Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd, best known this side of the pond as Mr. Fantastic in the Fantastic Four series, is no stranger to costume dramas, having made his name with the Horatio Hornblower TV movies, as well as co-starring as Sir Lancelot in King Arthur.
Gruffudd latest effort is the period drama Amazing Grace, a film about the abolishment of slavery in 19th-century Britain. Timed to open during the 200th anniversary of the passing of the Slave Trade Act, the film focuses on William Wilberforce (Gruffudd), the British politician and Evangelical Christian who devoted his parliamentary career to campaigning for the end of slavery, which resulted in the passing of an 1807 act that banned the slave trade and eventually paved the way in for freedom of all slaves in the British Empire in 1833.
Hollywood.com talked with the actor—whose Welsh accent is slight but noticeable—about Wilberforce’s role in the abolition of slavery, reprising his role as the rubbery superhero in this summer’s Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, and whether Americans now know to enunciate his name (it’s pronounced Yo-wahn Griffith).
Hollywood.com: After Fantastic Four, you probably had roles thrown at you. What was the appeal of Amazing Grace?
Ioan Gruffudd: One of the attractive qualities of the movie was to play someone over a period of 15 years and having that throughline of that perseverance of a character who struggled against huge odds. He was literally asking the British government to put an end to their economy… It was such a radical idea. It came from a place of compassion for human beings.
HW: Since not much is known here about Wilberforce and the British abolitionist movement, do you think Amazing Grace will be a tough sell?
Gruffudd: In American history books, he’s almost sort of a footnote. The outreach that [film production company] Walden Media’s been doing is pretty spectacular…So it’s wonderful if we touch a young person’s imagination or inspire him to maybe stand up and be heard against an injustice.
HW: How aware were you of Wilberforce’s anti-slavery efforts?
Gruffudd: Speaking from a personal standpoint, I was quite ignorant to it. But I know the British government is spending a fortune to celebrate this occasion. When we started the rehearsal period, [director Michael Apted] presented us with an extensive file of notes. He had done so much research on the period. It was such an interesting time in the world’s history: The American War of Independence, the Napoleonic Wars. It was just an extraordinary time.
HW: The Pan African human right organization Ligali has attacked Amazing Grace for overstating Wilberforce’s contribution to the end of slavery and marginalizing the role of African freedom fighters. How valid is Ligali’s criticism?
Gruffudd: The movie is full of facts, and we’re telling one story, the Wilberforce story. We’re not making Amistad. We’re not making Roots. Of course, certain people feel marginalized by any story when you tell it from one point of view. Wilberforce wasn’t involved in the trade, he was a Member of Parliament, and this movement needed someone in a position of power to do something about it. Had it not been for Wilberforce’s courage and conviction, which took this great man 15 years of his life to push through, perhaps we would still be trading in slaves. It’s understandable why people feel marginalized, but we’re simply not telling that story. We allude to it constantly in the movie. If you listen to the movie, we’re describing the horrors always…We talk about the slave revolts, but we’re not simply telling that story.
HW: What changes, if any, did director Michael Apted make when he agreed to direct?
Gruffudd: It was a very quick process from when Michael came onboard and the movie being made and finished. Philip Anschutz, the owner of Walden Media [of Bridge to Terabithia and The Chronicles of Nania fame], is an Evangelical Christian, so Wilberforce is obviously a big hero of theirs. He gave $28 million of his own money, the company’s money, to make this movie. When Michael was asked to do it, the script at that time was more of a biopic and didn’t have that smooth movement or a through line to it. So Michael requested Steven Knight come onboard, the writer of Dirty Pretty Things. He overhauled the script and told it in this nature, through the love story [between Wilberforce and the likeminded Barbara Spooner, his future wife]. Then it would allow you to dip back and forth in different times in his life and tell the story of the movie in flashbacks.
HW: Amazing Grace also addresses how Wilberforce’s faith influenced his life. How concerned were you that the film would end up being preachy?
Gruffudd: I don’t think it’s preachy at all. It was impossible to tell this story without pointing this out. There’s a letter than William the Younger wrote to Wilberforce asking him to really reconsider taking a life of solitude and a life of praising God through mediation and to become a man of action. It’s impossible to tell the story without it. I was talking to Michael Apted and he asked if I had read the script in its original form. It would have been specifically been a faith-based movie, and it would have been intensely boring…. Wilberforce wasn’t a preacher. He didn’t use his religion as a tool to hit people over the head with and to look down on people.
HW: How greater a challenge does a historical drama such as Amazing Grace pose for an actor than a big-budget effects-driven blockbuster such as Fantastic Four?
Gruffudd: To do something like Amazing Grace, or Hornblower and the period dramas I’ve been involved in, is so much more satisfying on a daily basis as an actor. It’s got characters reacting to another character’s feelings and emotions. It’s a great pleasure. Something like Fantastic Four, it’s a real slow burner, because the pleasure comes from when you see it all put together. The work you do on a daily basis is just almost intolerable. It’s just tedious to stand there, hit the mark, looking off to the middle distance where my arm is. You have to use so much of your imagination, you have to become a child again.
HW: How many doors did Fantastic Four open for you?
Gruffudd: I don’t believe I would have got the part [in Amazing Grace] had it not been for the success of Fantastic Four. I think I became a bit more of a bankable commodity as a result.
HW: Did you read the Fantastic Four comic books before taking on the roles of Mr. Fantastic?
Gruffudd: I certainly wasn’t a comic book reader. So I was introduced into this whole world that exists, and the comic-book fans are very passionate. It’s unbelievable. And they’re the reason that movie was so successful. They went time and time again.
HW: Die-hard Marvel fans didn’t necessarily embrace Fantastic Four. How likely are they to be satisfied by the sequel?
Gruffudd: You’re never going to please everyone. As an actor, I’ve been able to ride with the punches because I’ve told myself very early that half the audiences will love you and half the audience will hate you. So it wasn’t surprising that these die-hard fans were disappointed or going to be disappointed. They still went to see the movie several times so they had something to be angry about. The reason we’re making [Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer] is because the first one is so successful. And it’s a much better movie because the first one was an origin movie, so it wasn’t easy to get on with the action and the fun of it. We were creating the platform for a wider audience.
HW: How cool does the Silver Surfer look?
Gruffudd: To be honest with you, all I’ve seen [of him is from the trailer]. When we shot the movie, [Pan's Labyrinth’s] Doug Jones was in the silver suit, but they’re adding that shiny element to it as we speak. It’s a costly venture, and the reason that it was so time consuming is because every shot the Silver Surfer’s in it’s an effects shot. So you can imagine the time and effort it took to shoot a scene with all five of us in it.
HW: With Ghost Rider and Spider-Man 3 in theaters before Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, are you concerned that audiences might be super-heroed out?
Gruffudd: There always will be an audience for these movies as long as they keep doing them right and doing them well and keep spending the money into them. They’re considered tent poles, so [Hollywood studios] need these to succeed. They know very well how to sell these movies. They understood that Spider-Man 3 was coming out a month before, so when everyone’s already seen Spider-Man 3, and it’s made over $300 million, [they’ll see Silver Surfer].
HW: Do Americans have trouble pronouncing your name?
Gruffudd: Americans are better than the Brits by their very nature. In opening of a conversation, you listen and you want to get the name right as part of your politeness. In Britain, we get so nervous and so shy at social occasions, we tend not to listen to the name and get embarrassed about how to say it. So I’m still educating people back at home as to how to pronounce it.
HW: What’s next?
Gruffudd: Who knows? Nothing at the moment. With a bit of luck, this diversity of movies will open people’s eyes and maybe I’ll off doing something interesting and different again.