Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd (pronounced YO-an GRIFF-ith) appeared in his first two feature films in 1997, first as one of Oscar Wilde's lovers in Wilde and then as 5th Officer Harold Lowe in a little movie called Titanic. He came to international fame as Horatio Hornblower in eight British telefilms, and also essayed the role of Pip in a telefilm of Great Expectations. But his most iconic role may be Reed Richards, a.k.a Mr. Fantastic, in Fox's Fantastic Four franchise. The hotly anticipated sequel Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer debuts this summer, but first, Gruffud plays MP William Wilberforce in Michael Apted's historical drama Amazing Grace. I spoke with Gruffud at San Francisco's Four Seasons Hotel.
Groucho: I wanted to ask about what you found most useful in your research. Also, in telling a true story, certain liberties must be taken to give it dramatic shape: what those might be in this case?
Ioan Gruffudd: The movie is certainly not a biopic. And I think it was originally, and that's why it took so long to get it off the ground. People wanted to make the movie about every aspect of his life. And it's impossible to make that sort of entertaining. So the research that I did as an actor—I basically read two extensive biographies on Wilberforce, and what I would take from that is different to what a historian would have taken from it. I mean, I took little things, like when he was a child, he showed compassion when he tiptoed in to see his mum who was sick in bed and drew back the curtains quietly in order not to disturb her. So he was already on that journey of being a very compassionate man. And he was, as a young boy, sent to his aunt and uncle to be a Methodist. And that's where religion came into his life at a very young age. And then his mother got very afraid of that and dragged him away from the Methodism—because she was much more of a conformist religion. And Wilberforce being very upset about that as a twelve-year-old. So already you could see the workings of somebody who was very compassionate and thought about things and was influenced by religion and who was destined for greater things—You learn things about him, like he was compassionate towards animals. And his house was surrounded by animals the entire time. He was a great singer. So every time you learn something new about him, you say, "Oh gosh, this man was so extraordinary. How on earth am I going to represent him?"—He was incredibly prolific; he wrote a diary every day of his life. He was very hard on himself; there were periods in his life when he would write on top of his diary things that he was unhappy about what he did that day, and how he was punishing himself constantly. He had great guilt about kind of staying up too late or drinking too much or having said something to somebody or having not done something. So this was a man who lived every minute of his life to try to achieve something or change things: for his own benefit, by educating himself, by reading or whatever, or by taking meetings with different people to try and influence them to help the anti-slave trade movement. So as an actor, it's an incredibly humbling experience to try to represent this person that had so many amazing assets to him.
G: Did the process give you cause to reflect on how things have changed or perhaps stayed the same in terms of politics in England, with the Parliament?
IG: Well, it certainly opened my eyes to how complex being a politician is and how complicated it is—I mean it's not sort of straight-forward, black and white "us versus them." It's such a gray area. And one minute you could seem to be advocating one thing and then the next minute you could seem to be against something. So it's—I mean the benefit that Wilberforce had was that he was sort of an independent member of Parliament. He wasn't sort of—he didn't have allegiance to the Whigs or the Tories. He was an independent sort, which helped his cause immensely, that he just able to advocate this one cause as well as many others without having to be—not to be seen as sort of hypocritical.
G: Does that, do you think, point the way for positive change in government, to retain that independence?
IG: Umm, oh gosh. (Laughs.) Wow. Don't quote me on that one. I don't know, it's—listen, when I was reading about this time—it's such an extraordinary part of history, in the U.K. and also in America, you know, the time of the American war of independence, and the Napoleonic wars in the U.K. I mean, it seems that everybody was constantly at war, and this is a lone voice trying to represent the slaves who were being carted unceremoniously in such horrible conditions, you know, across the world. So yes, he was considered sort of a rebel really, especially during that time of war, and it was very seditious what he was doing as well. I mean, people—Wilberforce's best friend was shoring up everything that would come to threaten the government or the U.K., so you weren't allowed to speak out about anything, and that habeas corpus act, you know, where you have to justify arresting somebody, went out the window. So you can justify anything in times of war. And I think we see that happening today certainly—We were very fortunate. Benedict Cumberbatch and I—who plays William Pitt in the movie—and Michael, we went to have dinner at the House of Parliament with William Haig, the member of Parliament who is the leader of the opposition for many years. And what is extraordinary about it is William Haig—when you see him on television, in Parliament—and he's got a very distinctive way, the way he looks and the way he speaks—and then you meet the guy in person, the guy oozes charisma. It was mind-blowing; he just—he'd knock you over. I mean, he's just charm personified. Not the character that you'd see on television. Not at all: the opposite, the antithesis of that. So I really got a sense of the allure of politics and power. I got a taste of it just being at the House of Parliament that night. And he was wonderful; he's written a great biography on William Pitt the Younger and is now writing a biography on William Wilberforce, so it was appropriate that we sort of sat down with him. And he took us then through to the House of Lords, where we had a glass of port, because William the Younger drank about six bottles of port a day. So Pitt Benedict wanted to have a glass of port, you know, in Parliament. And what was extraordinary was the old House of Parliament that we had in the movie burnt down in I think it was 1833, so they built the new one on the same site. But it's basically the hallway where you enter in now to the great chambers there . And he showed us where we would have stood, and sort of [marks] in the floor to where the thing actually stood, so just as a bit of a spine-tingling moment, we actually stood in the footsteps of these great men—and William Haig lives just round the corner from the House of the Parliament in Westminster, and William Wilberforce lived just outside, in Palace Yard, outside the bottom of this. So we did sort of literally did walk in their footsteps, and it was the eve before we started rehearsals, and it was a very poignant moment for us to get a taste of it.
G: Your speaking voice has been described as musical, and of course, in this film, you break out in song, which is great. Can you talk about your formal training and how you've been called upon to use that, how that's helped you. You had your old—was it your RADA singing coach on set?
IG: Yes, I did. I mean, being a Welshman, we're immersed in singing, and music then, is a part of our culture and heritage. So I always believed that I could sing. And one of my influential teachers at RADA was my singing teacher. We did half an hour every week for three years. And got to know each other very well. And he brought my voice on a long way. So it was just a pleasure, ten years later almost, to call up him to come back and help me with this song. And, of course, lo and behold, on the day of the shooting, you're tired because you've got to boot the flu, and you're coughing and you're just desperate to get a melody out, let alone show off how good a singer you are.
G: But it's more real.
IG: It's more real. I mean, you see there's a real struggle and passion about it because I'm struggling to get the thing out because I was so ill. But it's a very strange moment in the movie that he just gets up there and sings and proclaims. I think it's just a way of proclaiming that he's had this great change in his life. He's become an evangelical Christian, and it's sort of a statement really, through that song.
G: Well, it serves as a metaphor throughout the film, of finding his voice.
IG: Mm. Absolutely.
G: Are you interested in doing a screen musical, were one to come your way?
IG: (Laughs heartily.)
G: Or are there other ambitions of certain kinds of films you would like to make?
IG: You know what? I mean, I love singing and I'd love to have a go at doing a musical, yes. And as an actor, you believe you can have a go at anything. So hence the diverse career—the diverse movies that I have coming out this year. So I wouldn't say no to an opportunity to do a musical, no—
G: Of course, a film like Amazing Grace is partly made possible by the huge international success of a film like Fantastic Four.
G: I wanted to ask a little bit about the sequel. I know you can't give too much away—
IG: Not yet. (Chuckles.)
G: But what sort of new character beats are you able to explore in the sequel?
IG: One, Mr. Fantastic becomes the leader of the Fantastic Four in his own right, now. He's much more confident; he's in control. He's very much the masculine man in this movie compared to the first one, where he's a little bit of the nerdy—unsure of himself. So he's taking control, and he's taking control of the family, and he's getting married. And the Silver Surfer comes in between our relationship, Sue Storm and I. So there's a bit of jealousy and envy there going on. So that's an interesting aspect of it. And of course he's just this shiny, silver, gorgeous sexy thing. (Laughs.) Takes away from us a little bit. He upstages us a little bit.
G: The first film—the first Fantastic Four—though it turned out very well, it was, I know, a bit of a struggle. It's no secret there were a lot of rewrites—
IG: (Acknowledging:) Mm!
G: And some reshooting and what not. Was this film a smoother process? I know they want everything to be right—exactly right.
IG: Well, it's interesting—Amazing Grace, I read it. It was exactly as I'd read it three or four months before we shot the movie. There weren't many changes. The difficulty in doing a film (chuckles breathlessly) like Fantastic Four is that the way these big studio movies are made is, as I said, you get a budget and the release date and that's it. And once the money's released you have to go. I mean, whether the script is in a good state or not. And (exhales) you know, they can't (exhales) make up their minds about certain aspects of it, certain sets they want to build: "No, we don't want that. We want this now." So it's constantly changing because there are so many quote-unquote directors or people involved in a movie—
G: Too many cooks, sometimes.
IG: Yeah, quite literally, there are, and it—. For us, who are the people who are physically making the movie, we don't know whether we're coming or going at some point. I mean, I don't think I'm speaking out of turn, either. That's the process of making a big commercial movie within a studio environment. But what you do have then, it wasn't—the thing is moving. There's a train that can't stop. So that, in turn, then helps the creative process in some way, that you just have to make instant decisions and go with your instincts. For example, there's a lot of improvising in the script. "Okay, let's try and do something funny here." Well, I'm not—an American writer, you know?
G: It's a real test of your accents.
IG: Absolutely! "So why don't I say this?" "Yeah, that sounds great." So it's a fun and exciting ride, but it's sort of exhausting as well because you just wish there was a clear, defined way of going.
G: And the antithesis of that—Michael Apted: "Let's do this thing."
IG: Absolutely. I mean, you know, I'm sure if Michael were to direct Fantastic Four, he'd have the same problems that we had because it's just the nature of the beast, really.
G: Thank you very much.
IG: Thank you very much. I appreciate it. I'm just delighted that everybody's so excited about the movie.