Interviews w/actor Ioan Gruffudd and director Michael Apted.
By BLACKFILM.COM Special Correspondent Leslie (Hoban) Blake
Is there a mystical pattern to the names of several characters played by actor Ioan (Yo-an) Gruffudd (Griff-ith)? Check out the double consonants in the initials of Horatio Hornblower, Reed Richards and now William Wilberforce. William Who? Americans may well ask. William Wilberforce was the father of Britain’s Abolition of the Slave Trade Act (1833) as well as a founder of the RSPCA – England’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. And, as the leading character in Michael (“Coal Miner’s Daughter”/HBO’s ”Rome”) Apted’s “Amazing Grace” opening February 23rd, he’s the latest costumed hero played by Gruffudd in his 20 year career – an amazing display of longevity considering the Welsh actor is only 33.
“Ah yes, I insist on having a costume in almost every role, I simply can’t act otherwise,” the handsome, delicately featured actor says, with an impish grin. His other costume roles include the BBC productions of “The Forsythe Saga” and “Great Expectations.” He and director Apted are ensconced on a plush sofa at New York’s Regency Hotel to discuss their new film. “This is very much a British story,” they both agree.
Wilberforce was the moral center of a decades long fight - from 1787 to 1833 - to abolish the British slave trade and as such, was a figure of great interest to Apted. “Even though it was Wilberforce’s work that paved the way for Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, most Americans have never heard of Wilberforce and I hope “Amazing Grace” will rectify that,” Apted declares. Given the subject matter, it’s most appropriate that the film makes its American debut during Black History Month.
“At 23, Wilberforce, along with William Pitt [Britain’s youngest Prime Minister] was one of the youngest members of Parliament ever and he managed to help change the human condition by sticking to his principles, a lesson that needs to be heard today more than ever,” adds Grufudd as Apted nods in agreement. “I was actually ignorant of Wilberforce but Michael educated me. It was just those attributes - his principles and his courage - that attracted me to the role.”
Apted admits it wasn’t an easy film to get made. “There were several original scripts for this film, but they were all very bio-pic in nature, tending toward the religious elements of Wilberforce’s life, which were very strong of course,” the director explains. “But I was looking to do a political film and [screen writer] Steven Knight (“Dirty Pretty Things”) and I saw a way to tell about his life purely through the all-encompassing Anti-Slave Trade Act. Also by telling the story via flashbacks, we could bring his wife Barbara (Romola Garai/”Scoop”) into the story earlier as well.” The project attracted a wide variety of producers including several Americans: producer Ed Pressman (“Thank You for Smoking”), filmmaker/producer Terrence Malick (“The New World”) and actor/producer Patricia Heaton (“Everyone Loves Raymond”).
The story also attracted the cream of Britain’s actors, among them Albert Finney (“Erin Brockovich”), Michael Gambon (“Harry Potter/Phoenix”), Rufus Sewell (“The Illusionist”), Ciaran Hinds (“Munich”/HBO’s “Rome”) and Toby Jones (“Infamous”). “It is a truly heroic British story and British actors responded to it,” Apted recalls. “Finney agreed to what was basically a three day cameo as John Newton and Gambon went through hell and high water to do it because he was also filming “The Good Shepard” at the same time and that was a bit chaotic. But it really depended on Ioan because Wilberforce was so young and I wanted to preserve that generational inequality between him and his adversaries in Parliament.”
Although everyone knows the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” it may be a surprising to learn that it was written by a former British slave ship captain - John Newton. Albert Finney’s portrayal of Newton and his abject humility in the face of the evil he once condoned is exceptional. Not only did he find God, repudiate his evil ways and write the hymn, but Newton went on to become an Evangelical minister and anti-slavery mentor to the young Wilberforce.
“Like a few truly great historical figures, Wilberforce was able to maintain his religious faith and still live in the world of politics. He never used his religion as a political base. He belongs in the realm of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. We hope that people will take away that message for today’s world from the film,” Apted concludes.
BFC could not let Gruffudd leave without askng about the upcoming “Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer.”
BFC: So the new film comes out in June?
IG: “It had better. The studio’s spent a fortune on it.”
BFC: When do you get to see it?
IG: “I don’t know. They’ll let us know if they need any retakes, otherwise I’m in the dark so to speak. But we’re
all excited of course.”
BFC: How is it that British, Welsh and Australian
actors are able to create such credible American characters? When Mr.
Fantastic says, “You’re gonna be Ben again,” he seems
like a real native.
IG: “To be fair, it’s probably because we’re all raised on American culture. We’re constantly being influenced by American movies and American television from a very early age. So we’re sort of obsessed a little bit with trying to sound American.”