Marielle Heller pays tribute to Joanne Rogers' electric spirit: 'She was pure joy'
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood director tells EW sweet memories of Fred Rogers' late widow.
Joanne Rogers — beloved children's show host Fred Rogers' widow, who died Thursday at age 92 — was the kind of woman who insisted on a hug over a handshake and treating a first meeting with a stranger like a family reunion.
"She was a real present person and you had to go real with her. You felt like you were talking to someone you'd known your whole life. And she wasn't going to let you bulls--- her!" A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood director Marielle Heller, who worked with Joanne to bring Rogers' life to the big screen alongside Tom Hanks, tells EW. "She was pure joy…. You say 'pure' and it's the same thing as what I feel about Fred. People somehow think that means he wasn't real if he was kind. But she was so real, so human, so down-to-earth, so with you."
Heller formed an intimate, playful bond with Joanne while making her Oscar-nominated drama in Rogers' home base of Pittsburgh in the fall of 2018, having shared tears with Fred's widow over deep emotional scars, while Joanne shared pieces from her husband's personal wardrobe to be used in the production.
"She seemed committed to wanting to keep his humanness alive and not let anyone think that he was this otherworldly saint. She was like, 'I was married to a man who farted and thought it was funny!'" Heller says with a laugh. "I think that's admirable because, in death, we change who the person was into something perfect. We tend to look at the most positive qualities of whoever passed away, and it negates the truth of who they were. She didn't want that to happen with Fred, and she felt committed to finishing what he had started, that he had this mission to help children cope with feelings and be talked to in an honest way."
Ahead, Heller gives a touching tribute to Joanne's impact, recalls their last conversation together, and shares what she hopes the world remembers about the late woman who was so much more than an icon's wife.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Joanne was vital to making A Beautiful Day, but after getting to know her, what are you going to remember most about her?
MARIELLE HELLER: I was blown away by the way she kept me in her life after we made the movie. I'd get a call or an email from her, and I'd feel like I was the most important person in the world to her. We talked a bunch over this past summer when I was out in California having my daughter. She was so concerned about the fires and whether I was safe. She made me feel like family.
Is there one interaction with Joanne you'll hang on to most?
The first time I met her, we connected, and I told her a story about my son watching an episode of Mister Rogers about death, and the way it affected him. She sat with me, cried with me, and held my hand. It was the most real, beautiful connection we could've had. It's probably why she felt comfortable with me making the movie…. we had this surprisingly deep conversation, right off the bat.
She's tied to Fred's legacy for good reason, but do you think she ever felt burdened by being so closely associated with him for most of her life after his death?
She definitely never seemed like it was a burden. If anything, she seemed committed to wanting to keep his humanness alive and not let anyone think that he was this otherworldly saint. She was like, "I was married to a man who farted and thought it was funny!" He wasn't perfect and he had a strong work ethic and strong ideals that he lived by, and she was committed to keeping his humanness alive. I think that's admirable because, in death, we change who the person was into something perfect. We tend to look at the most positive qualities of whoever passed away, and it negates the truth of who they were. She didn't want that to happen with Fred, and she felt committed to finishing what he had started, that he had this mission to help children cope with feelings and be talked to in an honest way.
She was just so funny. It always blew my mind that I could hop on the phone with a 92-year-old and have an easy conversation with her. I never felt like I was doing that thing that we sometimes do when we're talking to someone from an older generation, where we don't fully connect, or we don't treat them like full people. She was a real present person and you had to go real with her. You felt like you were talking to someone you'd known your whole life. And she wasn't going to let you bulls--- her!
Do you remember the last conversation you had with her?
We texted after Pennsylvania got called during the election. I thanked her and thanked Pennsylvania. She was celebrating and said, "All of Allegheny County is proud of you, Mari!" I said, "I'm proud of all of Allegheny County!" I'd been texting her pictures of my baby, and every time I'd send her a smooshy picture of the baby, she'd text back "Oh my, I need to see her in person, I need to squeeze her! I need to hug her!" I was keeping up with her in that way. She was keeping tabs on me when I was waiting to give birth and when I was traveling, it was incredibly sweet.
The film touches on Fred teaching children — and adults — how to deal with complex feelings of loss, and it's meaningful that you're in this profoundly difficult situation of dealing with the loss of Joanne. Can you put into words what it feels like, knowing that the connective bridge to who Fred was is no longer here?
Working on the movie helped me deal with my own feelings about death. We experienced loss during the filming of the movie in our beloved crew member, Jim, who died during filming. The shooting happened in the Synagogue [in Pittsburgh], we were being faced with death while making a movie about Mister Rogers helping the characters in the movie deal with death and come to terms with what death is. One of the most powerful scenes in the movie is when Fred comes to the house where Chris Cooper is dying, and he helps the family break through the silence and discomfort of talking about death. He says "anything that's mentionable is manageable." Death is this [taboo], we're not supposed to talk about it or say it…. As a society, we're terrible at talking about death, terrible thinking about death, and terrible at dealing with it. Fred helped me come to some terms with my own feelings about death, so as sad as I was when I heard the news today, I burst into tears…. But I also know Joanne is at peace, and I feel a sense of peace for her. I'm so happy she got to be home [when she died].
It wasn't a passing relationship. It stayed. The movie ended, and I got to keep all these wonderful people…. I gained family in making it. I felt so loved and embraced by Joanne, she just took me in, and I feel lucky for that.
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