Tom Hanks Being Mr Rogers
By Viva Press
Tom Hanks is generally recognised as the nicest man in Hollywood, if not the entire planet. Now he’s starring in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, playing another public figure whose reputation is just as sterling – Fred Rogers, the late host of the award-winning and immensely popular children’s TV series, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Hanks’s winning performance (nominated for a Golden Globe Best Actor award) as the beloved TV host has earned rave reviews and is likely to earn him a sixth Oscar nomination and possibly his third trophy. Assessing his screen alter ego, Hanks believes that kindness was the hallmark of Rogers and his legacy.
‘He had the three secrets to happiness,’ said Hanks. ‘Be kind, be kind and be kind. I think “kindness” becomes a buzz word. It ends up being diminished by the fact of what it means. But honestly, if you give everybody a fair shake, if you understand that the person that is serving you or filling up your gas might have had just as bad a day as you had, that’s just kindness.’
The film, directed by Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), co-stars Welsh actor Matthew Rhys (The Americans) as Esquire journalist Tom Junod, whose life was changed after interviewing Rogers for the magazine in 1998. After premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, the film has charmed audiences and critics alike and is likely to rank amongst Hanks’ most memorable roles.
Rhys admitted to being somewhat intimidated acting opposite Hanks, an actor he has long revered.
‘It was terrifying,’ he remarked. ‘In a very personal, insecure way, yes, terrifying. Having grown up with Tom Hanks as a true iconic hero of mine, it takes days to kind of go, “Oh, my God, that’s Tom Hanks. What do I say next to him?” [I felt like] falling apart. And then seeing him embody Fred, not in an impersonating way, but in a true embodiment of who he was, was incredible to watch. So, it took a few weeks to relax.’
For Hanks, playing Rogers is merely one more outstanding example of the 63-year-old actor’s capacity to seamlessly morph into his characters and deliver the pathos and requisite appeal that have enchanted audiences throughout his career. Many of his previous films rank as all-time classics.
Q&A WITH TOM HANKS
Tom, what is it about Fred Rogers that endowed him with this almost mystical aura?
The thing about Fred was that he’s instantaneously, to almost every adult in America … one of two things: a saint or a fraud. I think maybe even Tom [Junod, the Esquire journalist who became Rogers’ friend – Ed] experienced that when he first met him. It’s like, you can’t be both. You have to be one or the other because that’s the way movie life works. And in order to get to that place where we never make fun of Fred, we need to slow down in order to listen to him. Even some of the physical aspects of it were always going to be deconstructing the myth of it, in order to show he’s a regular guy who went out for Chinese food. But at the same time, in scene after scene after scene, there is this mystery of ‘What’s his motivation here?’
Did anything surprise you about Rogers when you researched him?
One of the most wonderful things is that he was actually an ordained minister who never mentioned God on his show.
Did you ever watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood with your children when they were little?
No, but I wish that when my son was three years old, that he and I sat down and watched half an hour of Mr Rogers a week. I would have better understood the role of a parent in saying to one’s children: ‘It’s all right if you’re sad.’
You’re known for being very nice and kind in the same way that Fred Rogers was seen. Did any of Rogers seep into your own personality?
I’m not sure...[But] when my wife and I get into it, and when we’re done with whatever subject matter got us all heated up, I’m now driving her insane because I sing: ‘It’s good to talk/ It’s good to share the things we feel/ It’s good to talk.’ [A classic lyric from the TV series]
Apparently the cast and crew of the film were stunned into silence when they first saw you walk onto the set as Fred Rogers and wearing his iconic cardigan?
It was like coming in as Elvis into Graceland. I had no sense of self. I really felt like I was having an out-of-body experience of watching this other guy be Fred Rogers.
Did you spend a lot of time watching old episodes of his show?
I watched a ton. Hours and hours. Look, the show was on when I was maybe eleven, twelve, thirteen years old. I just thought it was odd. The puppets, their mouths didn’t move. What are these odd songs he keeps trying to sing all the time? I was probably more in tune with all the imitations of him, the comedy bits about him. I didn’t realise that the show was a very specific sort of work that is not meant for us. If you have any reason for cynicism in your outlook, you cannot watch that show and not just have cynicism completely take over. The thing that no one could quite believe is that the purpose [of the show] was good – the purpose was to make little kids feel safe. [There was this suspicion] that somehow – there’s got to be something nefarious about that, there’s got to be something sleazy. Who takes that mantle upon themselves and guards it and keeps working at it?
[When Rogers was asked] why did you stop doing your show, he said: ‘Well, because we had really talked about everything.’ He’s talking about his output as a canon that can exist again and again and again for any kid who’s two to three years old. That’s profound. I don’t think people trust that. They don’t buy it.
Had you ever imagined playing someone like Rogers?
I have a story about that... I was making this movie, The Road to Perdition. It was a night shoot. We were in the back lot of Warner Bros, where they don’t actually make a lot of movies any more. They had rain and wind machines set up because we were going to be shooting a scene in a torrential downpour. All the actors were dressed in black and carrying umbrellas and I entered the shot from the end of the street with a submachine gun and I butchered twelve guys and shot Paul Newman dead.
And I thought, ‘God, I hope I get to play Mr Rogers someday.’ I’d like to think that between the executioner in The Green Mile and the Nazi killer in Saving Private Ryan, it was all leading up to playing the man who created the neighborhood of make-believe.
Do you love your job as much as ever when you get to play great real-life figures like Sully or Jim Lovell (in Apollo 13) or characters who are just as uplifting?
I’m very lucky because I feel that every film is a new adventure and a new experience. It’s great to be able to keep doing something that you love to do and have that kind of creative satisfaction. It never gets boring. For me, the true measure of success is artistic longevity. I don’t like to look back on my past work because there’s nothing I can do to change that and the only thing that really matters is what kinds of work you’re doing now and in the future. I simply try to stick to the path that’s taken me this far and I hope that keeps on working for me.
Do you have any specific things you look for in each film or role you play?
I’m very instinctive. I just start reading the script and if after the first fifteen pages I think: ‘This role has to be mine and I don’t think anyone else could do it better,’ then I’ll do it. Maybe it’s just a matter of self-centredness and competitiveness but I think most actors are like that.
It’s also easy to accept a role sometimes because you’re being offered a lot of money, you have the opportunity to work with a director you hold in high esteem, or maybe you get to work with a beautiful and talented actress. Saying no is much more difficult.
You and your wife, Rita Wilson, have raised two children together. Has it been hard to keep your status as a movie star separate from your home life?
We’re not the kind of family where we have posters of our films on the walls of the house. But having said that, my wife knew she was marrying an actor and not a dentist. And my children learned from a young age that their dad had a funny job. They always knew that I was working on a film because my haircut would be different, or I’ve had to grow a moustache. But this is the kind of a job that gives us the opportunity to spend free holidays in Budapest or Morocco. I think the best way that I’ve been able to have a good and balanced home life is to have eaten breakfast together.
Is it limiting at all to be continually identified with good guy or heroic roles?
Every character is different. I’m aware that the public will probably always have this image of me as the nice guy. I don’t think I can ever erase that impression – but then again, it’s not the worst thing that people can think about you, even though I assure you that I’m not always lovable and charming.