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A gracious man with an elegant Welsh accent, Ioan Gruffudd (pronounced YO-an Griffith) has acted for nearly 20 years, making quite a splash as the titular sea captain in the British TV series Horatio Hornblower. But it took playing an iconic comic book hero for American audiences to connect with him. We spoke with Ioan about his teen years, the power of cinema and his roles in the movies Amazing Grace and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.

Is it true that you started acting at age 13?
I fell in love with it immediately. I was missing school, so that was exciting, but I was developing a passion and a discipline by getting up in the morning, getting myself to the set and learning my lines. I knew this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Not a big fan of school? But both of your parents were educators, weren't they?
(Laughing) And my father was vice principal at my high school, so I had no choice but to catch up. But I always had their support, especially when I turned 18 and the next step in my education, naturally, would've been to go to university and get a degree—just in case this acting career doesn't work out. But I went straight to RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art], which was a very difficult, disciplined life. I was so unhappy living in London, and I remember my father telling me, "Listen, please finish this course. It doesn't matter if it nearly kills you. Finish this course and you'll feel such a sense of achievement that you can go back and do whatever you want afterwards. You'll never regret it." Those were very wise words. I eventually got through my depression and found my wings.

Did that experience help you to identify with abolitionist William Wilberforce?
Well, yes, I suppose it did. I have that stoic resolve to continue and persevere, which is helpful for any actor, because you're out of work more than you're in it. You're rejected more often than you're offered parts.

Have you learned something from a particular disappointment during your career?
Almost immediately having left drama college I was cast in Poldark, which had been a very successful show in the UK—a period drama—and they were going to rekindle it and have the next generation of this Poldark family. Here I'm 21, and right away I'm going to be on TV. The pilot never got shown until about a year later, and it was completely panned and the series shelved. So I learned early on not to expect anything.

Now that you've played Reed Richards (aka Mr. Fantastic) twice in the Fantastic Four films, do you ever worry about being typecast by Hollywood?
I wasn't scared of that when I signed up because in this day and age there isn't an abundance of work. There's a sort of recession going on in our industry. They're not making as many movies as they were. So to be in a series like Fantastic Four is just priceless. In the sequel, Reed Richards has evolved into a real man. He's taken on the mantle of leadership and everybody's looking to him for guidance.

Young people seem to identify with the Human Torch who, in the first film, had a rock star-like enthusiasm for his new powers.
In Rise of the Silver Surfer he quickly realizes that the rush of power and celebrity is a short-lived thing. He's grappling with not enjoying it as much as he thought he would. It's grown a bit old. So while he's beginning to question all of that, moralistically, he's also the one guy who can fly, so it's up to him to chase after the Silver Surfer and try to pin him down.

What do you hope people feel or do after seeing Amazing Grace?
First, I hope they'll be educated by the story and encouraged. You have to have faith in your own beliefs and courage to stand alone and fight for them. Hopefully people will take courage to do that in whatever walk of life they're in. You might be a lone voice, but you might give people who are afraid to speak out the confidence to join you. That's how movements happen.

Why are movies such a potent tool for shaping the cultural consciousness?
It's a heightened reality when you go to the theater, which is not supposed to be real. If you want "real," you've got reality TV, which I find intensely boring. People want to go to the movies to escape and fantasize. We need heroes and idols to look up to and make us dream, because we all believe we have that heroic figure inside of us. It's about opening ourselves up and letting a story wash over us. That's why it's such a powerful medium. People talk about streaming movies online, but there's something magical about the collective experience of going to the theater.

Published January 2007