Why Playing Mr. Rogers Is a Challenge And How Tom Hanks Mastered It
Two of America’s favorite icons come together in theaters this fall, in A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD. The biographical drama stars Tom Hanks as wildly beloved children’s television personality Fred Rogers, whose classic series, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” taught kids and adults alike the value of kindness and compassion.
Directed by Marielle Heller, the film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (read our festival report here), centers on Rogers’ relationship with one adult in particular: A skeptical journalist who was sent to profile the TV host for Esquire magazine, and who wound up becoming lifelong friends with Rogers. Portraying a well-known person like Fred Rogers is no easy task, but Heller found the perfect person for the job in Hanks. Read on to learn how one of our favorite actors became one of the most beloved people in modern history, with a performance that is already considered to be a serious Oscar contender.
Revisiting a Very Special Neighborhood
It’s difficult to make a movie about a famous person, and even more so when that person is as loved as Mister Rogers. For over 30 years, Rogers invited children of all ages into his living room to talk about a wide variety of subjects, ranging from light topics (how things work) to more serious issues, like divorce. Over the course of 912 episodes, Rogers taught his young viewers about the world, whether it was the little world they inhabited in their own neighborhoods or the wider world beyond.
With the help of his puppet pals in the Land of Make-Believe, Rogers guided kids and adults to live their lives with kindness first and foremost, helping them to look past their differences with other people to find common ground. There was something remarkably earnest and genuine about Mister Rogers and his gentle manner of speaking and, more importantly, listening. Both kids and adults could learn so much from watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and those who grew up watching the show still carry many of Rogers’ words of wisdom with them today.
All of which means that anyone playing Fred Rogers in a movie has to face an audience with deeply-ingrained impressions of the man. Virtually everyone is more than merely familiar with Rogers; he's a figure they grew up with. Any real person is difficult to portray. There are always pre-existing impressions and attitudes for an actor to overcome. Mr. Rogers, however, is so uniquely well-known that he presents an unusual challenge.
The Only Man for the Job
Fred Rogers was kind, warm, generous, and honest. He also had a certain paternal quality, which is not unlike the image we have of Tom Hanks. Few actors would be up to the task of portraying Mister Rogers; not only is Hanks up to it, he’s perfect for the role.
Think about it: Who could possibly play Fred Rogers in a movie? Your first and only answer would probably be “no one,” and we could understand why. Now that Tom Hanks is playing the man in a movie, Hanks does seem like the only correct answer. Although he’s an immensely talented actor, Hanks still had quite the challenge ahead of him for A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD.
To prepare, Hanks visited the Fred Rogers Center at Saint Vincent College in Rogers’ hometown of Latrobe, Pennsylvania. The center is home to a large archive containing a wealth of material related to the life of Fred Rogers. In addition to watching the 2018 documentary WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?, Hanks says he watched “hundreds of hours” of footage – not just of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” but footage from behind the scenes of the series, which gave Hanks a better idea of how Rogers acted when the cameras were off. If you’ve seen WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? you’ll know that Rogers behaved pretty much as advertised.
A Beautiful Day
Rogers "behaving as advertised" is a big part of the idea behind the movie, which gives Hanks an extra challenge. He's got to make the host feel genuine, both when he is "performing" on television, and when he is interacting with people in real life. Granted, Hanks has a terrific partner in Matthew Rhys (of “The Americans”), who plays the award-winning journalist who profiles Rogers and eventually becomes his friend.
And the deft touch of director Marielle Heller (seen above, on set with Hanks) cannot be overlooked. Heller first got attention for her 2015 festival hit, DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL, which she wrote and directed based on the novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, about a teenager who begins a relationship with her mother's boyfriend. That film tackled some difficult emotional situations with frankness and raw candor. She Heller developed her directorial vocabulary with last year's CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?, in which Melissa McCarthy veered into dramatic territory, as a journalist who begins forging interviews in order to continue being published.
Both of Heller's earlier films found sensitive and funny ways to approach some very real and frequently difficult emotions. Frankly, we're looking forward to seeing what she does with a character like Fred Rogers — it's an opportunity to touch on rich emotional material with a slightly lighter touch! Heller has proven to be a great collaborator with actors, and in the end, some of Hanks's success in A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD can be attributed to his director's skills.
A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD opens on November 22!
All images courtesy of Sony Pictures.