Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd, now living here in Los Angeles, has come a long way in such a short period of time. Best known in Hollywood as one Mr Fantastic in “Fantastic Four” and its upcoming sequel, Gruffudd first caught moviegoers’ attention as Fifth Officer Lowe, searching for survivors of the ill-fated liner “Titanic” in James Cameron’s Oscar-winning blockbuster.
The Welsh actor gained fame in his native land for his five year stint (1987-92) as a teenager on the popular soap opera “Pobol Y Cwm/People of the Valley”. Leaving the series, Gruffudd moved to London to matriculate at RADA.
After graduating, he returned to Wales for the BBC-2 drama “A Relative Stranger” (1996) before landing the role of Jeremy, the son to “Poldark” in the 1996 ITV remake. “Wilde” (1997) marked his screen debut, playing John Gray, one of the young men of London who catches the fancy of the writer Oscar Wilde (Stephen Fry).
While his part was relatively small, the actor, wearing shoulder-length hair, invested the role with gusto and proved particularly moving in a scene where he declares his love for Wilde. Gruffudd landed what proved to be his breakthrough role returning to a maritime setting in the title role of the ITV/A&E production “Horatio Hornblower” (1998) and the several subsequent follow-ups based on the stories of C.S. Forester.
The Hornblower films and his continuing U.K. career–including his role as Pip in a British TV production of “Great Expectations” (1999)–ultimately brought Gruffudd to the attention of Hollywood, landing a supporting role in “102 Dalmations” (2000), Disney’s sequel to the live-action version of its classic canine cartoon.
The actor continued to land leading roles in U.K. productions–including the films “Another Life” (2001), “Very Annie Mary” (2001), “Happy Now” (2001), “Shooters” (2002), “The Gathering” (2002) and the telepic “Man and Boy” (2002)–while building American cachet with smaller roles in films such as “Black Hawk Down” (2002) and the short-lived television series “Century City” (ABC, 2004).
Gruffudd began emerging as a Hollywood leading man in the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced action epic “King Arthur” (2004), which cast him as a dashing Lancelot in a love triangle including Arthur (Clive Owen) and Guenivere (Keira Knightly) in a version of the legend that was set in an allegedly historically accurate context.
The actor’s profile got a serious boost when he was next cast as Dr. Reed Richards, a.k.a the pliabaly elastic superhero Mr. Fantastic in Marvel Productions and 20th Century Fox’s big-budget, big-screen adaptation of the classic Stan Lee-Jack Kirby comic book “The Fantastic Four” (2005).
The versatile actor proves his depth starring as Wilberforce in Michael Apted’s “Amazing Grace,” and will next be seen in “Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer”. Outspoken and always the gentleman, Gruffudd talked exclusively to Paul Fischer.
Question: I take it Wilberforce was an irresistible character for you to play.
Gruffudd: Yes absolutely. As an actor you do the movies like Fantastic Four which allow you then to come to these sort of parts. So yes, I read the script and fell in love with it. I thought he was – there’s something heroic about him in the fact that he’s not a man of action like Hornblower was, you know, swashbuckling hero but this is a hero for humanity.
Question: How much did you know about him before you took this on?
Gruffudd: I wasn’t entirely aware of his whole background. I knew of him but I always had him associated with the abolition of slavery. I didn’t realise that this was the big turning point – it was the abolition of the slave trade which led on to the abolition of slavery. So I had to research quite a bit to get the background of him and to get under his skin.
Question: Was it easy to find stuff about him that would enable you to work through him as an actor or was it very much historical material?
Gruffudd: Well there are very much historical biographies that are out there on Wilberforce and a lot of the biographies are sort of very religious biographies about his evangelical Christianity. So what I extracted from there was just the little eccentricities and how people described him.
They described him as somebody who always had his pockets full of paper and books and he was always writing, he was never still. He was a very busy man the whole time. So I tried to get that into the film and the contrast of when he was ill, you know, that he was really on death’s door. They didn’t give a man much time to live so to try to constantly fight that ailment, that was a lot of fun to play.
Question: There’s not a lot of you in this character physically. I mean, you really do have to step into the character physically. Was the physicality something that enabled you to – once you were in makeup and costume – does that help you to accentuate the performance and get that performance?
Gruffudd: Yes, yes. I must admit the whole process starts by osmosis. The whole thing sort of filters down. We had a two week rehearsal period so you get to hear the words of this character. That’s a rarity in this day and age to rehearse for that length of time.
Then during that period we do a lot of costume and wig fittings especially and it was doing the wig and makeup fittings that he started to come to life. Because I was terrified when I first saw myself with one of those horrible grey wigs on my head. I was shocked.
My own vanity got the better of me. I was just, ‘I look horrible’ but gradually, with that wig, his face came to life and he became more earnest and honest and more compassionate that way than trying to be dashing and young and, well this is what I wanted to be as a vain actor, and it gave me confidence to go that distance, to put extra lines in there to make myself look ill and what have you and knowing that that would look good. It would look different to anything else that I had done so, yes, it was a help to immerse myself in the ailment and the illness especially.
Question: How tough a film do you think this is to market outside of the UK because one would think of it, I mean Wilberforce I don’t think is hugely studied in even English history, let alone American history. Do you think that the Americans will get it.
Gruffudd: It certainly is going to be a tough sell, I agree. It’s a crowded market place, the movie industry at the moment, and the sad fact is that it’s all about that opening weekend that determines the life of the movie. Which isn’t fair but I guess it’s a factual base now. The people are told ‘Right if you don’t enjoy it this weekend then you’re not going to enjoy it further on down the line’ but the outreach of this movie and the ???? for this movie is extraordinary. They’re trying to get it out there to the awareness of kids in school or what have you, and obviously chapels and churches across the country so who knows?
I mean that community, the safe based community made Passion of the Christ the massive hit that it was. But it also might shy away from it. But I know that he’s a big hero even to Christians, so who knows. But I think that all that aside it’s a good movie on its own. It stands alone. It is a political thriller, you know, it’s not a bio pic. It’s about the perseverance of this character and I think it’s incredibly uplifting and inspiring.
Question: Are you hoping also that a film like this opens up different doors for you. I mean you’re associated with a couple of these Hollywood big movies which are very much all about the bigness I suppose, of the characters, and obviously for you doing this is an opportunity to get out of that.
Gruffudd: Yeah, it’s an opportunity for me to play a leading man who is also a three dimensional character. And it’s in a movie of this nature and I hope people wouldn’t have pigeonholed me too quickly as Mr Fantastic, you know, he’s that sort of actor. I think it’s a great journey for me as a British actor to represent his American icon. And this time there won’t be any doubts. I hope there won’t be any doubt that this guy can act. That’s something that I’m determined …
Question: Now apart from the Fantastic Four sequel you’ve got another film before that coming out right?
Gruffudd: Yes, called TV Set.
Question: Which you’re coming back to do some more interviews for.
Question: People will see you three times.
Gruffudd: I know, they’ll be sick of the sight of me, yeah. Which is great. It’s a luxurious position as an actor to have three things in the can that haven’t come out yet so it eases the pressure of trying to find the next job.
Question: And TV Set is with Sigourney Weaver …
Gruffudd: David Duchovny and Jake Kasdan who wrote and directed it.
Question: Who do you play in there?
Gruffudd: I play a British TV executive who’s been brought over to bring in a bit of class to the whole establishment ….
Question: Of American television?
Gruffudd: Yes, exactly.
Question: It’s a bit of a tall order isn’t it?
Gruffudd: Well exactly. And you see his sort of demise. He gets sucked into the system and he enjoys the trappings of that sort of corporate lifestyle, yeah.
Question: Do you have to immerse yourself in American television culture to be able to sort of do a movie like this?
Gruffudd: Well the premise of the movie is about a writer bringing the television pilots to work and it being picked up to be shot and I have had first hand experience with Century City which got made and then got commissioned for mid season pick up and then it seems to me that they buried it. They put it up against American Idol and didn’t give it a chance. I was most upset about that. I thought, is it something that I did? Was it my involvement? And of course Paul Attanasio and David Shore have gone onto greater things with House so I’m delighted for them but yeah it was a bit of a shock, that ruthlessness of it.
Question: Does an experience like that give you a degree of cynicism about the profession? Particularly on this side of the Atlantic.
Gruffudd: I think it does. I hope though that the good stuff does rise to the top, the good projects to get a chance to be seen and things like Grey’s Anatomy and House have proven that in that quality can rise within that system. It does seem a bit sort of an odd system that you don’t give things a chance and give things life but then again it’s more of a business here.
In the UK you would see six episodes or nine episodes, you get to see the nine episodes. And I’m sure it’s the same in Australia. So my involvement was very brief and I sort of got burnt a little bit by it so it’s interesting to observe it. And my big gripe with it is the whole system of casting. I think it’s unbearable to see us as actors having to go jump through these hoops and to be directed by committee. The director doesn’t get the final say. It’s all about the network and the look.
So as an actor you go to all these auditions, you have no idea what they’re looking for – they don’t know what they’re looking for. So sometimes you present something different and then they’re like ‘Oh no he’s too different’. They wanted somebody more plain. Or ‘he wore the wrong shirt’. It’s things that we have no idea how to go about obtaining these parts. It’s a mystery. It really is a mystery.
Question: Is it different in film?
Gruffudd: Yes, in film the director usually gets the final say. It’s about your relationship with the director and the material. But the casting directors have far too much power to get you into the rooms to begin with, then the director himself is overridden by another executor and then the network’s executive and then the studio. It’s just unbearable.
Question: Would you resist doing another television pilot?
Gruffudd: No, I’ve been offered a few over the year but having had experience with Century City I’ve sort of shied away a little bit. I must admit I do love making movies and the fact that Fantastic Four was such a success has allowed me to financially live for the last couple of years and do projects like Amazing Grace.
Question: Have you moved over to LA?
Gruffudd: Yeah I live here now, yeah.
Question: Do you enjoy LA?
Gruffudd: I love it. I must admit I haven’t looked back since I left the UK.
Question: Now, Fantastic Four, the first one did very well commercially but was not exactly embraced by the critics. So how surprised were you that a) the film did as well as it did; and b) that it spawned a sequel which nobody really expected?
Gruffudd: To be honest with you I always give myself 50/50. I always say 50% will love it and 50% are going to hate it. So that’s how I protect myself. We certainly thought whilst we were shooting the movie, ok this isn’t necessarily the cool teenage movie that we thought we were making when entering into. It evolved into a family movie which in turn was the reason it was so successful, that all of the whole family could go.
The fact that the ardent fans were disappointed – Yes, we were aware of that because Fantastic Four deserved to be a bit cooler than possibly the way it was presented. But again it’s an origin movie. So we were explaining who all these people are, how they came to be, because they’re not necessarily up there with Spiderman and Batman and Superman that we all have an image for them. So we had to introduce them.
I think that we’ve embraced the fact that it was such a success and a family movie and we’re deliberately making a movie for the family this time again. But it’s a lot cooler. It’s a family that can bring those cool teenagers who slagged it off the first time around.
Question: How different is the second one?
Gruffudd: Well we start off at the very beginning with a bang and it just doesn’t relent. We’re chasing down the Silver Surfer until we pin him down and the end of the world is upon us.
Question: Is it fun making these movies?
Gruffudd: I’ll be honest with you. I wouldn’t necessarily say it was fun on a daily basis and fun in the sense of a satisfying experience. It’s a long period of time. It’s like five months of your life, it’s very repetitive on a daily basis. The blessing is that we all get on together as a cast and we do try to keep it light and funny and crack as many jokes as we can because it does become tedious. The skill if there’s any skill involved is to concentrate for periods of time on what you’re doing and imaging what you’re doing fully. I mean it’s harder in acting terms in a sense because you’re constantly imagining everything so you have to be as a kid the whole time.
Question: What about embracing the world that is inhabited by the comic book fraternity. Is that an experience that you enjoy or is it one that you would rather not have to deal with?
Gruffudd: Well these people are the reason that the movie is such a success. So of course they’re going to be annoyed and angry because they come from the position of love. These people love these comic books, it’s their life, they’re immersed in it. And I love sport and if a movie about Welsh rugby was made and it wasn’t represented as I saw it then of course I’d be upset but you cannot please everybody. And the fact that they’re talking about it generates buzz and they’ll go and see it time and time again even if they hate it so they can have something to talk about.
Question: Is Fox planning a late summer release for this?
Gruffudd: No it’s in early summer actually. June 15th.
Question: So you don’t have to worry about dealing with Comicon.
Gruffudd: Oh so Comicon is after this? Ahh right. Well, we’ll go down to Comicon to be greeted by the fans who have hailed it a big success again, I don’t know. I embrace them because they are coming from a position of passion and excitement and as cynically as they’re the audience that we’re catering to, they love these characters so I have to love Mr Fantastic as much as they do. I know how revered and loved these people are.
Question: Are you signed up for a third one?
Gruffudd: Yep, we definitely are.
Question: The quartet?
Gruffudd: The quartet. I mean the way that we shot the movie was leading to another one as well. So I think it’s a very exciting time.
Question: What else is coming up for you?
Gruffudd: That’s it really. Well I’ve got Amazing Grace and TV Set and then Fantastic Four.
Question: You’re Welsh. Which part of Wales?
Gruffudd: From Cardiff.
Question: Did you feel when you were growing up that it was a realistic aspiration to be an actor?
Gruffudd: Yes, absolutely. And hence I’m still on that journey and still here. What’s funny is when you leave drama college all you want to do is act and get work. And then you start to get work and then you have stronger desires and greater aspirations and then the horizons become further away again. So it’s sort of an evolution and if I had somebody told me that I’d be in this position now within ten years I wouldn’t have believed them.
Question: Why do you want to be an actor?
Gruffudd: It just gives me an immense amount of satisfaction. Whenever actors talk about why they want to act they tend to get a bit wanky about it. It’s like why does a painter want to paint. I don’t know, it just gives me immense satisfaction.
Question: Were you acting at school? Did you do school plays?
Gruffudd: Yeah to be honest with you this has been part of my life. I was in a Welsh language soap opera from the age of twelve so I didn’t really know anything else.
Question: And making that transition from a twelve year old soap opera star to an adult actor is quite …
Gruffudd: Yeah I’m very proud of it. I decided at the end of my school years, I got invited to go back to do the soap opera and I wanted to go and train so I went to RADA to study and got in and I knew I wasn’t a good actor and I needed to improve and I used to be immersed in it. And at the end of that even the soap opera asked me back and I kindly declined and I wanted to go on to other things. So it was a conscious effort to improve myself.
Question: Is the soap opera still running?
Gruffudd: It is, yeah. It’s the oldest soap opera by the BBC.
Question: And have they ever asked you back again?
Gruffudd: They’ve asked me back now as myself, as Ioan Gruffudd which is really odd. Yeah, I thought that would be a bit much to do that.
Question: Are you as passionate about it now as you were when you started?
Gruffudd: I think I’m more passionate now because there’s more at stake. I have a livelihood that depends on it and doing a movie like this is what I’ve aspired to do and I’m delighted that I’m able to do it at this level.
Question: Do you want to do theatre?
Gruffudd: You know what, to be honest with you I don’t have a great desire to do theatre. Not to say that I wouldn’t ever do it. I just enjoy the process of film making. I’d find it hard to repeat the performance night after night after night. I discovered that when I was at drama college. But I’m never saying never. If Broadway came calling then I’d leap at the chance.