Sixteen years after the death of Fred Rogers, his legacy and lessons are as palpable as ever thanks to the work of two women.
When director Marielle Heller earned the approval of Joanne Rogers, the late icon’s wife and keeper of his legacy, to tell a cinematic story about how his philosophies changed the life of a cynical journalist in the new movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, she knew she had a duty to uphold the authenticity of kindness Rogers preached to the world’s youth every day.
“We wanted to show not just facts about Fred Rogers, not just what he did, how he lived, and how [his] show was made, we hoped to show a deeper version of him, and that meant showing the experience,” Heller says of the film, which stars Tom Hanks as Rogers and Matthew Rhys as Lloyd Vogel, a rage-filled Esquire writer (loosely based on Tom Junod). “We needed to feel like we knew him, and the closest we could come to getting to know him was meeting his wife and getting to hear stories after spending time with her and [Rogers’ business partner] Bill. We found out what they laughed about, what their private jokes wereLloyd Vogel It was about trying to feel Fred in a bigger way.”
EW recently sat down with Heller and Joanne Rogers to get to the root of how they translated the Rogers’ experience to the big screen, why it was important to use real items from their personal collection as props, and what it was like reuniting Joanne with Fred’s real-life friends, family, and costars (hello, Mr. McFeely!) for a cameo in one of the most moving scenes of the year.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Authenticity was key to this film, and you used real items from Joanne and Fred’s collection, like the banana painting on the wall in Fred’s bedroom, and Tom Hanks wears some of Fred’s real ties. Had you always intended to use real items from Fred’s life in the movie?
MARIELLE HELLER: No! We didn’t assume we’d use anything real. We thought we’d recreate the set and do it as authentically as possible. But we came to Pittsburgh and became so close to Joanne and all the people who knew Fred that they were generous with us. It was almost a fun, private thing for us to know that Tom wore Fred’s real ties, or that we had that banana painting in the back of the [prayer] scene.
JOANNE ROGERS: Fred’s sister painted those bananas. It came from a time when they were all in Nantucket. I think I’d gone home or hadn’t arrived yet, and he was all by himself, writing. He hated to go to the grocery store, so he would look out, see his sister and her husband getting ready to go into town, and he’d call to them. They’d say, “What do you need?” and he’d answer: “Three bananas, small!” [Laughs]
Why was it important for you to lend Marielle those items?
HELLER: [You worked with] Jade Healy, the production designer, and Arjun Bhasin, the costume designer. You became close with him. He came over and met Joanne —
ROGERS: Oh yes, I would have given him anything. [Laughs] I thought it was important to them.
HELLER: Arjun told me you said, “I have all of these clothes and I don’t know what to do with them. I can’t get rid of them.”
ROGERS: It’s true! To be candid, [Fred’s Family Communications Inc. partner] Bill Isler [told me not to] give them away right now because people will get ahold of them and know who they belonged to and then sell them. That didn’t appeal to me.
How else did Joanne’s presence enhance the film?
HELLER: We wanted to show not just facts about Fred Rogers, not just what he did, how he lived, and how the show was made, we hoped to show a deeper version of him, and that meant showing the experience. We needed to feel like we knew him, and the closest we could come to getting to know him was meeting his wife and getting to hear stories after spending time with her and Bill. We found out what they laughed about, what their private jokes were… It was about trying to feel Fred in a bigger way.
ROGERS: Fortunately, they were all warm people. We just hit it off.
HELLER: I was so moved by our first meeting. We spent hours chatting the first time we met.
It all adds to such warmth to the film, and it’s going to make many people happy, but there’s an element of sadness to it, because the goodness of Fred is no longer here. Do you feel that?
ROGERS: I think the goodness is there. There are Fred Rogerses out there. I’m so grateful, for Fred’s sake, because he cared so much about his philosophy. Such special people have come along who feel the way he felt. I find things providential sometimes, and this seems like one of them.
Joanne has a cameo during a pivotal, moving scene toward the end of the film. Had you intended to put her in the movie from the beginning?
HELLER: No! I can’t remember when we figured out we were going to put you in that scene. There were a lot of people. Bill Isler, Mardi Isler, [the real] Mr. McFeely! Fred’s nephew, your nephew…
So it was a reunion?
HELLER: Without giving too much away, the scene is about who loved you into being, so it only made sense that we surrounded that scene with Fred’s loved ones.
ROGERS: Everyone appreciated that so much. I remember [producer Peter Saraf] saying, “What would you think about sneaking into Tom’s movie?” [Laughs].
HELLER: That might’ve been Peter’s idea. It just made perfect sense. That was a stressful day.
ROGERS: Not for us! It was just great fun. I hadn’t seen a lot of them for a long time. While you were working on something else, we went to another room and had a nice visit.
HELLER: Having you all there was exciting, but it also made me aware that I wanted to make sure we were doing it right… It was one of the first days with Tom, and I was aware everyone was watching his performance.
ROGERS: I didn’t know what the personality of a director would be. I thought it would be much faster and not much heart to it, but Mari is the kindest person. Everything she asks people to do, she does it in the kindest way. Maybe that’s a woman’s touch!
HELLER: What you have in your head is probably a stereotype of a director as some male, masculine, yelling director with a bullhorn. [Laughs]
You previously told me you had Fred’s philosophy in your mind for years while making this movie, maybe that had something to do with it!
HELLER: I wanted to embody what we learned while making this movie. I’ve tried to [treat people with kindness] before this movie. As a director, so much of what I’m trying to do is set the tone and create a place where actors can do difficult work and where I can ask them to go deep and feel vulnerable. They have to feel safe to do that. I don’t believe in this idea that to get great art everyone has to suffer, be miserable, or be screamed at. It’s a totally outdated way of thinking. Every time I hear a glorified story about a film set where someone threw a huge fit or screamed at somebody, I think, “Nothing about that is good,” and we shouldn’t be glorifying this idea that somehow real artists have to suffer and treat everybody terribly to do great work.
That’s interesting, because the movie is a meditation on rage. Do you think it was a risky way to go into this story, with Fred in a supporting role as he calms Lloyd’s internal rage?
HELLER: What appealed to me so much… it shows different versions of masculinity that we don’t get to see on screen very often. It dissects rage, anger, things that we don’t give a lot of ways to process, and it feels present. We’re living at a time where we feel like rage, anger, and violence — particularly from men — are present in our life. What Fred aimed to do was give every child language for their emotions, and ways to process their emotions. What do you do with the mad that you feel? That, as a philosophy, is a bigger thesis for this movie. A lot of adults don’t have those tools. Perhaps if we had ways to process our rage or be more honest about our feelings, perhaps if we saw versions of men processing rage, finding ways through rage, working through versions of what it is to be a man… One of the things Tom Junod has been talking about is his father only gave him one version of what a man can be, and Fred presented another.
Joanne, do you remember anything Fred said to you about why Tom Junod’s experience, as Marielle just outlined, touched him so much?
ROGERS: He didn’t share that. That was between him and Tom. He didn’t talk much about his writing.
HELLER: Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, the writers, told me that when they started, they went to you and asked if Fred shared with you what people shared with him… You said, “No, maybe ask Bill!” And Bill said, “No, maybe ask Joanne!” I took away the idea that Fred held people’s stories, almost like a priest takes confessions.
ROGERS: First and foremost, he was a minister… One time, he said, “I just don’t want to burden you with things I feel are confidential.”
One thing I loved but didn’t know much about before seeing the film was the dueling pianos scene. Did you and Fred actually have pianos side-by-side to play together?
ROGERS: We did! That was my thing! Sometimes I’d be learning something and I’d say, “Come here and learn this other part!”
HELLER: And they really had two pianos next to each other… The piece we picked for the film, you said you guys wouldn’t have played. You visited set that day. It was a very hard piece.
ROGERS: We wouldn’t have played it, but I knew it! It was a duet, actually. Maryann Plunkett [who plays Joanne], plays piano!
HELLER: I made her learn that piece! It was really fast.
ROGERS: They showed her most of the time because I don’t think Tom was… well, the hands were on the keys, but… [Laughs]
HELLER: I positioned the camera so we could see Maryann’s hands and not Tom’s!
Joanne, you’ve spoken so much about Hanks’ performance, but can you tell me what ran through your mind when you actually saw him in character for the first time?
ROGERS: I think I gasped! It looked so much like Fred. It was just right. I remember saying, “But it’s Tom!” In the movie, you don’t think about it too much. He just goes into the part and disappears.
HELLER: I was there when Joanne and Tom met, and she told him, “You’re my husband’s favorite actor,” and none of us knew that. And I remember seeing Tom’s eyes go wide and him saying, “Really!?”
ROGERS: He said, “That’s all I needed!”
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is in theaters now.