Ioan Gruffudd’s Amazing Experience:
Amazing Grace

By Madelyn Ritrosky
Entertainment Magazine

Photo right: Ioan Gruffudd (standing left) with Amazing Grace director Michael Apted (standing right). Photo by Madelyn Ritrosky.

Is there any similarity between a high-concept, comic book-based studio film like Fantastic Four and a serious, historical drama like the new independent production Amazing Grace?

Think actor Ioan Gruffudd.

And despite vast stylistic and conceptual – not to mention budgetary – differences, Gruffudd credits Fantastic Four with helping him land the emotionally-charged starring role in Amazing Grace.

Amazing Grace, which opens February 23, 2007, is an amazing story about an amazing man – William Wilberforce.

He was elected to the House of Commons in 1780 at the age of 21, and then later worked tirelessly for twenty years to end the British slave trade. The film marks the 200th anniversary of the culmination of his efforts in Parliament in 1807, when the Slave Trade Act finally passed.

Special events are planned for Washington, D.C. and the U.K. in late February and March, and a program called Amazing Change is tied in to inspire people and raise awareness that slavery still exists. According to Cary Granat, whose Walden Media produced the film, 25 million people around the world today are enslaved in various ways. The program’s website describes it as “a campaign to carry on Wilberforce’s vision of mercy and justice.”

When Amazing Grace screened at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, two viewers next to me declared it “excellent.” It is. This is a powerful story about the enduring humanity of not only Wilberforce but others like William Pitt the Younger, Barbara Spooner Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, and Oloudaqh Equiano. Amazing Grace draws you into Wilberforce’s intense emotional journey and situates it within the intolerant, political public constraints of the time as well as the nurturing personal relationship he finally found. Gruffudd’s acting, Michael Apted’s direction, and Steven Knight’s script give us compelling access to William Wilberforce’s moral fortitude.

The film was shot between October 2005 and January 2006, and has played at four film festivals over the last five months.  Its premiere screening in the U.S. was at the Heartland Film Festival. The major studios passed on distributing it; Samuel Goldwyn Films is releasing it in U.S. theaters. Amazing Grace deserves as wide an audience as it can garner – certainly audiences deserve such meaningful films. To that end, I had the chance to speak with several people involved in the making of Amazing Grace: producer Ken Wales, director Michael Apted, actor Benedict Cumberbatch and, most extensively, Ioan Gruffudd.

photo right: Ken Wales, producer of Amazing Grace. Photo by Madelyn Ritrosky.

Amazing Grace became a reality because of Ken Wales, whose production credits include Revenge of the Pink Panther and the TV series Christy. He got his start as an actor in the 1950s, and quipped that his claim to fame was Father Knows Best, where he was the young man who gave Betty Anderson her first kiss.

When Wales originally pitched his movie idea to the film’s eventual financial backer, he envisioned a film about the life of John Newton, the slave ship captain whose spiritual awakening led to his life’s transformation and his timeless song about that humbling experience, Amazing Grace. However, it was a lesser-known man in the Newton story who riveted the i
nvestor’s attention. Thus, John Newton, who was a mentor to William Wilberforce, became a supporting character (played with finesse by Albert Finney in the film) and the younger man took center stage as Wales got the script underway.

Veteran director Michael Apted, who is currently president of the Directors Guild of America, came on board but wanted something more than a straight biopic. The answer: interweave flashbacks with the real-life instant romance, and narrow the story to the twenty-year period in which Wilberforce worked for passage of an anti-slavery law. Although he was a founding member of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the film does not focus on that part of his life. Instead, his compassion for animals, as well as the poor, constructs the character through short scenes and bits of dialogue as a profoundly humane man.

The early flashbacks are framed by Wilberforce and his soon-to-be-wife, Barbara Spooner (played with aplomb by Romola Garai), discussing his exhaustive and exhausting efforts over the years and her own extensive knowledge and beliefs as they discover their kindred outlooks and love. This creates the public-private dynamic, mirroring the fact that Wilberforce was a man who lived his beliefs. The rarity of that is illustrated by a church slogan I saw recently: “It is easier to preach ten sermons than to live one.”

Apted, who has directed films such as Coal Miner’s Daughter and The World is Not Enough as well as British television documentaries like 49 Up, said, “I was always interested in doing a film about politics, but I thought it’d be contemporary.” Yet Amazing Grace allows that “without any of the baggage of contemporary life.” It’s also about slavery without graphic images of brutality – though there are verbal descriptions and physical trappings like iron shackles. What interested Apted was the “politics and backrooms.” And he felt “obliged to be fairly accurate,” concluding that the film is “pretty close” historically. Wales admitted there were two small, fictitious scenes, but then kept mum.

photo left: Benedict Cumberbatch. Photo by Madelyn Ritrosky.

Amazing Grace is being spotlighted among religious organizations because of its religious elements. William Wilberforce finds a deeper spiritual connection with God early in his political career, and his friend and fellow MP, William Pitt (soon to be Prime Minister), and John Newton persuade him to act publicly on his private beliefs. Apted said, “I liked that he was Christian, but I focused on his spiritual and principled side – his moral code – rather than the purely Christian side. I respected and honored it without making it the whole film.”

In casting the part of William Pitt the Younger, whose screen time is second only to Wilberforce, Michael Apted held out for relatively unknown Benedict Cumberbatch. Although most of his work has been in British television, he will appear in no less than four films this year, including another February release, Starter for Ten, a British romantic comedy. Cumberbatch told me how he got the part. “Michael championed me. He was brilliant. I went and auditioned for the man, and I think he was being pushed around and being told one thing and the other about what they wanted to do with the casting of this role. He said, ‘No, that’s who I want. That’s who I want. That’s who I want’. He said it was on the basis of the audition.” Apted was right – Cumberbatch is Pitt, just as Ioan Gruffudd is Wilberforce.

Photo left: Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce and Romola Garai as Barbara Spooner in Amazing Grace. Courtesy Samuel Goldwyn Films.

In casting Gruffudd in the lead role, Apted noted that, at the time, “he had Fantastic Four out.” He felt Gruffudd could give the film “a bit of muscle” – though he was still “a bit of a gamble.” The director said he considered Gruffudd “emotionally articulate and soulful,” accessing something that someone like “Brad Pitt doesn’t have. I also wanted his youthfulness. Someone like Jude Law would have been older.” Gruffudd was 32 during filming, and convincingly spans a Wilberforce from his 20s to his 40s (including weariness, colitis, and dependence on laudanum because of that ill health).

But Gruffudd is more than convincing – he is amazing. He takes us into this deeply principled man’s heart and soul. He found the entire experience, from reading the script to watching the completed film, uniquely enriching, as he put it, “a project to satisfy the soul.” He added, “I am very, very proud of it.”

Gruffudd is originally from Wales but now lives in Los Angeles, striving to raise his profile – to raise the bar of what’s available to him as a serious actor. And he is succeeding. The A&E miniseries Horatio Hornblower put him on the map in 1998. In the last three years, he has done two major studio productions, King Arthur and Fantastic Four. This year, we will see him in three very different films: TV Set, a quirky ensemble piece about network television; the Fantastic Four sequel; and his showcase film, Amazing Grace, where Gruffudd takes the unqualified lead and runs with it.

So how did Gruffudd become involved with Amazing Grace? We already know Fantastic-Four-gets-your-foot-in-the-door: “Had it not been for the success of Fantastic Four, I don’t believe I would have been cast in this part. It’s all about numbers and figures next to your name and being bankable.” So, he said, “I just fell in love with it from the moment I read it. I literally read the script and loved it. I was crying at the end.”

Unlike any other film, the feeling he got from the script was fully realized for him on screen. “I was so pleased, having done the movie, that the way I read it actually came up on screen. . . . You’re waiting for that moment when they say the bill has passed, then you go ‘Ahhh,’ relief. That’s exactly how I felt when I first read it.” Gruffudd said this applies to the entire movie. “I was blown away, actually. It is all up there. All the bits I was unsure of I’m still unsure of. And the bits that I loved are still bits I love. It’s rare. It’s a rare gem, this movie.”

Gruffudd has done his fair share of films and miniseries set in the past. “Hornblower was my big break, so there was no me choosing it. It chose me. That was what set me off on my path.” Yet he also sees the unique allure that historical projects can have. “They are part of history, and the reason we know about them is because they were extraordinary stories. And this is an extraordinary story. Like Hornblower – obviously a fictional character – is loosely based on Horatio Nelson. . . . There’s something about the stories and obviously the quality of the script that can come out of those great stories that attracted me to those parts.”

This attraction includes the education-via-osmosis potential as well as awe-inspiring, real-life characters brought to life. When we first discussed William Wilberforce specifically, Gruffudd revealed, “I hope I’m in the minority, but I wasn’t aware of him at all.” (Neither was I.) “Such is my extensive knowledge of history of my own country. So I was educated while reading it as much as entertained. And I think that’s what has come across in the movie, that by osmosis you’ve been educated rather than being bashed over the head. It’s not a biopic. You’re seeing these characters trying to pass this bill. As a result, you’ve learned – ‘Oh my gosh, that’s what happened in history’. . . . If you read the background and the history, it’s all up there in such a subtle way on the screen.”

Photo right: Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberfoce in Amazing Grace. Courtesy Samuel Goldwyn Fims.

Gruffudd went on to give specific examples.

“All their speeches in Parliament are lifted from the speeches they made. A lot of the to-ing and fro-ing between Pitt and I are from letters and correspondences they had with each other. Lines and sentences are lifted directly from that, so it’s kind of eerie. You’ve had the chance to walk in the footsteps of these incredible men. We also did it physically. We had dinner at the House of Parliament with William Hague, who was opposition leader in the U.K. We walked into the House of Lords and had a glass of port because Benedict wanted to have a glass of port – because William Pitt the Younger was a great port drinker. And on the way out, where the old houses of Parliament used to stand – that we’ve replicated in the movie – they’ve got little commemorative plaques on the floor where they actually stood. So he said, ‘You would’ve stood here. And this is the podium. And this is where you would’ve spoken’. So really eerie, just goose bumps – that you’ve actually stood where these great men stood.”

But riveting ghostly presence went even further, separating his experience on this film from others. He told me about the house where they shot Pitt’s death scene as well as Wilberforce’s conversation with Barbara Spooner in the library. “On the bookshelves there were books written by Henry Thornton, who is my cousin in the movie, and Thomas Clarkson, who was played by Rufus Sewell. And they were signed – hand-signed by these guys. Right there where we were filming. And next to Pitt’s bed we had William Pitt the Younger’s china. Literally a part of his collection. You know, we can’t get more authentic than that. . . . So playing historical figures and having those objects there – it’s very humbling is what it is. You recognize what a lovely experience it is and a privilege to pretend to be these great characters.”

Yet… not everyone would agree. The studios and their distribution divisions were not interested in Amazing Grace. Historical films are not especially enticing to them – profit prospects are usually too far below their radar. Gruffudd spelled this out. “It’s a business – what puts bums on seats. You know? That’s the bottom line. Let’s not shy away from the subject. That’s the reason movies like this don’t get made, because they’re not going to be seen by everybody. We’re not going to have those bums on seats and make money out of it. Hence, movies like Fantastic Four and Spiderman and those great big movies that are guaranteed hits and will make them millions and millions of dollars. That’s a sad fact, because the industry was based on great movies with great stories – and the bad ones as well. I just hope there might be a little trend of things changing.”

Gruffudd is certainly not alone in his thinking. In talking with filmgoers, directors, writers, actors, producers, I hear that same sentiment again and again and again. Supporting smaller, thoughtful films is something that everyone can do, from admission dollars to reviewers’ coverage to the passion an actor invests in landing, making, and promoting these kinds of projects. In talking about the possibility of a project with his fiancée, actress-writer Alice Evans, Gruffudd had words of wisdom for anyone: “Start small, but think big.” This theme, that we can indeed effect change, is what Amazing Grace is all about.

At the end of our meeting, Ioan Gruffudd summed up and communicated clearly – as he did throughout the conversation – his passion for this film. “The experience was such an amazing one. And the movie is so good. It’s very rare that you have such a brilliant experience making something. It never turns out that well, as good as the experience. This movie has.”

photo left: Albert Finney as John Newton in Amazing Grace. Courtesy Samuel Goldwyn Films

Madelyn Ritrosky Index | Film Home Page | Entertainment Magazine

February 2007 Film Entertainment Magazine / All rights reserved.

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Fantastic Four (Widescreen Edition) (2005)

Starring: Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba Director: Tim Story

• Plot Outline A group of astronauts gain superpowers after a cosmic radiation exposure and must use them to oppose the plans of their enemy, Doctor Victor Von Doom
• Plot Synopsis: When an experimental space voyage goes awry, four people are changed by cosmic rays. Reed Richards, inventor and leader of the group gains the ability to stretch his body, and takes the name, Mr. Fantastic. His girlfriend, Sue Storm, gains the ability to turn invisible and create force fields, calling herself the Invisible Woman. Her younger brother Johnny Storm gains the ability to control fire, including covering his own body with flame, becoming the Human Torch. Pilot Ben Grimm is turned into a super-strong rock creature calling himself Thing. Together, they use their unique powers to explore the strange aspects of the world, and to foil the evil plans of Doctor Doom.

• Studio: 20th Century Fox
• DVD Release Date: December 6, 2005

DVD Features:
• Available Subtitles: English, Spanish
• Available Audio Tracks: English (DTS 5.1), English (Dolby Digital 5.1), Spanish (Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround)
• Commentary by: Jessica Alba, Michael Chiklis, and Ioan GruffudUnknown Format
• 3 deleted scenes
• The Fantastic Tour: Exclusive behind-the-scenes home video hosted by the entire cast
• Making of Fantastic Four
• Fox Movie Channel Presents Casting Session & Making A Scene
• Music videos: Everything Burns, Come On Come In, Music
• Exclusive inside look at X-Men 3 - hosted by producer Avi Arad

Horatio Hornblower Collector's Edition (1999)

Starring: Ioan Gruffudd, Robert Lindsay (II) Director: Andrew Grieve

Synopsis Midshipman Horatio Hornblower joins the British fleet just as the French Revolution is about to change European history. But he has worries closer to home as he incurs the wrath of a shipmate named Simpson, a bully who everyone else avoids and placates. Events lead to a duel, but one of Hornblower's mates takes his place and is killed. At war with France, Hornblower and Simpson are assigned different ships, but are reunited when Simpson's ship is sunk. Events lead to another duel with different results.

• Studio: A&E Home Video
• DVD Release Date: October 25, 2005
• Run Time: 800 minutes

DVD Features:
• Available Audio Tracks: English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo)
• Includes eight feature-length Hornblower films: The Duel, The Fire Ships, The Duchess and the Devil, The Wrong War, The Mutiny, Retribution, Loyalty, Duty
• Filmmaker commentary on Loyalty and Duty
• 3 Bonus Programs: "England's Royal Warships," "Sail 2000: Aboard the Eagle," and "The Making of Horatio Hornblower"
• Cast & Crew Biographies
• Interactive 3D Naval Cannon
• Guide to Royal Warships
• Nautical Terms & Definitions
• Photo Gallery

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