While Tom Hanks seemed like a natural to play Fred Rogers in the Mister Rogers drama “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” the film’s director said she had to work with Hanks to cool his more “boisterous” personality so he could tap into the role.
Speaking with Entertainment Weekly about the film, director Marielle Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) said she met with Rogers’ family to make sure they approved of her vision and Hanks’ take on the beloved children’s TV host. But though Hanks and Rogers are both among the nicest guys ever in entertainment, Heller explained that Hanks is a lot more outgoing than Rogers and carries himself far differently.
“He’s got a loud voice; he walks into a room and you know that he’s there! He shakes everyone’s hand, he’s really funny, there’s never an awkward moment when you’re around Tom Hanks,” Heller told EW. “Fred allowed for awkward moments. Fred sat in silence and stillness in a way I don’t think Tom naturally does.”
Heller described Hanks’s personality as “boisterous” typically, but said he ended up delivering a “powerful” performance, and that Hanks truly does transform for the role.
“Tom Hanks naturally makes everyone comfortable, puts everyone at ease, and makes everyone feel great. Fred disarmed people by asking a question and then sitting and staring at you until you answered,” Heller said. “My challenge as a director was to get Tom Hanks to become less Tom Hanks…. to let discomfort and painful things sit; to not make everything feel okay. This will feel very different from how you’ve seen him before.”
Heller told EW that “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” was filmed in the same studio where “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was shot, and they borrowed many actual props and clothes owned and used by Rogers to make the film authentic. They even meticulously recreated the sets as seen on the kids’ show, and they got goosebumps seeing Hanks stepping into that hallowed ground that Rogers made his home for decades on TV.
“We’re so used to [seeing] Fred in that world, to see somebody else inhabit it, it takes a moment for your mind to flip,” Heller said. “His performance is so powerful that, a few seconds later, you forget, and it’s gone.”
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is told from the perspective of a cynical journalist (Matthew Rhys) who is reluctantly sent to do a profile on Fred Rogers and is skeptical of the TV host’s optimism, but ultimately is warmed by his sincerity. It’s loosely based on a 1998 Esquire profile written by Tom Junod.
The film from Sony Pictures Entertainment opens in theaters Nov. 22. Check out EW’s full interview with Heller here.