Very Annie Mary : Interview With Ioan Gruffudd

Barmouth, on the exposed North Wales coast, is not Hollywood. No resemblance whatsoever. But it's where Ioan Gruffudd has been working on a home-grown movie which has just hit the screens as Very Annie Mary (2000). Not, it has to be said, to universal critical approval.

Never mind. Ioan, for anyone who has been orbiting the planet Pluto for the last five years, is the current Next Big Thing, tipped for superstardom after a blockbusting international success in two series of the swashbuckling adventure yarns Hornblower, and in Disney's 102 Dalmatians (2000).

But the lad fom Cardiff certainly hasn't let things go to his head. Or to his wardrobe, for that matter. We meet twice in one week to talk about his career and his plans, and he's wearing the same long-sleeved top on the Tuesday as he is on the Thursday. His trainers are not straight from the store, and his hair is attractively ruffled.

When he hunkers down into an armchair at a plush but discrete London hotel, there's a view of the waistband of a pair of CK boxer shorts peeping over the top of his well-worn jeans. No entourage, no hangers-on, just Ioan.

He agrees that yes, he is on the brink of something really big. But then he suddenly says: "Every day is a challenge. It's not really in my control. I take what comes along. There's been a variety and a diversity in my career so far, and I'm very grateful for that. You can't stick to a career plan - not in this business".

Now 27, Ioan lives in Kilburn with his long-term best mate and fellow Welshman Matthew Rhys, the man who starred opposite Kathleen Turner in The Graduate in the West End. And who also stars with Ioan in Very Annie Mary (2000) - the pair play a gay couple who run the local shop. "Trouble is", says Ioan ruefully, "that we're hardly ever there, we're working so much. It used to be a total tip, with hardly any furniture or home comforts - but we've actually had an interior decorator in to tivvy the place up for us, and it's starting to look quite good. Actually it looks quite chic now. We're still pretty well reliant on takeaway meals though!".

Very Annie Mary (2000)Ioan says: "Annie Mary is the first film we've worked on together. It's odd. Normally when you act the part of someone's friend or lover or husband you're doing so with a total stranger and you have to give the appearance of having a rapport on screen whether you 'click' or not. So it was interesting playing alongside someone I already know and like."

"We don't let anything disrupt our friendship - if we need to have something out, we get it over with as quickly as possible. We never sit on any grievance or anything like that. We can be very honest with each other. Matthew and I laugh at the same things, too - there's a lot of boisterous banter between us". He also confesses that, after having sampled the high life at premieres and showbusiness parties, he'd still rather "go down the pub with my mates any time. .. .. .I learned the hard way. It's all so superficial, isn't it. None of it really matters. Premiers and stuff are the image created by the media - it's not a real world. It's all falseness, but having been there I can see how some people are sucked into it".

Very Annie Mary (2000)And then, without prompting, he observes that he knows when a girl is a serious prospect by the way that she answers him when he announces that he wants to go and talk with his friends. "You're in a social situation, and she comes across and starts talking, and when you say that you want to join your mates, she throws a wobbly and says something like 'Oh, you're all the same. .. .. .'. It happened the other night, when I was out with my parents, and this girl started chatting to me. When I said I had to say goodbye to mam and dad, she got a bit stroppy. That's when I know it's not serious. You can spot the ones who come on at you for all the wrong reasons".

Not that he's actively looking for anyone, he insists. "When it happens, it happens. I'll know about that. Frankly, in the last year, I've just been too busy. Still am. I haven't even had time to go to the gym or anything. Maybe a bit of jogging, that's about it. Everyone says I've lost a bit of weight, and my mother was telling me I ought to eat more the other night. Mothers!".

Yes, he continues, he would like to have kids. "I would like to settle down with that someone. When? Dunno. And yes, I would like them to have a Welsh education and be able to speak the language. A nice place in the hills with some land around it and a few chickens to raise. That's the ideal world - but it all rather depends on the girl, doesn't it!"

Would she be an actress? "Well, I've thought a lot about that, and there are advantages and disadvantages - but having someone with you who understood what you did and the way that you work and the hours it involves would help, wouldn't it. But being single is practical for me at the moment. "

There have been ladies in his life. He was with actress Charlotte Hayward for four years (they met at drama school) and there was a brief fling with a dancer, called Jo. It is now three years since Ioan rocketed to fame in the UK, and then around the globe, in the TV dramatisation of C S Forrester's seagoing hero Horatio Hornblower. The fact that ITV scheduled it, seemed to lose interest, and have kept it all on the back burner for months now doesn't exactly sit very well with him. Still, least said, soonest mended. But in that short time he's won fame and recognition on both sides of the Atlantic, with a devoted following of fans and web sites dedicated to him and the series.

Winning a prestigious Emmy in the US for best mini-series didn't harm him, neither did starring opposite Glenn Close in 102 Dalmatians (2000), Disney-backed but made in Britain. "Frankly, that's why I took the part" he says. "Second billing to Ms. Close? I'd have been mad to turn that down". And yes, he says, he could quite easily work in Hollywood, but he doesn't particularly want to live there - not permanently, at any rate. "I don't think that it is necessary to live in the States, because casting is so international now. And, to be honest, it doesn't really appeal to me anyway. I'd miss the four seasons changing - the wind and the inevitable rain."

"There's nothing beneath the surface in Los Angeles, it's flat and a bit like a trailer park. No history. I can't see myself uprooting. I may live in Kilburn with Matthew, but 'home' to me is still Cardiff and my mother and father's place. ". Has his (slight) Welsh accent ever hindered him? "No" he says, "I can get rid of that quite easily if I want to. I don't do Welsh on Hornblower, for example, it's an understood middle English. What we call 'Received pronunciation'. But when I go back home to see my family, it all comes flooding back, believe me! Tell you something, when I was at drama school, RADA, in the final term you all get down to trying to find an agent, and a lot of them all said to me 'Ioan, you HAVE to change your name, no-one will understand you or be able to pronounce it or spell it',. And as soon as they said that, I thought 'I don't want to have you as an agent in the first place'. It was only when I met my present agent that I knew it was right, because the subject of a change of name never came up. I am called what I am called, and I am fiercely proud of that".

Since leaving RADA, Ioan's feet haven't touched the ground. He's played a huge variety of roles, including Pip in Great Expectations (1998), Solomon in the Oscar nominated foreign language film solomon And Gaenor (1998) ("I was filming Dalmatians on the night of the ceremony, and Disney wouldn't let me have a couple of days off to go to Los Angeles") and he had the lead role in the multi-award-winning Warriors.

It was handsome Ioan who rescued Kate Winslet from the treacherous ocean in Titanic (1997), and 102 cute doggies in the Disney smash. In Very Annie Mary (2000) his fellow stars include Jonathan Pryce and a roster of Welsh talent. He admits that he returned to playing Hornblower with some trepidation. "I was nervous and rather apprehensive BECAUSE of the success of the first series" he confesses. "For the first two weeks I was a bit nervous and unsteady, and then it just seemed to envelop me again."

"Maybe it was because the filming was a bit different. In the first series we were in the Ukraine, and we actually went to sea on a sailing ship, and in this one we were on the island of Menorca, with sets mocked up to look as if we were at sea. There was no notion of the ocean. The sets were actually on a cliff top with a view of the Med. I was worried about that, because I wondered if it would look - well, real. But when you see it, it looks so much better, it really does". He laughs: "Funnily enough, none of my mates wanted to come and see me when I was filming in Ukraine - but plenty of them flocked out for a quick break in Menorca. Strange that!".

Not that filming was always smooth sailing. Ioan recalls: "It really was the most relaxed set I've ever been on. And in this one David Warner guest stars as a heroic Captain who becomes a bit unbalanced, and causes Hornblower to be tried for mutiny. Well, David is the best guy in the world to work with, but when he gets a twinkle in his eye, you KNOW that you are in for trouble. We were doing this scene one day when the Renown is setting sail for the West Indies, and he had a line he had to say to me which was something like 'Weather the Lizard, and put your sails to larboard, Mr Hornblower', and I had to say 'Aye Aye. Sir, Weather the Lizard and. .. .. .. '. 'I caught the look in his eye, and all I could come out with was 'Wither the wazzer weather. .. .'. Total gibberish. And we went. Giggling like kids. Time and time again. I don't think that the director was very pleased with us."

"But in the end, the finished product is really two full-length movies on a tiny bit of a Hollywood budget, and I think they both stand up as extremely well crafted feature films. I really do believe in them - and I should do, because if the ratings are good - when it gets shown - I'm optioned for another five over the next few years."

"The great thing is that the books follow Hornblower's career as he gets older - he was a Captain at 25, according to Forrester. So I can, in fact, keep chronological pace with him!". He says: "I think that people are attracted to the character because he's not a hero in the traditional sense. He's not a natural leader, he's just a young man with a very bright mind. He's compassionate, he hates injustice and he will stand up and fight when he's pushed to the limits."

"He's also very vulnerable, and I think people like that. I think that women like to watch boys trying to behave like young men - it's all rather. .. .. .endearing. We hold the same moral values, I think. Being loyal and honourable and gentlemanly is VERY important to me. He's much cleverer than me, though, and cleverer that everyone else, too! He takes risks, but he works out the odds like a chess player. He uses his intuition, but he doesn't let his heart rule his head. He's also the perfect gentleman".

He is, he reflects, "grateful for all the support I've been given by all sorts of people. My family in particular. I hope I've fulfilled their expectations. I am a pretty self-confident person, but I do appreciate very much what has happened to me. If someone had said that all this would be given me while I was still at RADA, I would not have believed them for a second. "

So what about these persistent rumours that he's being considered as the next James Bond - if and when Pierce Brosnan steps down from the role? "I'm very flattered that someone has even mentioned it" he laughs, "But think about it. I'm way too young at the moment. I'd love to play him - but later on. People project things onto you that you can't really grapple with, sometimes. It's taken four years to get to this point in my career, and yes, there are paths I could take. But that is rather dependent on what other people offer me. " He screws up his face. "And frankly, if I keep on working, then I am, really, very very happy indeed".