Every actor appreciates the occasional role that will, ahem, stretch him a bit, but Ioan Gruffudd really knows what that's like.
In 2005, he played the comic book hero Reed Richards—aka Mr. Fantastic, whose superpower is amazing elasticity—in Fantastic Four. He reprises the role in June in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.
But while that role may have made the 33-year-old Welshman famous, his resume is dotted with numerous roles of a more historical nature—some real, some fictional. Gruffudd has played Lancelot (King Arthur), an officer on a doomed ship (Titanic), a famous writer (Wilde), and a British naval officer in the Napoleonic Wars (A&E's Hornblower miniseries). He's even been Jesus; Gruffudd provided the Lord's voice in the Welsh version of the animated film The Miracle Maker.
For his latest historical part, Gruffudd takes on the character of one of the greatest Christian activists you may have never heard of—William Wilberforce, the 18th century British abolitionist … and the subject of Amazing Grace, which opens in theaters this Friday, exactly 200 years to the day since his bill was passed, abolishing the British slave trade.
The film depicts not only Wilberforce's passion for social justice, but the motivation behind it—his devout faith. Gruffudd plays the part with zeal and believability—and a personal enthusiasm for the character himself. We recently spoke with Gruffudd about the movie, and about the man he plays.
Great movie! And you were terrific as Wilberforce?
Ioan Gruffudd: Thank you very much indeed! I'm delighted with it, and the response has been fantastic.
The average Joe doesn't have a clue who Wilberforce is. Had you heard of him before you were involved with this project?
Gruffudd: I'll be perfectly honest with you, neither did I. So I consider myself as most average Joes in that regard. But when I read the script, I obviously liked it, and I did the research on Wilberforce and then I got the part. And I'm grateful for the opportunity to be in this movie because it will educate a whole generation of people now to this great man, but more importantly, to this incredible change, this great change for humanity.
If that average Joe asked you to describe Wilberforce in a few sentences, how would you respond?
Gruffudd: In just a few sentences? He was such a prolific man, in his writing and in what he achieved. I would say that he was the sole member of Parliament that stood up to fight the injustices of the way the slaves were being transported from Africa to the Caribbean to the plantations. And that he was the man who fought for The Slave Trade Act of 1807.
It's one thing to define Wilberforce by the things he did, but what about the man, his character?
Gruffudd: From the very word go, he was an incredibly compassionate man, and a very religious man. And because of his faith, I think that was what bolstered his journey throughout his trying to pass this bill, which took over 15 years of his life. He was very patient, and he persevered with the cause against all odds. He was incredibly stoic and brave, but I think compassionate is the main word. He stuck to his ethics and his morals and he was unwavering in that throughout his life—even when he was very ill, and even when he received death threats from people who were benefiting from the slave trade.
How did you get the role?
Gruffudd: I read the script, fell in love with it immediately, and went to pursue it then. They didn't come to me; I pursued this part. I got a meeting with Michael Apted, and then did a screen test—and then, the agonizing wait to find out if I was the choice to play the part.
What was your reaction when you got that call?
Gruffudd: I was delighted because, one I hadn't read such a good script in a long time—and I hadn't had that certain instinct toward a particular character in a long while … since the days of Horatio Hornblower. I just knew that I could represent this character and represent this man, and do a good job of it.
Actors often take something away after getting into a character for a few months. What was that takeaway value for you?
Gruffudd: I would never begin to compare myself to the great man. But I guess there's a lot of inward reflection, and he made you appreciate how much can be accomplished in a lifetime. You know, it would take me to live ten lifetimes, I think, to achieve half of what he did. Such was his nature, of just filling every minute of the day with something. And for him, everything was not just for self-advancement; it was the advancement of other people—for the community, for the society, and for all of the people. That's what's extraordinary, the giving nature of somebody like this.
I think the filmmakers and the studio hope this movie will not just entertain people, but inform them and maybe even stir them to action?
Gruffudd: Absolutely. The response so far to the movie has been, well, people are very inspired. There was a lady last night down in Dallas who was campaigning for a particular charity, and she told how they were struggling at the moment. But she left very invigorated and impassioned and inspired by the whole thing. Yes, this film has got that feeling to it. I remember as a child watching movies and feeling inspired, and wanting to become an actor, wanting to be part of those great moments in movie magic, those moments that cause you to leave the movie theater feeling inspired.
Many people think slavery is a thing of the past. But it's still very much a global problem?
Gruffudd: Yes, yes it is, heartily. It's sort of unfathomable in this day and age to imagine carting people around the world in boxes, as they were in the 19th century. I mean, that was the reason why it was brought to light back then. And Wilberforce was called to persevere with reminding people that this is how they were being carted across the world—and it sort of piqued every body's conscience.
Albert Finney was terrific in the film, in the role of John Newton. What was it like working with him?
Gruffudd: I mean, there's a lesson not just in acting, but in humanity. He was such a lovely, lovely man and treated everybody the same. It's lovely when you meet the people who are the pinnacle of their craft and their vocation, because they are usually the nicest people as well; the best are usually the nicest. He was one of the nicest actors I've had the pleasure of working with—just a delight, very funny and just full of life.
When I interviewed Michael Apted, he said he sought to portray Wilberforce's faith and conversion, but without getting preachy. Do you think the film accomplishes that?
Gruffudd: Absolutely. I think we've touched on every aspect of his life—his faith, his actions, his illness, all of it.
What did you learn about how Wilberforce's spiritual beliefs motivated him to do these things?
Gruffudd: It's funny, because he was sort of destined to be a religious man. As a child he was curious, and he was actually sent to live with his aunt and uncle for a period. That's where he John Wesley and became sort of an ardent Methodist. Wilberforce's mother was more of a conformist in the Church of England, and Methodism was a very radical religion at the time. So she tore him away from his aunt and his uncle—and he describes being devastated as a result of that. And he sort of gradually lost his faith until it returned in his early 20s.
But he also quotes in his diary that had it not been for that incident where his mother took him away from it and introduced him to high society—Wilberforce was a very rich man—he might not have pursued a career in politics. He might have become more of a meditative character, perhaps a preacher. So he's sort of grateful for that incident, and of course for his faith returning.
What about you? Did you bring any of your own spiritual beliefs into this role?
Gruffudd: Well, it wasn't foreign to me to imagine talking to God, whoever he or she may be to me personally, or to a higher being. So I didn't have to shy away from it; I sort of embraced it and saw the conviction of this man. So if I would bring in my own faith, well, to me, faith is something very personal. I've been brought up with the Christian faith with my family.
Did you grow up in a Protestant or a Catholic home?
Gruffudd: Protestant. Sort of Welsh non-conformists.
Your career includes a lot of historical roles. Hornblower was fictional, but very much history-based. You were an officer on Titanic, you were Lancelot in King Arthur, and now Wilberforce. Are you a history geek?
Gruffudd: (Laughs) You know, I've wondered if I was going to be typecast throughout my career, but I keep telling people that these are just such great characters to play. I just have an affinity towards them. They are such great stories and characters, and that's what I'm interested in as an actor. And I guess I have a face and a look that sort of lends itself to period costume!
Now how many Hornblower films were there?
Gruffudd: We made eight, two-hour episodes, so I guess you could regard them as a mini-series really.
And that's done?
Gruffudd: Well, it's done as far as A&E [which produced the series] are concerned, yes. They decided they didn't want to make any more. I guess it's such an expensive venture; the production value was so high. But I hope it's not done. I have a sort of burning desire to play him on the big screen one day. I think they'd make for a great trilogy of movies even—a big franchise. Maybe one day if my star keeps rising, then maybe I'll be able to get a studio behind that sort of project.
That would be fantastic. Speaking of which, you're also Mr. Fantastic in the Fantastic Four movies, and the sequel, Rise of the Silver Surfer, is coming out in June. The trailer looks great; are you excited about it?
Gruffudd: I'm very excited about it. We finished the movie before Christmas, and I was very impressed with the story and the way we shot this one. It's a much better movie, I think, than the first one.
I'm glad to hear that—which is my way of saying I didn't think the first one was that great, and I think a lot of the comic book fans were disappointed?
Gruffudd: I suppose it's hard because we were introducing the characters for the first time to a broader audience. We had to go through that rigmarole of showing how our powers came to be. But I think the benefit now of having that established, we can start the story from the word go—no messing around, just straight into it. And it's a much more of a roller coaster ride in the vein of the comic books.
When you make a movie like Fantastic Four, you just want people to enjoy their popcorn and have a good time. But when you make a movie like Amazing Grace, what do you want the moviegoer to walk away with?
Gruffudd: I hope people will walk away feeling inspired—and inspired to do good things, to do good deeds. I hope people feel uplifted, and that all things are possible. So if it inspires one person, somewhere in the world—or if it's the start of a movement—to stand up for injustice, it'll be worthwhile.
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