How a movie about Mister Rogers came together
Marielle Heller had a daunting task.
As the director of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” she had the job of bringing a story to the big screen that involved two legendary performers: children’s TV host Fred Rogers and the multi-Oscar-winning actor playing him, Tom Hanks.
Her mission became a matter of balancing two very different personalities.
Once she worked through that challenge, she said she wanted to bring the story to life in the most truthful way. The story in this case focuses on Lloyd Vogel, a cynical investigative journalist played by Matthew Rhys who, in the process of profiling Fred Rogers, ends up getting a lot more than just a story.
“Daunting is one way to put it,” Heller said. “We viewed it as a responsibility. We all feel an ownership of Mister Rogers. Everyone feels like he’s theirs.
“More people than I can even count said to me, ‘You know, when I was growing up I actually thought Mister Rogers was my dad.’ If I got caught up on the fact that there was so much pressure to do this right, it would have been really hard to tell this movie in a truthful way. So, all I could do was to focus on the task at hand, which was to get the essence of this person right.”
That meant getting the performance she needed out of Hanks, which involved getting the actor to slow down to a very deliberate Mister Rogers pace. The process wasn’t easy.
“With Tom Hanks, he’s a very boisterous, loud, funny guy,” Heller said. “He’s got a lot of energy and so a lot of it was physically trying to slow him down, saying, ‘I want you to find stillness.’ But more of it was about really listening and the space between him and Matthew and how they were listening to each other.”
The Vogel character is based on real-life journalist Tom Junod, who wrote an Esquire magazine cover story on Rogers in 1998. Junod’s conversations with Rogers ended up having a profound effect on his life.
“They both have a plan to save the world,” Heller said. “One of them inherently believes people are good. One inherently believes that people are bad and that [his] job is to expose that truth somewhere.”
Rogers is the unmistakable good guy of this movie. But a friendly gentleman in a red cardigan is about as unlikely a big-screen hero as one would find in a 21st-century film.
“I realized early on that someone like Fred couldn’t be the protagonist of a movie because he was already too far in his evolution,” Heller said. “But he makes a really good antagonist.
“We met so many people who felt like they had this similar story where meeting Fred changed their life. He had an ability to really bring major change out of people who he came into contact with, really change their lives. So, it was about trying to get that right.”
A dramatic change in anyone’s life brings with it a certain amount of emotional upheaval. There are scenes that called for Rhys to summon that emotion to the surface. With Heller’s help, he managed to do so in a convincing way.
“For me, because I’m an actor, I have a certain language that I use to talk to actors, which is about backstory, about what brought you here,” Heller said. “What are you thinking about? Where are you emotionally? What does that feel like in your body? You don’t say, ‘I want you to cry here.’ In general, you try to say, ‘Let’s talk about how Fred has affected you in this moment.’ ”
For Junod, the fact that his story about befriending Fred Rogers ended up being the basis for a movie has left him gobsmacked.
“It’s 20 years later [but] all of a sudden the time became right for it,” Junod said. “So, this movie seems not just contemporary. Its relevance is one of the most powerful things about it.”
If there’s an ultimate seal of approval, it would have to come from Fred Rogers’ widow, Joanne. She said the movie amazed her.
“I knew it was going to be very special because [Heller] was going to make it that way,” she said. “And how could you not love Tom. I just thought he just disappeared into the character. You didn’t even think that it wasn’t Fred.”
Of course, it didn’t hurt that she took Mister Rogers’ ties from his closet and loaned them to Hanks. But since the actor was reportedly discovered to be distantly related to Fred, one might surmise it was all in the family.
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected].