Though less-renowned in the United States than in Great Britain, William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was a member of Parliament who fought an epic battle for two decades to end the slave trade in the British Empire. While he is remembered primarily as legendary social reformer, Wilberforce’s tireless commitment to justice was animated by his deeply held Christian faith. His convictions were nurtured under the mentorship of John Newton, the former slave ship captain who renounced his work and devoted the rest of his life to Christian ministry (he also composed numerous hymns including the timeless “Amazing Grace”).
In the newly released film, Amazing Grace, Wilberforce’s life is depicted as a powerful example of how politics and faith can harmonize together for the common good. It is a message that was certainly on the minds of director Michael Apted (The World is Not Enough, Nell, Coal Miner’s Daughter) and the actor who portrays Wilberforce, Ioan Gruffudd (Fantastic Four, Black Hawk Down). In a recent conversation with BustedHalo both men spoke about Wilberforce and how his successful combination of his beliefs and his politics is a lesson the world would be wise to pay attention to today.
BustedHalo: What was it like playing such an important historical figure like Wilberforce?
Ioan Gruffudd: On this movie I was educated myself about this great man and this movement. It’s a very humbling experience when you represent a character like this. You realize how much one can achieve in a lifetime and how brave and how extraordinary these people were. Of course you reflect on
and think I could be doing much more. It’s not that hard to stand alone. And in this day and age you daren’t say anything because it’s deemed seditious…it’s ridiculous. And that what was happening to Wilberforce at the time. In time of war, he was deemed seditious to even talk about anything else. What I loved about the story is you see politics working for the greater good here. I think at the moment we’re all a bit disillusioned with politics and politicians. And here’s an example of somebody, a brave lone voice, standing up against the establishment. And they come around once in a lifetime.
BH: Wilberforce is well known among evangelicals…politics and religion have an interesting mix here, do you have any worries that Wilberforce could be co-opted by a conservative evangelical movement.
IG: I think what he managed to do very well was to leave his religion at home. He didn’t bring it in as a political tool it was just part of him and part of his makeup. And it gave him great confidence to continue and persevere with his cause. He never used it to manipulate other people or hit people over the head with it.
I know many evangelicals who are very passionate…I mean part of the meaning of the name “evangelical” is to go out and be a fisher of men. So yes they do want to talk about it, they do want to introduce you to their religion. But Wilberforce was able to walk the line between being a clever politician and not bring that into it, which is different than what you are alluding to.
BH: Being a classically trained actor how has living and working in LA been different than London?
IG: One of the things I love about being in LA or America is that it is a business it is an industry. It’s very honest in that sense. I love that, it suits my personality I think to be in this country. There’s no real snobbery toward any work. You get a job “Aw congratulations, good on you! What is it?” In England “Oh what is it, TV eh, hmmmm” (laughter).
BH: in many ways Amazing Grace is almost a court room drama. There’s a clear political message here, what would you like audiences to be talking about when they come out of the movie?
Michael Apted: Iraq.
BH: How so?
MA: I came to this film in sort of an odd way. Cause I’d been looking to do a political film for years. I’d been disillusioned with people’s responses to politics and I was disillusioned with politics myself and the fact that people didn’t seem to pay any attention to it. I’d always wanted to find a somewhat heroic story within politics. But I couldn’t find one in the contemporary world then this script arrived which was pretty much a straight biopic of Wilberforce which probably veered more to his Christian side than his political side. I thought if I could sway them to put the politics more in the front of it, to make that the engine—certainly we wanted to deal with his belief system his religion and all that—then I thought it would be something good for me to do.
So I did manage to persuade them on all sorts of levels because I said it makes the character more interesting. His political skills, his political achievements were enormous and I wanted to move away from the idea of making him an artifact a sort of saint-like figure. We’d give him real personality, real dimension.
And there are all sorts of other reasons. I loved his romance and the truth of the matter is even more bizarre than the film. He’d had no romantic attachments at all on record well into his late thirties and then he met this girl and they married six weeks after they met and then they had six children in ten years. What I loved about the relationship was that in all these stories we see the woman is saying “Don’t do it, don’t go out there. Stay at home. We want to bring up the children.” And all that. And Wilberforce’s wife was saying “Go. Get your backside out there.” Giving him a swift kick. So that allowed me by taking the political story and in a sense putting that in the middle of the film and cherry picking all that other stuff about his life enabled me to have her in it throughout.
So there a number of reasons of how I got to there. But again just to do a film on his life it had so much resonance to me about today. about the role of politics and religion as well as the heroism of politics of what politics can achieve if people get on with engaging each other and stop yelling at each other. I would hope that it would touch some nerve, that people would think, ‘now wait a minute, some of these things going on in parliament or …going on in congress we’re hearing the same kind of arguing.’
I was very impressed with his whole story. It really delivered all the things I was looking for. I really did think it was heroic. I thought his commitment to it and I take that he got a tremendous amount of that from his faith. It gave him enormous strength and inner strength to survive what was a real odyssey. Also his expertise as a politician I liked. But I fell in love with the whole thing. All these characters. It was such an interesting period. I mean here was this great social reform going on but it was also a period of appalling licentiousness. You know, child prostitution…just unspeakable things were going on. There were so many contradictions. It was just unbelievable the number of great people who were working and living during this period.
BH: Do you think there’s a difference between how audiences will react in the UK than in the United States.
MA: Wilberforce is known in Britain more for his social reform than for his faith. He was one of the leaders of what became a huge social revolution. We didn’t have one with guillotines or armies in the field, our revolution was a peaceful one, and he was one of the leaders of that. So he’s probably better known for that than for faith.
BH: Are you conscious of evangelicals trying to manipulate Wilberforce’s life for their own political agenda?
MA: Of course. Everybody wants a piece of Wilberforce. In Great Britain they’re spending I think over 200 million pounds on his 200th anniversary. I think largely to get reflected glory for politicians today from Wilberforce. Everyone wants a piece of Wilberforce, whatever bit they can get hold of.
He’s an interesting character. He was quite conservative. Although he was a radical in his social positions, he was very conservative. That scene where he mentions to another character “Don’t ever mention revolution in my presence again.” He would no more disturb the underlying foundations of British society than climb to the moon. You might think what would Wilberforce think of evangelical Christians in America, but while there was a strong element of political conservatism there was also a great sense of radical social reform.
BH: Were there any elements you needed to take out or downplay?
MA: I think it was just a balance. I felt the script I had was just too imbalanced away from politics. It just seemed such a dynamic political event which dramatized his religious beliefs so well, so exquisitely, that you didn’t have to sermonize, it was all through action. It wasn’t even doing less of it, it was more rebalancing.
BH: We’re living in a time when religion and politics are interacting in ways we’d never imagined before. Clearly with the Christian side in the West but also with Islam. Any thoughts on the kind of interaction they could or should have?
MA: Yes, I’m scared to death with the world we’ve created. It’s nothing new in history with the crusades and everything but it just seems so dangerous now. The world we’ve created in the Middle East with Judaism and Christianity and Islam…it just seems that people like Gandhi, people like Mandela, people like Martin Luther King, people like Wilberforce had very astute political sensibilities as well as their faith. And people aren’t encouraged to have an astute diplomatic, political sensibility. They’re just encouraged to simply entrench themselves in the power of their religious calling. And I think that’s what’s so dangerous about the world we’re in.
BH: You’ve had an eclectic career as both a documentarian and a creator of large entertainments. What continues to inspire you today? You’d welcome the chance to go back to a franchise like Bond and yet you have a clear social consciousness.
“The world we’ve created in the Middle East with Judaism and Christianity and Islam… it just seems that people like Gandhi, people like Mandela, people like Martin Luther King, people like Wilberforce had very astute political sensibilities as well
as their faith.”
MA: But you can’t keep that up. I don’t want to repeat myself and I don’t want to become boring. A film like this one is very hard to sell. Unfortunately. And it takes a lot out of you and it’s a lot of work and then in three weeks I may be in despair because no one showed up at all to see it, which is the always the risk you run with this sort of thing. It might hit a nerve; it might not hit a nerve. People might want to listen to this film if you can get them in to listen to it. But you can’t build a career so much on this sort of stuff. One of the reasons to do documentaries is that it gives me more choice of material. It gives me the freedom if I can’t find a movie I want to do and there’s a documentary I want to do, I can do it. I don’t have to grind to a halt. I think I’m drawn to stories about real people. I always felt that at heart I am a documentarian. I mean I love doing movies probably more than documentaries. But even of I’m making a Bond movie, I still try to figure out the reality under that. I think that’s where my spirit is.
BH: Has the success of Passion of the Christ helped make a movie like Amazing Grace possible?
MA: I’m sure it makes people salivate at the potential of it. But I don’t think it’s the reason we made this. Certainly it was the sole reason they made The Nativity. But I did show the film to a distributor who said no but the next day they sent me a film about the resurrection…laughter…so you can see there is a really horrendous appetite for that in Hollywood.
BH: What was your own background?
MA: Church of England. My brother is a parson, but I never pursued that at all. My father was very religious, my mother wasn’t so the family sort of went one way or the other. (laughs)