FROM THE HEART
March 26 - April 1 2007
After several Hollywood blockbusters and his own TV series, Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd is adding some gravitas to his CV with Amazing Grace, a film about the abolition of slavery. He talks roots, relationships and espresso martinis with Leigh Singer.
Ioan Gruffudd is a jammy bastard. It’s his own description, though one perhaps easily shared by anyone who’s vaguely familiar with the 33-year old actor’s career trajectory: RADA at 18, an early role in the biggest film of all time, Titanic, his own swashbuckling TV series Hornblower, and currently fronting a US big-screen superhero franchise. Not bad for a Cardiff boy with an “unpronounceable name” (it’s ‘Yo-wan Griffith’, incidentally). The moniker Mr. Fantastic starts to seem more than merely his rubber-limbed Fantastic Four alias.
The Welsh accent still lilts through and we’re drinking English breakfast tea in perhaps the most English hotel in London, but Gruffudd, based in Los Angeles for over four years, appears every inch the chiselled, streamlined Hollywood leading man that he long aspired to be.
“I was never cast in anything [American] until I physically moved there,” he explains. “The Hornblower series gave me a bit of a presence and I set myself up for the biggest fall when I proclaimed I’m going to America to become a movie star. That’s not a cool thing to say, you’re meant to go, ‘Well, theatre is my love…’ Cut to: King Arthur and Fantastic Four…”
Gruffudd’s directness is refreshing. He continually peppers our chat with the phrase “to be honest…” and, even better, seems to follow it with actual candour. From someone else, straightforward acknowledgments of their own good looks – “the way I look is the way I look and I want to be a leading man” – and good fortune could easily sound insufferable.
Yet Gruffudd’s almost giddy, can-you-believe-this? enthusiasm and gratitude overrides any ego. A recent “Life in the Day”-style magazine feature detailed his newly luxurious existence, all hot tubs, designer clothes and cocktails, but he’s quick to recount an old Cardiff mate’s emailed response. ‘“Espresso martinis? Freshly squeezed peach bellinis?’” he chuckles, mimicking his pal. “’Remember your roots, boy, it used to be a pint of Stella down the pub.’”
As if to prove that life isn’t all L.A bling and studio blockbusters, Gruffudd’s latest film is as back to basics as he’s been for some time. Amazing Grace is the story of William Wilberforce, the great orator, politician and pioneer in forcing Britain to abolish the slave trade. Released to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Wilberforce’s successful parliamentary bill, the film is a dignified, rousing effort that puts Gruffudd centre stage amid British thespian nobility (Michael Gambon, Albert Finney) and a key episode of history.
It’s quite a role. Torn between devout religious faith and the compromised political arena and seeking to overturn the trade that largely helped fund and fuel the expansive British Empire, the sickly Wilberforce’s passionate twenty-year campaign nearly finished him off. So despite an uncanny lack of physical resemblance to the fragile 5’4” Wilberforce, Gruffudd leapt at the opportunity to play him.
“When you’re given that responsibility as an actor,” he assesses, “I take it as a huge confidence booster, a pat on the back that someone believes I can pull this character off and carry the movie. Although it’s a daunting task, I didn’t shy away from it.”
Gruffudd’s pride in the role is about more than just the chance to take on “the most adult part that I’ve ever played.” He’s well aware that for all the adulation a Hornblower or Fantastic Four can provide, lasting acclaim comes with something a little more substantial.
“I’ll be honest,” he admits, “doing something like Amazing Grace was an incredibly fulfilling experience every day, as an actor. Whatever happens to the movie afterwards, I was so satisfied doing it, I would have been happy just for that experience. Fantastic Four is an absolutely tedious, horrendous, mind-numbing thing to do and all the cast members are honest about that.”
“It’s not detracting away from our commitment to it,” he’s quick to add, aware that the “much cooler” Silver Surfer-enhanced sequel is around the corner. “It’s just the work is so repetitive – hit that mark, imagine your arm stretched to that tennis ball over there, It’s exhausting but not necessarily satisfying. I try to describe it as being like a kid again. Imagine you’re in the playground, fighting the dragon. Only twenty, thirty times…”
It’s an interesting choice of analogy, school and childhood, since Gruffudd has always been very vocally proud about his Celtic heritage. “I was a very idealistic, young Welshman when I first started out,” he smiles, “very open in interviews and said silly things, like, ‘No, I think when I get married, it’ll be to a Welsh woman and we’ll be living in a cottage in Wales…’”
“Then you go out into the big world and discover that identity has given me my grounding towards everything I do. It’s not something that’s rooting me back there, it’s given me a springboard to go forward. It’s fascinating,” he says, pondering his eventual self-awareness, “because as a young actor I didn’t really know what I thought and who I really was, so I was holding on to those things that I knew, that I grew up with. And now it’s interesting to be allowed to evolve.”
Not that Gruffudd is content to allow things to just happen according to natural selection. As he makes clear, he and fiancée, actress Alice Evans (the couple met on 102 Dalmatians) consciously pursue international success. Yet he adds, with the kind of unabashed earnestness that made Hornblower such a housewives’ choice, “to be honest, the relationship I have with Alice, we could go anywhere in the world, as long as we were together.”
Today, though, Gruffudd seems blissfully happy ensconced in Hollywood, the town and the industry. And if he can balance – or even combine - a few more high-profile hits with weightier roles like William Wilberforce then, conceivably, life may get even jammier. “I have to pinch myself. This is my life. It’s…” he marvels, tailing off. What is the right word? Fantastic? Amazing? To be honest, right now for Ioan Gruffudd, it’s a bit of both.
Amazing Grace is out March 23rd