Casting Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers was not the no-brainer that you’d think.
Marielle Heller, the director of the new film about Mr. Rogers called “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” explained why transforming Hanks into the beloved childhood icon was actually “scary and vulnerable” for the two-time Oscar winner.
“I think walking around in Fred’s skin is a vulnerable state to be in. It’s somebody who is always listening, who is so open, who is just receiving what’s coming to him in the world in a really openhearted way,” Heller told TheWrap Editor in Chief Sharon Waxman at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film premiered in September. “That’s actually a hard way to walk around in the world, so it was asking Tom to be able to do that.”
Both Hanks and Rogers are known to be a couple of the nicest men ever in the entertainment industry. But Heller said the two have very different energies — and that Hanks had to actually take it down a notch to get into the right frame of mind.
“Tom Hanks is so charismatic. He really walks into a room, he meets everybody, remembers everybody’s name, he really connects with you, he’s really charming,” Heller said. But not so with Rogers. “He was really comfortable sitting in awkward silence. And he was much quieter and more reserved, and he had a stillness to him, whereas Tom is always moving.”
One of Heller’s tricks was having Hanks imagine that his grandchild was sitting on the other side of the camera. Doing so helped him unlock that emotion and attention that Rogers was known for.
“Tom has got tons of energy and is just this really boisterous guy,” Heller said. “So if anything it was calming him to the Fred way of being and asking him to connect in a really deep, genuine way, which I think is scary and vulnerable for an actor to do.”
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is Heller’s third film following last year’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me.” It is based on the true story of journalist Tom Junod, who profiled Rogers for Esquire, only to find his cynicism and skepticism warmed by Rogers’ authenticity. Sony Pictures is releasing the film in theaters on Nov. 22 following its debut this weekend at TIFF.
Watch the interview with Heller above.