By David Canfield
November 22, 2019 at 10:30 AM EST

Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers — can you imagine a more perfect match? Ever since it was announced in January 2018 that the two-time Oscar winner would play the role of the late children’s entertainer, the sentiment hasn’t let up. If anything, reception out of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’s September premiere in Toronto only fanned the flames — and Hanks, perhaps a bit uneasily, is well aware that fans’ excitement is rooted in his amiable cultural image. “I come off as a guy who lives across the street, who ends up being in some big-ass struggle for his life,” Hanks, 63, says. “Am I perfect for playing a guy like Mister Rogers? Well, I’m a professional. I’ll go at it full tilt. But does that mean I’m also the only guy who can play Captain Kangaroo?”

And yet Hanks — always an empathic, patient, warm onscreen presence — does appear singularly suited to take on the part, at least in director Marielle Heller’s vision. Beautiful Day keeps Rogers secondary to protagonist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a cynical journ­alist assigned to write a fawning profile on him. Lloyd makes it his mission to bring the icon down to size, asking tough questions about celebrity and trauma. Rogers is left (mostly) unfazed; Hanks imbues him with an unexpected complexity, but still keys in to his ministerial nature. Like many a Hanks character, Rogers emerges heroically: believably, movingly, uniquely so.

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So, yes, Fred Rogers sort of fits Tom Hanks like a glove. “I’ve baby-sat [many] kids by way of some [of my] movies,” Hanks concedes. “I’ve been to some degree both a challenging menu and sometimes a comfort food to an awful lot of people out there.”

Mister Rogers feels like a milestone in many ways for Hanks. He’s spent decades bringing real legends like Walt Disney and Charlie Wilson to life; he’s earned the moniker of America’s Dad by killing audiences with kindness. Upon its Toronto launch, Beautiful Day staked a firm place in this season’s awards conversation, and Hanks is a front-runner in the Best Supporting Actor race. It’d be his first Oscar nomination in nearly 20 years.

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The script for Beautiful Day (by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster) has been around for a while. Hanks read it — and passed — several years ago; it came back into his orbit with Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) attached. “It was a completely different movie in her hands than it was when I first read it,” Hanks says. “The first time you read something like that, all you’re reading is a blank canvas. There’s nobody to guide you… to what the movie actually means. Mari… was a spiritual force behind the movie.”

The two engaged in deep conversations over how exactly to portray Rogers. Hanks watched the acclaimed documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? in addition to “hours and hours” of interviews. He streamed every episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that he possibly could. But he did not dramatically alter his appearance. “Mari stated very clearly, ‘We are not going to do a physical re-creation of him. We are going to do a spiritual lamination on who the man is,’” Hanks says. Aside from a wig and eyebrow work, he was left to capture Rogers on his own. “On one hand, it liberates you — you’re not locked into photographs or measurements,” he says. “But I don’t get to hide inside a neck that is glued to the top of my shoulders.”

The film’s team shot on location in Pittsburgh and recreated the set of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood at the very studio where the show was made. The production was further surrounded by people who knew Rogers, including his widow, Joanne. “It was like shooting in Vatican City,” Hanks says. “You’re walking into a place that is nearly holy ground.” He got in touch with the soul of Mister Rogers not by walking around with a “fake forehead” but by living in his world. “You’ll find it in the blue sneakers,” as he puts it, “more than you’re going to find it in the prosthetic nose.”

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is in theaters now.

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