Ioan Gruffudd ('Amazing Grace')
'How Sweet The Man'
Ioan Gruffudd began acting in his teens in his home town of Cardiff. He enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and immediately began work upon graduation. He starred in the Welsh language Academy-nominated romantic drama Solomon and Gaenor.
He first found fame in the title role of the award-winning television series Hornblower. Other recent television successes include the popular miniseries The Forsyte Saga, with Damian Lewis and Gina McKee; the lead role in the adaptation of Tony Parson’s bestselling novel Man And Boy, and the role of Pip in Tony Marchant’s Great Expectations, starring alongside Charlotte Rampling and Justine Waddell.
His film profile continued to rise with recent leading roles in 102 Dalmatians, co-starring with Glenn Close and Alice Evans, as 'Mr. Fantastic' in The Fantastic Four series, and even a role on TV Set, starring alongside both David Duchovny and Sigourney Weaver.
But it's in his latest role as William Wilberforce, the pioneer who maneuvered his way through 18th century politics to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire and change the world that Gruffudd has once again brought his acting talents to their peak. The critically-acclaimed 'Amazing Grace' (20th Century Fox) is an unforgettable story of the birth of the anti-slavery movement and one of the most beloved hymns of all time.
Chatting recently to the lovely, and very honest Ioan Gruffudd whilst at a press junket in L.A. at the Four Seasons, I first wondered that as this film was based on the true-life story of William Wilberforce, to truly embody Wilberforce’s role had he done background study on the man or the British abolition movement therein? Ioan Gruffudd - "It's a combination of many things for me as an actor. The initial instinct, which I can't really describe or go into that an actor has towards a part or a script, comes from reading a really good script. And this was a fantastic script. So I knew in my heart I could play him. But in order to flesh him out I had to read as much as I could about him and about the period. You sort of devour books and biographies. You just get a taste and a flavor of what it must have been like to a) live in the period, and b) to be this character."
"The way that he comes across in the movie he's somewhat eccentric and I believe that I play that very close to what he was. I mean he looks totally different to me. I couldn't do that because he was about 5' 4" or something, but he had an extraordinary presence. And such a conviction about this movement and what he believed in. It's incredible what he was able to go through and get done for fifty years of his life."
And the screenplay makes it very clear that Wilberforce was motivated not by a craving for power, but by a desire to be part of a greater good "Absolutely, and I think that comes from his Evangelical / Christian background. He was immersed in religion from a very early age. In fact, he was moved to London to live with his aunt and uncle who were devout Methodists which is where he first got introduced to the non-conformist way to believing, as it were. And his mum sort of freaked out about this because she was Church of England. And so she brought him back up to Hull and tried to beat it out of him."
"And indeed until his 22nd year he'd lost touch completely and become a bit of a rebel, gambler, and drinker at University. And then slowly his religion came back. As we say in the movie at the same time as this cause was presented to him."
Set in a dreary, rain-drenched England of the 18th century was it actually filmed back there in the homeland or on a swanky Hollywood set? "Yes, it was shot entirely in the UK, which is a rarity these days. 'Cause you need quite a big budget to be able to afford to shoot in the UK. Especially if you're an American-funded movie because the dollar is so weak. But it would have to be shot in the UK really. We shot all over really: Salisbury, Gloucester, we were even down at Chatham Docks where they'd erected the old Houses of Parliament there as a set. All those great cobbled streets of London you can't really fake that. You can't go to Prague and try and dress that up. You have to go to London."
And those costumes must have made you feel a million bucks! "Yeah, there's something extraordinary about being in the costumes and being in an old country manor house with original portraits on the wall and other stuff from the period. There's no real acting involved and you can almost imagine yourself being back there."
And you yourself, what level did your costume take you to? "Oh yeah, there's something - and I remember this from the days of Hornblower - for me it was the moment that I put on the shoes. When I put on Hornblower's shoes or boots they had that little heel and they sort of thrust you forward a little bit. Therefore your chest is lifted, your shoulders go back, and it makes you stand in a much more confident manner."
'And certainly the costumes for the men during that period were incredibly flattering. I remember when Colin Firth donned that sort of costume as Mr. Darcy for the BBC drama of 'Pride and Prejudice' everybody started to swoon. So they're very complimentary to the guys."
It seems to me with the roles that you undertake – save for 'Fantastic Four,' which mysteriously embeds itself within your portfolio of work – that you’ve undertaken a chock load of period pieces. From your days on Poldark to the high seas as Horatio Hornblower, and on into King Arthur and the Forsythe Saga all roads lead to you being a true thespian at heart! So what is it about your upbringing that steered you in that direction as opposed to other big-bang Hollywood movies? "Well, it's fascinating really. These projects as much as I've chosen them, predominantly they've chosen me. Because I'm not quite in that position yet where I'm picking and choosing. I suppose I lend myself to them because of my RADA training. Because of all the Shakespearian and theatrical training that I gained there I suppose I'm able to bring this language that period dramas are written in to life. I suppose I'm able to immerse myself in them. I do enjoy acting and putting myself in somebody else's shoes and the more distance I can get between myself and the character somehow the easier it becomes and the more fun I can have with it."
So why take on 'Fantastic Four'?! "Well, as an actor you believe you can do anything and that's - and let's be honest - why I moved to the States ... because I wanted to be a movie star. And this opportunity presented itself. But I had to audition several times for the part. We'd all seen the success of The X-Men and what that had done for Hugh Jackman's career and this potentially had the same sort of end result."
"I'll be honest with you, without Fantastic Four I don't think I would have been in Amazing Grace. It's all about numbers and figures against your name and what territory you might be able to sell in. They were definitely out for more recognizable names before they came to me on this. And I think Fantastic Four kinda swung it."
You're a very honest, humble person Ioan, but some would already see you as a big Hollywood star "Well, I suppose maybe I'm playing it down a little bit. It's just that in the sense of the kind of movies that I'd love to be making would be movies like 'Brokeback Mountain.' Those kind of great movies with great directors and where you get nominated year in year out. I mean I do have many nemeses, as you know. Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger and those kind of guys. I've always been a few steps behind them. So, I'm slowly progressing on that ladder."
"And it is definitely to do with box office and those numbers and figures next to your name. So, it was as much fun for me as an actor to play an American ... as I wanted to present myself as an actor who could do an American character. I also wanted to up the stakes and put myself in a project that would become a box office hit and help my career in that sense. So, it was a calculated move as well as an artistic move, yeah."
So, will there be a 'Fantastic Four - Part 3' anytime soon? "You know what, honest to God we were the last people to know about the second one! They were practically up and running and building sets and then we got the green light. So, I have no idea at this time. I've got a lot of friends in Canada who are on the production side - as I suppose that's where we would shoot the third one, 'cause we shot the first two there - and they haven't heard anything either. And I believe that the physical producers of the movie they've moved on now from Fox and on to another company. So the team that I knew isn't there anymore. So I don't know. But the thing made so much money for them it would be foolish for them not to. I think it would definitely be a worthwhile investment for them."
So tell me, how did a little Welsh boy from Cardiff go from first acting on ‘People of the Valley,’ eventually turn himself into a posh-speaking Englishman, before being able to transform into any American-speaking role? "You know, I was chatting with my wife and mum about this and where this determination came from. And my mum said that I just came back from school one day when they announced that they were going to audition kids for 'Pobol y Cwm.' And I just said that I was going to go for it and I was gonna have a go at acting. And so she had no idea where it had come from either!"
"I guess the determination comes from the confidence really of having done it for such a long time. I've gotten my experience and confidence from having been around actors, the system, studios and cameras. I suppose I fell into it, in that sense. I fell in love with acting by having a go and doing it. I had no real idea that I was going to be good at it or enjoy it. But I fell in love with it and that was it. But in some sense this is what I always wanted to be."
You’re joined in this movie by Albert Finney, Rufus Sewell, and amongst others Michael Gambon. So, what British traits suddenly began flowing out of you all behind the scenes? On set card games or a quick run to Ladbrokes for a flutter on the gee gees or dogs, perhaps? "You know what," he laughs, "the schedule on this thing was so intense really. And when we shot the scenes in Parliament down at Chatham Docks in Kent that was the only time when we were all together. And by that stage of the game it was literally the last week of filming. But, yes you can imagine the banter that existed on the set. Especially with Gambon! Rufus Sewell ... he loves a good laugh. And so to Ciarán Hinds. These guys are just legends really. So for a young actor it was just a blessing to be around them let alone act with them; and look into their eyes as another character."
Please tell us more about your upcoming roles in the semi-autobiographical ‘Fireflies In The Garden’ and the story set in the 1840's ‘The Secret of Moonacre.’ "'The Secret of Moonacre' I think is now called' The Moon's Princess' ... and that was just such a lovely script. It's a kid’s genre and I play the protagonists uncle. She's this young girl called Dakota Blue Richards and she's going to be the young girl in 'Golden Compass.' This kid, she's absolutely fantastic. So, it was a six week commitment in Budapest. I'd just got married and so it was just a way of paying off the wedding bill and still doing a cute little project, you know," he laughs.
"And ‘Fireflies In The Garden’ is a movie with an amazing cast: Julia Roberts, Ryan Reynolds, Emily Watson, Willem Dafoe, Hayden Panettiere. And it was from a first time writer/director who'd written this beautiful script about this family falling apart as a result of a tragedy. There's a tiny part in there that I'm in. I'm only in a couple of scenes. I play Ryan Reynolds' mate at University. I just wanted to be in it by association because I loved the script so much."
Being that you go by your Welsh pronunciation re: Ioan Gruffudd for those out there that don't know am I correct in saying that it is actually pronounced 'Yo-wan Griffiths'? "Yeah, that's it exactly. My parents are Griffiths and they decided that when I was born I was going to have the Welsh spelling for Griffiths."
Is there a more common English version of your first name, perhaps? "Well, John I suppose."
Has it ever crossed your mind to change it for a fickle Hollywood "Back when I was an idealistic young man I knew I wasn't gonna change my name. As a 21 year-old that's who I was and if people couldn't see through the name then I didn't want to work with those people. And believe me a lot of agents that came to see me at Drama College did! They thought I'd be pigeonholed as a Welsh actor. Which I thought was farcical, because you're an actor no matter what your name is. But, I can imagine people thinking that it's a bit awkward to pronounce and what have you. But it hasn't stopped me so far."
"To be honest it hasn't really crossed my mind. In this day and age people have learnt to say all the Germanic names, and the Italian names, and the Eastern European names. I think the community is so global now that I think it gives me a little bit of something special ... a little bit extra rather than a hindrance."
Interviewed by: Russell A. Trunk
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