'A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood' Director Marielle Heller Explains How She Convinced Tom Hanks To Play Mr. Rogers

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is the latest film by Marielle Heller, best known as the director of quirky and engaging stories such as 2018's award winning Can You Ever Forgive Me. Her latest project is the story of Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a jaded and fairly miserable investigative journalist who has become a new father and is tasked with a 400 word piece on heroes. His editor tasks him with chatting with Children's Television pioneer Fred Rogers, and thus begins the story of fathers, sons and the complexity of their relations. Tom Hanks plays Rogers, and he perfectly encapsulates the man's enormous outpouring of empathy to those around him, young and old, but equally his quirky and sometimes highly awkward mannerisms. It's a gifted performance, certainly the most indelible part in the project, even while most of the story centers of Lloyd's transformation rather than the central figure of millions of childhood memories. Heller spoke to the audience following the film's World Premiere at TIFF (read our review here), discussing some the challenge of convincing her famous friend to join the project, and how a famous doc paved the way.The following quotes have been edited for concision and clarity.

Will the film resonate with people who don't know Mr. Rogers?

I think that's been a question on all of our minds and we don't yet know the answer to that. I've had so many people say to me that they're I'm from another country, they've never heard of Mr. Rogers before this, but his message of kindness spoke to them. I think when you encounter somebody who is so genuine, who comes at things from such a pure place, I think it doesn't matter whether or not you knew him or you grew up watching him. I think his message is pretty universal. 

On the relationship with Morgan Neville’s documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

I'd like to think of the documentary as our sister project. Our film pre-dated the documentary, actually. People have asked me to today what did you feel like when you found out there was a documentary that was happening at the same time, and I think we all had a moment of going, oh, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Then we all thought this is a good thing – more Fred in the world! We need more Fred in the world. This script took a different angle on Fred, it showed his message in action rather than really telling you about how he got to where he was, or what his childhood was like. It's not a typical biopic in any way. It feels like the two films make good companion pieces – I think they'd make a great double feature! If you've seen the documentary I think it makes you enjoy our film even more. If you haven't seen the documentary, go watch it! It's totally different and will give you different perspectives on Fred immediately. 

Getting Tom Hanks on board

I signed on because of the beautiful script and we didn't have anybody attached to it. Everyone said our dream casting has always been Tom Hanks but we don't think he wants to do it. He's played a lot of real life people, and he passed on the project three times. I said, well, I kind of have a relationship with him. I called him and he signed on a week later and everybody was like how did you do that? [We would have to wait a year], and one of the things he said to me on the red carpet last night was to thank me for waiting.I told him that the film is about so much more than Mr. Rogers. It's about fathers and sons, and about our emotions and about helping men and boys be more in touch with their emotions. Mr. Rogers was a radical in that he was trying to give children ways to cope with their emotions and that that's something that we need right now in the world. I assured Tom that he would be well taken care of and that I had no desire to do an imitation of Mr. Rogers, I had no desire to make this feel like an SNL sketch. We were coming from a place of love and respect and believing that this had a message that the world needed.