With a little help from real clothing that belonged to the late Fred Rogers, Tom Hanks underwent a charming physical transformation to portray the beloved TV icon in Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. But as the Oscar-winning actor told the audience at Saturday’s premiere of the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, his relationship with his wife, Rita Wilson, received a playful makeover as a result of the role, too.
“When my wife and I get into it, when we’re done with whatever subject matter that got us all heated up, I’m now driving her insane,” Hanks told a packed house at the Elgin Theatre, where he sat down for a post-screening Q&A with Heller, co-writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, and costars Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, and Chris Cooper. “I sing, ‘You know, honey: It’s good to talk. It’s good to share the things we feel!'”
Hanks revealed he began to immerse himself in Rogers’ life after he first read the film’s screenplay roughly eight years ago, but really became interested in tackling the part after he retrained his focus on the story as told through Heller’s eyes.
“The thing about Fred was he’s instantaneously, to almost every adult in America, one of two things: A saint or a fraud — and that juxtaposition is…you can’t be both, you have to be one or the other,” he recalled of what spoke to him about Heller’s humanizing portrayal of Rogers, who in the film helps a cynical journalist (and new dad) named Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) through his own parental issues as he reconnects with his estranged father (Chris Cooper) while writing a profile on the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood host. “We slow down in order to listen to him. Even with some of the physical aspects…we’re deconstructing the myth of it in order to show you he was a regular guy…walking around New York City riding the subway. He’s a regular guy, and yet he’s Mister Rogers.”
Of her decision to draw the audience into Vogel’s emotional transformation as a result of time spent with Rogers’ healing spirit, Heller added that “every decision we made was in the hope that we would authentically recreate this world and make the audience feel close to it.”
“One conversation I had with [Fred’s wife] Joanne Rogers was nobody from Fred’s camp of people liked to refer to him as a saint. If you think him as a saint, he’s not accessible. It’s something that we can’t attain,” she continued. “You need to know he was a person. He walked this earth like the rest of us [and] that was important for building the character: this is a human being, somebody with a full life as complex as the rest of us.”
Heller previously told EW she painstakingly recreated Rogers’ world while filming on location in Pittsburgh — including filming at the same WQED studios where the original Neighborhood shot, using real ties and bags from Rogers’ closet and the original TV production, and importing vintage Ikegami cameras to capture the program’s look and feel. But Hanks’ performance was the element that brought it all together.
“Everyone goes, ‘I love Tom Hanks, I love Mister Rogers, so this makes perfect sense! [But] that’s not an easy performance to give. Tom [doesn’t] just walk in and put on these sweaters and now he’s Mister Rogers,” she observed. “The same way Mister Rogers gave effort to live his life the way he wanted to live his life, there is effort that went into this performance. We talk about this [pairing] like it makes sense, but that’s not giving credit to the transformative performance.”
Hanks joked that he laid the first building blocks for the role while filming a scene for his 2003 gangster drama Road to Perdition.
“I entered the shot from the end of the street with a submachine gun, and I butchered 12 guys and shot Paul Newman dead,” Hanks remembered. “And I thought, God, I hope I get to play Mister Rogers sometime. So, 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 [this].”
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood strolls into theaters on Nov. 22. Watch the film’s trailer above.