Gruffudd talks about playing William Wilberforce, working with Michael Apted, and the Fantastic Four: Rise of The Silver Surfer
Every so often a man who believes strongly in something finds a way to move mountains of resistance. Whether we're talking about Ghandi, Dr. Martin Luther King, The Kennedy Bros., these are people who live and die by the power of their convictions and their belief that they can make their world a better place.
Little known amongst these people is William Wilberforce the subject of Michael Apted's grippingly powerful, Amazing Grace. Based on the life of British anti-slavery pioneer William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), the film follows his 18th century political career, which placed him at odds with some of the most powerful men of the time, including the king.
We recently had a chance to sit down with Ioan Gruffudd and discuss making this important film.
As an actor what attracted you to the role of William Wilberforce?
Ioan Gruffudd: To begin with, I didn't know very much about William Wilberforce and what he had achieved. When I read the movie I was incredibly moved and impressed, and educated, obviously, to him and his life. I just thought, "Wow, what an incredibly heroic character and heroic figure in history to have a go at playing." I just leapt at the opportunity.
Did you do a lot of research into the character and 18th Century England?
Ioan Gruffudd: Absolutely, when we arrived for the rehearsals, Michael Apted, our director, presented us with a huge file on the background of British politics at the time, French politics, and American politics. The Revolutionary War, the War with France, the Napoleonic Wars and then Wilberforce himself. I researched as much as I could by reading as many of his biographies that I have. From those biographies I sort of realized that he was destined for greatness.
He was sort of born to do this job. He was already a very compassionate young man. Very religious from a very young age, although he lost his religion for period of time. That all came back to him when he was in his early 20s. He became a bit of a dilettante at the University; as every young one should. His sort huge religious conversion came as him being member of Parliament.
You just brought up a really interesting point. He was so compassionate but why do you think he was reticent at first to take on the cause of abolition?
Ioan Gruffudd: That is interesting, I think that was a very honest response. The magnitude of the task was so great, because he was basically asking everybody to strip the country of it's economy in a practical sense. He was reticent because of the magnitude of it. It was incredibly radical, this sort of taking on the slavers. Eventually, his natural compassion toward humanity won out and he took it on. Then they killed him...
There was also the choice he was facing of was he going to follow the religious path or the political one? They made it very simple when they asked him why can't he just do both?
Ioan Gruffudd: Absolutely. His friend William Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch) in history, wrote him a letter using those words. Urging him that he can do both that religion can lead to action as well as a meditative state. Yes, he needed a bit of persuasion and from then on he sort of ran with it.
When you do a true life story like Amazing Grace, are you conscious of portraying this character accurately? Is that something that you think about as an actor?
Ioan Gruffudd: Because we don't have any reference to this character... through history books; I honestly don't look anything like the character. He was like five foot one. Sort of a shrimp of a guy; that's what they used to describe him as. I don't look anything like him and we don't have any sense of how he sounded. Yeah, I'm bringing myself to the character. I'm bringing as much of myself and my instinct towards this character, who was sort of written in this incredibly heroic manner. It shows him as an all around human being. He suffered illnesses, he suffered guilt, he was passionate, he was a very loving guy. It was an all around great character to play.
What was it like working with Michael Apted?
Ioan Gruffudd: Michael was fantastic. When you work with a director of his caliber, they're so well prepared for any eventuality. You turn up to set and the thing just moves along so quickly because of the preparation. We had an extensive two week rehearsal period, so we all knew where we were at any given time. There was no shock or anything when we were on set. Preparation was a big key with him.
And that keeps the energy going, you know? With a movie of this nature it can get quite heavy, and it is people talking all the time. When you read the script it was just pages and pages of dialogue. Which is immensely satisfying but his talent was to put a lot of movement in the movie. So that you weren't just watching a movie of talking heads.
What is something something you would like audiences to take away from watching this film? It really is an extraordinary story.
Ioan Gruffudd: Yes, and that's the bottom line. Why do we go to the movie theater? We go to be entertained and to see incredible stories and this is one of them. This was a huge change in our history and a great change for humanity. I think people will leave feeling very uplifted and inspired, I hope. It's a very difficult age that we live in. We're not able to just speak out against the establishment as it were, that's sort of deemed seditious in the same way that it was back then. I think people will take a lot of courage from this. If it effects one human being on the planet to have the courage of his or her own convictions, to go on and take on an injustice, then it would have all been worthwhile.
Lastly, what can we expect from Fantastic Four: Rise of The Silver Surfer?
Ioan Gruffudd: (Laughs).
I'm sorry, I gotta ask.
Ioan Gruffudd: Absolutely, absolutely. I believe that this is a far better movie than the first one.
Ioan Gruffudd: The first movie is an origin movie. It's a movie about setting it up for a wider audience, who these characters are and how they came to be. There was a lot of criticism of that from the first movie. This time, we are pulling out all the stops. We start, from the beginning, the whole thing is just action packed from the word go. Yes, the Silver Surfer is the main protagonist and it's a really exciting character.
Amazing Grace comes to theaters February 23 from Samuel Goldwyn Films.