Hanks, who this month won the Golden Globes’ Cecil B. DeMille award for lifetime achievement in film, is in London to talk about a new film called A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, for which he received an Oscar nomination this week. He plays Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister who presented an influential children’s TV show called Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. More than 900 episodes were aired between 1968 and 2001, making Rogers a benevolent father figure for several generations of American kids.
The first thing Hanks says after dropping into a chair next to the film’s director, Marielle Heller, is this: “Do you have any idea who Mr Rogers is?” It’s a fair question because Rogers, who died in 2003 at the age of 74, is largely unknown outside of the US. The 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? exposed his life and philosophy to a wider audience, but if you’ve never heard of Rogers, his glove puppet Daniel Striped Tiger or supporting players such as Lady Aberlin and Mr McFeely, well, you’re not alone.
The simple fact is this: Fred Rogers was the antithesis of most children’s TV stars. A shy, self-effacing man who wore plimsoles, grey slacks, a thin tie and a red cardigan knitted by his mother, he resembled an off-duty clerk drawn by Norman Rockwell. He embarked on a television career not because he sought celebrity, but because he believed the medium was failing children and his faith compelled him to do something about it.
Rogers wasn’t interested in distracting his young audience with pratfalls and high jinks. He listened intently to the children who appeared on his show, telling them they were perfect just the way they were and validating their emotions, however distressing. He discussed difficult feelings such as anger and failure and adult concepts such as divorce and the arms race. He used a dead goldfish to talk about mortality and did his best to explain the meaning of the word assassination in the aftermath of Robert Kennedy’s murder.
His reserved manner made him the butt of comedians’ jokes in the 1980s and ’90s. But since his death his reputation has been reassessed and he is widely seen as a quiet revolutionary – a fundamentally good man whose radical approach helped hundreds of thousands of children make sense of the world and themselves.
His reputation as a kind of TV saint raises an interesting question: why did 40-year-old Heller want to make a film about him? After all, the New Yorker’s 2015 debut, The Diary of a Teenage Girl (an adaptation of an autobiographical illustrated novel by Phoebe Gloeckner), and 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? (which was based on a confessional memoir by American author Lee Israel and earned three Oscar nominations) earned her a reputation for making darkly comic movies about real people with distinctly messy lives.
Heller’s response: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not – repeat not – a biographical film about Fred Rogers. He isn’t even the protagonist. The script is based on the real-life friendship between Rogers and Tom Junod, a hard-bitten magazine journalist who was sent to interview him in 1998. Junod had earned a certain notoriety by writing lacerating profiles that upset many of his subjects. He figured Rogers was too good to be true and set out to prove it.
When they came face-to-face in Pittsburgh, the city where Rogers lived and filmed his show, something remarkable happened. The TV presenter recognised Junod’s cynicism and hostility as by-products of his mental anguish.
He looked his interrogator in the eye and offered him compassion and understanding, sowing the seeds of an unlikely friendship. “He trusted me when I thought I was untrustworthy, and took an interest in me that went beyond my initial interest in him,” Junod wrote in The Atlantic. “He was the first person I ever wrote about who became my friend, and our friendship endured until he died.”
So, in Heller’s movie it is the journalist – renamed Lloyd Vogel and played with bruised brilliance by the Welsh actor Matthew Rhys – who embarks on a psychological journey after meeting Rogers. The role of Vogel’s father, Jerry – an old-school boozer and brawler and the source of much of his son’s anguish – is an absolute gift for Oscar-winner Chris Cooper.
Says Hanks: “The movie is actually about men and their feelings – the stuff that strikes terror into the heart of any man. No one [in Hollywood] wants to make a movie about men and their feelings unless they’re racing cars and there’s a helicopter with a machinegun.”
My kids would say: ‘America’s dad? Take him, please. You can have him.’
Heller agrees that one of the film’s central themes is masculinity in all its forms. As the mother of a young boy – she and her husband, comedian Jorma Taccone, have a five-year-old son – it’s an issue that is close to her heart.
In the film, the more traditional masculinity of Lloyd and Jerry is counterpointed by Rogers who, Heller argues, had a lot of traits that might traditionally be considered feminine. “In my life, I’m surrounded by men who are sensitive, who are feeling, who are trying to be better men, better fathers and husbands,” she says. “But you seldom see that in movies. I feel we need to show our kids that any version of themselves is all right, that there are different versions of being a man and feelings are a big part of that. As the mother of a young boy that is very appealing to me.”
It is easy to see why Heller and her producers wanted Hanks to play Rogers. Both men are American icons in their own way; beloved figures who have cultivated a sense of genial familiarity via the mass media. But Hanks took his time to commit to the project. He passed on the script several times over the years and only signed on after Heller got involved.
They met at a party thrown by Hanks’ actor son Colin and things started awkwardly. “I said ‘Hey, what do you do?’” recalls Hanks. “She [Heller] told me she was a filmmaker. I said: ‘Oh, did you read The New York Times? They had a whole cover story on a bunch of women directors. And she said: ‘Yeah, I’m in it’.”
Hanks took his foot out of his mouth and agreed to watch The Diary of a Teenage Girl. “I thought holy cow this is great,” he recalls. “It was about grown-up things and you don’t see that an awful lot.”
When Heller pitched Hanks her ideas for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood she made it clear it wasn’t a Fred Rogers biopic. She ruled out the idea of making Hanks look exactly like his subject – he wears a simple wig and matching eyebrows, but no other prosthetics – and he adopts the distinctive cadences of Rogers’ voice rather than attempting a wholesale impersonation.
“People ask me how I convinced Tom Hanks to do it,” Heller says. “I think he’s the kind of actor who cares about the collaboration with the filmmaker. We knew we wanted to work together and this project became the perfect thing.”
In terms of temperament, Rogers and Hanks couldn’t be more different. The former was America’s most reticent TV host whereas Hanks is an unabashed extrovert – a “glib wisenheimer” as he puts it. Hanks likes to crack jokes and take control of any room he finds himself in; Rogers had the furtive look of a man who had strayed in front of the camera by mistake.
How on earth did the Hollywood star turn down his volume enough to play Mr Rogers? “Well, it’s what I do for a living,” he says with the tiniest trace of bruised pride. “But yeah, he is the antithesis of me in real life. We got pretty raucous in the make-up trailer after a day’s shoot, partly to just let off steam.”
Heller says she spent much of her time getting Hanks and Rhys to slow down and leave longer pauses between lines. Hanks says that’s the opposite of just about every movie shoot he’s ever been on. “Everyone usually says ‘Can you pick up the pace, can you say it a little faster and can you take out the pauses.’ They say there are only three notes in showbiz: louder, faster and funnier. This was the exact opposite. It was exhausting and luxurious at the same time.”
Is it difficult to play a man who appears to have no dark side? After all, character flaws – the so-called shadow self – are seen as the wellspring of good drama. Hanks makes fists with his hands and rubs his eyes. “It’s so hard to pretend to be another person,” he says, playing the part of an anguished thespian. “Look, it’s easy to call Rogers a good guy or a saint, but the fact is there are all sorts of things about him that were confounding. One of the reasons he got called a saint by journalists is because it was easy. It’s not hard to tear into that and look for something more profound. In fact, it’s delicious.”
Heller agrees that efforts to canonise Fred Rogers are reductive. “Fred was a complex human being,” she says. “He was very shy and had a lonely childhood because he was often sick. He spent a lot of time alone with the voices in his head, which is where the puppets started. He was uncomfortable with his fame and the position it put him in. I think of him as someone who wasn’t meant to be in showbiz, but who made a choice to do it because he truly believed it was his calling and children needed him to do it.”
I ask Hanks if his image as the ultimate Hollywood nice guy is similarly reductive. Does he have a hidden dark side that movie audiences never get to see? “Oh yeah,” he says grinning. “My kids would say: ‘America’s dad? Take him, please. You can have him’.”
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood opens on January 23.