Tom Hanks has played so many good guys in his career – Toy Story’s Woody, Forrest Gump, Sully, Saving Private Ryan, Philadelphia, Captain Phillips and so many more – but today he stars in a movie which has the uncanny effect of tricking audiences into wanting to be as good a person as he is. For that is the magic of his film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, for which he has received his sixth Oscar nomination.
Admittedly, he’s playing a guy no one outside of the US has ever heard of, but it somehow doesn’t matter. In his warm and sympathetic portrayal of children’s TV personality Mister Rogers, audiences exit the cinema with kindness and patience in their hearts. And even if the warm and fuzzy feeling wears off after a few hours, it’s certainly a testament to Hanks’ charming performance.
When STACK caught up with Hanks and the cast following the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, the actor admitted the feeling was contagious.
“If I’d been smart, I would’ve watched Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood with all of my kids when they were of a certain age and I wouldn’t have just sat them down in front of it,” says the actor who has four grown children. “I would’ve watched it with them to hear what they had to say when it was done because I would’ve been more patient, I would’ve understood the language in order to use with them, and I think I would have also just been able to communicate to them just the basic principles of happiness and serenity in the world.”
Inspired by Tom Junod’s Esquire article “Can You Say… Hero?”, and directed by Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl), Hanks was a pre-teener when Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood first aired in the US, featuring Fred Rogers, aka Mister Rogers, in a cozy red cardigan, comfy sneakers and some moth-eaten hand puppets, patiently discussing “feelings” with young children. There were no gimmicks or catchphrases and, upon revisiting the show and exploring who Fred Rogers was for this film, Hanks says he finally realised “the origami of the brilliance of Mister Rogers.”
Certainly Hanks, 63, could have done with some Mister Rogers in his own childhood. Only five when his parents divorced, he lived with his father and two older siblings while his dad moved around for various jobs. “My parents were so busy with all their own problems, I don’t think they were even aware of the fact that sometimes we were in the house,” he told The Guardian in 2017.
Not that he was easily persuaded that he was the right person to inhabit the wise Mister Rogers. “I think he just felt, ‘I don’t need to play another historical character,’” says Heller. “There’s a lot of pressure to play another beloved person in this way.”
For the usually quippy and energetic Hanks, slowing himself down and tapping into Fred Rogers’ cadence and tempo proved the biggest challenge. “For me, it was being able to find the quiet spaces inside spaces that had to be filled. It was quietness and not stillness, but slowness. Fred Rogers was not a glib man and I’ve made a living out of being glib, you know? He was not a smartass and I have turned being a smartass into a lucrative career,” he quips.
Co-star Matthew Rhys, who plays cynical investigative journalist Lloyd Vogel, assigned to interview Rogers, says that having Hanks play Fred was like “America’s dad playing America’s dad.”
“I don’t think there was a choice in Tom being Fred. He was kind of born to play Fred,” says Rhys. “There are so many qualities that Tom Hanks and Mister Rogers share, so many common feelings that they both elicit.”
Through their interactions, Fred’s gentle nature and kind spirit puts Lloyd in a mind to examine the roots of his own anger and pain and to heal. “Fred, in a very calm way, sets Lloyd on a path of kind of reckoning and a way of growing in a way that’s very much to do with his own doing. I think he very gently guides him along this path of allowing him to see a number of things, and to grow as a result of it,” says Rhys.
As Hanks explains using the words of Mister Rogers, “Fred was literally one of the people who loved Lloyd into existence. Lloyd is a better son, he’s a better father, he’s a better husband, he’s a better journalist, he’s a better friend, all because a guy who had no reason to do so but told him, ‘You’re very special. I think you’re great just exactly as you are. You don’t have to change at all.’
And therein lies the magic of Fred Rogers, whose on-screen persona transitions seamlessly to his off-screen self. His lessons that he calmly, carefully and comprehensively imparted on Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood are wise words for both children and adults.
While Rogers died in 2003, Heller believes the film sends out an important message into the universe.
“This is a movie about men really finding voice for their feelings, but it’s also so much more than that. It’s really about all the things we deal with as adults that are really complex emotional issues that we don’t talk about – we don’t talk about how hard it is to become a parent, or lose a parent, or transition through parts of our life where things feel hard, or scary, or painful.
“To have this relationship that Lloyd the journalist has with Mister Rogers, where he sort of becomes this guiding light through one of his hardest transitions in his life… I just felt like this is what we need right now.”
For Hanks – who read Rogers’ memoirs and personal correspondence – there will always be some mystery to the late TV personality. “The thing about Fred is that he is instantaneously one of two things to every adult in America. He’s either a saint or a fraud. It’s such an interesting juxtaposition because you can’t be both. You have to be one or the other because that’s the way movie life is.
“But in this, we never made fun of Fred; we slowed down in order to listen to him. So we both deconstruct the myth but time after time, there is undeniably still a mystery. What’s his motivation? Is it because of commerce? No. He was the least commercial performer on television. He never sold his toys or had commercials. He was also actually an ordained minister who never mentioned God.”
And even if Hanks still can’t answer those questions, he feels that the world is a better place for this movie.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is in cinemas now – check out STACK‘s review