6 questions with ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’ star Matthew Rhys
Friday’s opening of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” starring Tom Hanks as Latrobe native Fred Rogers is fast approaching.
In the highly anticipated movie filmed in Pittsburgh, actor Matthew Rhys plays Lloyd Vogel, the fictional version of journalist Tom Junod, who is not quite ready to buy into the Mister Rogers legend as he is profiling him for Esquire.
It’s Junod’s story that formed the basis for the movie.
Rhys, who was born and raised in Cardiff, Wales, is best known in the U.S. for his role as a deep-cover Russian KGB officer in the FX series “The Americans,” for which he won an Emmy Award in 2018. He also played Daniel Ellsberg in the movie “The Post.”
Rhys spoke with the Tribune-Review by phone Sunday from New York.
Question: You grew up in Wales. What did you know about Mister Rogers going into this project?
Answer: Sadly, we’re poorer for it, but I didn’t know a thing until I picked up the script. And my first question was “Who was Fred Rogers?” And then I did my very deep dive into who he was and was kind of staggered. When I asked Keri (Russell), my partner, who he was, she goes, “Well, our 2½-year-old has been watching his cartoon show ‘Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,’ ” the offshoot of his show and, as we joke, the kind of armchair psychologist in the living room who’s helping our son deal with his big emotions. So, he was already in my household before I knew who he was.
Q: How will learning about Mister Rogers influence how you raise your son?
A: It already has because, bless him in one respect, he became my guinea pig in that moment. We then started him on the Mister Rogers show, and the results were pretty astounding. You know, I immediately watched a tiny bit of his show on You Tube and was a little stunned, confused more than anything, because I couldn’t understand what was going on. I was like, “Has this guy forgotten his lines? Why is it so slow? Did they only shoot it on one camera? Is that why they’re not cutting away?”
I soon understood that what Fred was doing was incredibly and meticulously thought out. The timing of his speech was very deliberate so the children could not only follow him and feel like they were being listened to but have the time to process it. And when we started our son on the show, the first thing he said was, “He’s talking to me.” So, through his eyes, I already began to see what Fred could do. As a result, I certainly changed a number of things about what I was doing.
Q: The writer you play in this film presumably comes away less cynical. As an actor, how did the experience of being in this film impact you?
A: On every call sheet on every day of shooting, they would put one of Fred’s sayings. What I soon realized is what a philosopher he was. Very early on, I was so taken with the way he approaches life. Listen, don’t get me wrong, I mess up most days. But what I do have now is something in the back of my head that remembers what it was Fred was doing. And however long that lasts I don’t know. But, at this time, it’s certainly helping my son.
Q: What was it like to shoot this film in Pittsburgh?
A: You couldn’t shoot it anywhere else. The outpouring of who Fred was to that city and, across the board, the amount of people he touched in a very personal way was evident. The support we got as a result of that has been incredible, and just having his wife, Joanne, and all those people who were very dear to him come to the actual studio where he shot the show, as we rebuilt it to the very last inch … It was incredible to witness those moments when they walked back in and saw what we’d done. And then to have them in the film, like the Chinese restaurant scene that has all of those people who were very important in Fred’s life, was just incredible.
Q: You were described as having an impeccable American accent in “The Americans” and having watched the trailer from “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” it appears you have once again nailed the American accent. How did you go about mastering it?
A: It starts at a very early age, because the American accent is very present in our living rooms because we were raised on American television. I grew up watching “Starsky & Hutch” and “The A-Team” and “Knight Rider,” and all those shows were what you went out and played in the school yard. We went out and played John Wayne on the fields. We would pretend to be in an American Western.
So, as a kid, you’re butchering it barbarically, but you’re pretending to be an American from an early age. And then going to drama school, you’re trying your best to master it. But it’s still something I work at continuously, you have the tapes on in the car and you repeat like a parrot.
Q: You have a lot of screen time with Tom Hanks in this movie. What was it like to work with him?
A: It was daunting, if I’m honest. He’s not just a global icon but someone who certainly punctuated my life with his work on screen and in the cinema. So, to be two feet away from him, those first few days were very nerve-wracking where I was trying to get over a certain amount of nerves before, let alone, I could act.
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected].