said, “What are you talking about? I thought she was already committed and signed on the dotted line.” He said she came, she hung out, she loved the family and etc. etc, and he says she’s all in, she wanted to do it. I said, “That’s great. I didn’t know it was a tryout.” I don’t think I would have done anything differently. I was certainly not trying to do anything to try and win her. He said it was great, that’s what you needed to do. We wanted y’all to be y’all.

So I don’t know that she turned it down three times. I think that she looked at it was like, “I gotta make sure that this fits me and that I can pull it off.” It was amazing. I mean, she wore my same makeup, fingernail polish, my clothing. She would go through my stuff, I was like, “Sandy, no one knows this, get over it.” But she’s a perfectionist. When the movie was over the kids were like ... “There’s two of them running around.” She nailed it that much.

“The Blind Side”
“The Blind Side”
Warner Bros. Pictures

DN: It’s been over a decade now since the movie (2009). What’s something that you’ve taken from the overall experience and how has it changed your life?

LAT: What it’s done for us, and I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but we are very cognizant of everyone now. We’re aware that just because you’re holding a spot at the corner or whatever it might be, that if given at least a little bit of opportunity, that you have value, because we all value people so incorrectly.

We have learned that we all value people incorrectly and that we need to do a better job of realizing that everyone has potential and that everyone pretty much has the ability to make a difference. I think that’s what we’ve garnered more than anything from this.

DN: How has this experience strengthened your faith in God?

LAT: We’re a very faith-based family. Everything we do revolves around that. But as I tell people all the time, what’s right for me may not be right for you. Our world is very God-driven. We shouldn’t have been where we were. Michael shouldn’t have been where he was. Everyone has a story to tell. This story is just one that God happened to pluck out to tell. So we just try to be very good stewards of this message, because clearly, in so many ways, it touches on so many biblical themes from the Good Samaritan to a multitude of stories. So I think that it is something that everyone has to look at their own self and figure out if it had that same impact. But for us, 100 percent, this journey has been God-driven and very orchestrated by God.