Barely two sentences into my phone interview with actor Ioan Gruffudd and his thickly sweet accent has disrupted my concentration completely. It doesn't help that just the night before he rang me up to talk about his new film, Michael Apted's Amazing Grace, I found myself curled up on the sofa with my 5-year-old daughter watching an impossibly pliable Gruffudd as Mr. Fantastic in The Fantastic Four.
But that accent -- the one from the real Gruffudd and not the nondescript voice that spouted all the pseudo-scientific jargon of egg-headed genius Reed Richards, or even the perfectly spirited King's English that dominates his turn in Grace -- had me remixing his native tongue with his film roles in much the same way the team behind this project must have done.
The socially conscious Apted already had the film in active development with a solid script from Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things), which Gruffudd read and "fell in love with" because "it was a movie about something.
Having had the opportunity to do The Fantastic Four and the success of that, it allowed me to come to this and for them to look at me as a bankable commodity."
After meeting with Apted and finding out more about William Wilberforce (whom the actor admits he knew nothing about prior to reading the script), Gruffudd still found himself in the middle of testing for the part and playing the waiting game as decisions were made. He is certainly handsome, but with an intelligence and passion that makes him a perfect match for Wilberforce, especially for audiences that have no knowledge of the man or his contribution to the abolitionist movement.
As a member of Parliament and a devoutly passionate man of conscience, Wilberforce took up the cause in 1791 when he introduced the first anti-slave trade bill, which met a swift defeat. He continued in this losing effort throughout England's war with France, joining forces with a ragtag collection of rabble-rousers like Thomas Clarkson (whose dark revolutionary fervor is brought to life by Rufus Sewell), until finally winning a significant backdoor victory in March of 1807 that crippled the trade by allowing the Royal Navy to police slave ships flying the flags of neutral countries on the open waters.
He remained committed to not simply outlawing the trade itself but also acknowledging full rights and freedoms of former slaves, which was acquired through the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act passed a month after his death. There is something romantic in the idea of such a tireless and self-sacrificing crusader, an undeniably earnest figure.
Gruffudd's honesty is refreshing, especially as he discusses how unfamiliar he was with Wilberforce before taking on the role, but he appreciates how "we have educated ourselves through this movie and that's an exciting part" of the process.
"From its conception, the intention was to present the film as part of the celebration of the passing of the Anti-Slave Act in 1807," he says. "And we had a lot of reverence towards these characters and the story we're portraying."
In this response there's a hint of optimism that would seem calculated in a politician, yet Gruffudd pulls it off.
He gracefully holds the center among a remarkable cast -- including Michael Gambon, Toby Jones, Ciarin Hinds, Albert Finney and even Senegalese music legend Youssou N'Dour -- without attracting undue attention through a performance of grand gestures. He and the team understand that the actions and intentions of Wilberforce are enough to stand on their own.
Yet he was quick to point out the difficulties of getting films like this made because "it becomes a purely business decision. Studios look at scripts (like this) and start wondering, 'Well, is this going to put bums in seats?' Which makes this a real testament to Walden Media who are trying to build a studio for films of a good moral nature in this competitive market."
By the end of our brief telephone chat, we had fittingly come full circle when Gruffudd returned to his upcoming summer sequel as a draw for Grace.
"If my playing Mr. Fantastic introduces a new, younger generation to William Wilberforce, then it would have been worthwhile," he says.
There's no doubting that Gruffudd wants to connect with audiences and maybe even use that connection to get us to believe in these projects as much as he does. That's really not much of a stretch after listening carefully to this graceful man. ©