This year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain, a feat made possible due to dogged and heroic effort by William Wilberforce (1759-1833), a devout Christian, member of Parliament, and social reformer who, after 18 years of introducing anti-slavery motions in Parliament, finally saw the trade abolished in 1807. This month, Wilberforce’s story is told in the film Amazing Grace, which boasts a talented cast including Albert Finney (Erin Brockovich), Romola Garai (Vanity Fair), Michael Gambon (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), Benedict Cumberbatch (Hawking), Rufus Sewell (Legend of Zorro), and Ciaran Hinds (Rome).
Heading up this cast as Wilberforce is 33-year-old Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd (Horatio Hornblower, King Arthur, Fantastic Four, Black Hawk Down). Catholic Digest recently spoke with Gruffudd about his experiences playing this hero of history.
I hear you’ve had quite a busy week!
Well, it’s been a busy two weeks, actually, but it’s very exciting because everybody’s responded so well to the movie.
Well, I know you’re on a tight schedule, so we’ll get started… In his attempts to pass the anti-slavery bill, Wilberforce shows remarkable perseverance in the face of adversity. Though the film deals with a particular historical moment, what do you hope modern audiences will take away from Wilberforce’s struggle and ultimate success?
Well, I hope people will leave the movie theatre feeling inspired. It is an inspiring movie and he is an inspiring character, somebody who, as you said, persevered tirelessly through his entire life. It just goes to show that patience is a virtue, and I think in this modern world where we want instant results, an instant gratification, that there’s nothing better than, you know, to see your whole lifetime’s work come to fruition, and for the good of humanity, as happened in Wilberforce’s case.
Considering that William Wilberforce is not merely a character but also a historical figure, how did you approach the role?
Well, it’s funny, as an actor you have just an immediate instinct toward the character, and I had (that) with Wilberforce when I read the script. Obviously I needed to research as much as I could about the man and then the historic events and his past and everything, and I read as many biographies as I could. But predominantly, you know, he was in the script already, and he was portrayed in the script as a heroic, compassionate, passionate man — a little bit eccentric as well (laughing). I’m glad I brought some of those eccentricities to life in the movie. So yes, I did as much as I could. When you approach a character in history, you have to be as true to that as possible. And we did. We were. We used his speeches in Parliament, for example; they were the words he actually spoke.
How would you say your involvement in the film affected you personally?
It’s a very humbling experience when you approach a character of this nature, when you get a chance to play somebody’s who’s so prolific and so dedicated. You realize, you know, how little of it I am doing, maybe, to help my fellow men, and how little it takes of me to help somebody. I mean, I know Wilberforce dedicated his whole life to changing and there were enormous odds, but I think every little thing that you can do to help someone else goes to make the world a better place in every way.
The film is certainly taking up that theme off-screen as well: We don’t think of slavery as being a modern evil, yet there are still, as the Amazing Grace Website points out, an estimated 27 million slaves in the world today, with that slavery taking forms such as forced labor and forced prostitution. What can you tell us about the film’s campaign to abolish modern day slavery?
Well, I mean, it’s part of the marketing, obviously, of the movie, to get it out, but they’re doing incredible outreach and trying to highlight that there are more slaves now than there were during the legal trading of slaves. I think it’s incredibly impressive that a movie of this nature can maybe spur one individual in the world on to start a whole movement themselves, and to have the courage of their convictions to stand up against injustices. Because it is a brave thing to do, to be that first lone voice, and that’s why Wilberforce was so impressive, you know; he was the lone voice in Parliament standing up for the rights of other humans.
The film drives home the point that people won’t stop slavery until they are faced with it visually; until they see and smell the stench of death on a slave ship. Film is one of the most powerful and popular visual mediums we have today. What role do you think films play as agents for change in the world?
Well, it’s interesting. You know, in our movie, we don’t physically show what happened; it’s spoken about throughout the movie, and I think those images that we can conjure up in our heads are usually much stronger and more vivid. As I said before, if it highlights a modern injustice, than I think it all will have been worthwhile.
Do you think that films, theatre, those mediums in particular have a special way of reaching people?
They are incredibly influential. I mean, as a child, I was influenced by movies, by heroes in movies as well as in novels and plays. So we try to be a powerful medium and we shouldn’t shy away from it, but we shouldn’t also be preachy, either. You know, it is an entertaining medium, and I think it’s by osmosis that people will walk away feeling inspired.
As an actor, how do you see yourself fitting yourself into that mission?
I think what I’m doing is representing William Wilberforce; I mean, I’m representing an extraordinary man in history. You know, it’s a bit of a daunting task when you try to fill those shoes, but I think I just have to represent the passion of the guy and the compassion of the guy and the humanity of the guy, and make an all-round, rounded, real character that people can associate and project onto when they’re watching the movie.
Has a film ever inspired you?
I think To Kill a Mockingbird was incredibly inspiring, just as a movie and on a personal level, you know, with Gregory Peck — I just thought he was wonderful and so charismatic and so noble. It was just an impressive performance, and the mark of a really impressive man.
In the film, Wilberforce is debating whether he should abandon his political cause for the ministry. Newton challenges him with the idea that the principles of Christianity require both meditation and action. How do you think Wilberforce comes to terms with this?
I think William Pitt the Younger wrote a letter to him using that sentence. I think we gave it to Newton in the movie, but yeah, it was a kick up the ass, basically. (laughing) He had the ability, he had the confidence, he was becoming a more and more popular figure in the House, and he just needed somebody to give him that confirmation, and that affirmation that, Hey, you know, you are the right man for the job.
How do you think that affected his faith life?
I think he was naturally a compassionate person; it wasn’t as a result of his religion conversion; you know, he didn’t wake up one night and go, “Oh, my gosh, the slave trade!” It was something that happened gradually.
What was the most moving part of the filming for you?
The last scenes that we shot were the scenes in Parliament, so for me personally, it was quite a moving experience, coming to the end of an amazing experience working on the film, and also we literally shot the last scene of the movie as my last scene.
That doesn’t always happen!
Yeah, that never, never happens, so it was incredible, it was a real poignant moment, and I was naturally quite choked up anyway because this was my last shot of the movie, and, I don’t know, I think I felt that moment quite naturally, because I had that little bit of emotion flying around my system anyway.
It had such a nice speech at the end, too, about what people think of as being great, and what greatness is.
Yes, yes, exactly. I think Wilberforce hadn’t been celebrated so much until now, the 200th anniversary of the passing of the bill.
A closer look at Ioan Gruffudd
What are some of your favorite films?
I grew up on Westerns, so Westerns are some of my favorites. I think one of my favorites is The Magnificent Seven, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is another favorite of mine. Those movies influence a young child to want to become an actor.
What kind of music do you like?
I enjoy a bit of everything; I have sort of an eclectic mix of things. I wouldn’t say I was passionate about one thing or another. I grew up on classical music, I’ve played a lot of classical music, I’ve played the oboe and sang in choirs and whatnot when I was younger. I love traditional Welsh music and Welsh language. And a lot of the contemporary stuff. I think U2 is superb, Queen — I love Queen — great singers. I’m very impressed by singers. You know, George Michael, Elton John…
You get to do a little singing in the film yourself.
Yeah, absolutely, and I’m immensely proud of that! That is me singing there, not some opera singer that I’m miming to, so I’m very proud of that.
Do you enjoy singing, or was that something you were apprehensive about taking on?
No, I do love singing. Because I grew up with it, I had every confidence coming to do this little moment in the movie.
What, in your opinion, is the best thing about being an actor?
I think we get to bask into a reflective glory of our characters. Well, certainly in my personal opinion of my experiences, I get to bask in the reflective glory of characters like Horatio Hornblower, and Pip in Great Expectations, and Sir Lancelot, and of course, most of all, William Wilberforce.
Do you have a dream role, something that you would like to play?
(laughing) Whenever anybody asks me this, I’ve always answered, “I want to play a cowboy.” I’ve always wanted to sit in the saddle and ride off into the sunset, and brandish a couple of pistols, what have you. So yeah, that would be a dream role.
Well, given your interest in the cowboy movies when you were younger, that makes sense.
Yeah, I think that’s what it is. But then again, I think I might have had my opportunity to do that with (the 2004 film) King Arthur, because I was in the saddle every day for six months, brandishing two swords rather than two pistols.
Well, in a way, it’s similar to that last speech in the film, talking about how great men aren’t always brandishing swords or pistols or what have you; they’re using their words.
Absolutely; that’s a very good point, yes.
So I suppose Wilberforce counts as a cowboy in his own way.
Yeah, you’re right, he was a radical, yes he was. He was beating down the establishment, an incredibly radical idea, to emancipate people who built — you know, Britain was built on the back of the slave trade, basically, so it was asking the people of Britain, and the government, to abolish the backbone of its economy. CD
PHOTOS: Copyright © 2006 Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Check out the film online
To learn more about the film, visit www.amazinggracemovie.com. To read about the historical William Wilberforce, and about the film’s campaign to end modern day slavery, visit www.amazingchange.com (you may also visit this site by linking from the film Website).
The book that helped end slavery in England
Children losing their faith, clashes between a secular society and the Christian faith, debate over whether religion should be a public or private affair … We tend to think of these concerns as modern ones, yet in his book, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in This Country, Contrasted With Real Christianity, published in 1797, Wilberforce reveals their relevancy to his own time and place. In this book, Wilberforce calls Britain’s people to a life of truly authentic faith.
Wilberforce’s book recently has been revised and paraphrased into modern English by writer, speaker, and film producer Bob Beltz. The book is published by Regal Books and is available for $14.99. To learn more, visit http://regalbooks.com.