Tom Hanks Plays Mister Rogers: Sharing Joy Is 'The Natural State Of Things'

Nov 23, 2019
Originally published on November 23, 2019 1:07 pm

To prepare to play Fred Rogers, Tom Hanks estimated he watched "about 8 million hours" of Mister Rogers programming. "I saw every one that I could possibly see," Hanks says.

Hanks never met Rogers, who died in 2003. But he'd seen plenty of imitations of the beloved children's television star, from comics such as Johnny Carson, Eddie Murphy and Martin Short.

"Comedians could easily just adopt a sing-songy kind of like voice, and boom: There you had Fred Rogers commentary," Hanks says. But this challenge was different.

"When you are not delivering a punch line and you're just trying to re-create who the man was, and the way the man thought, well, you end up starting over from whole cloth," Hanks explains.

In the new film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Matthew Rhys co-stars as the grizzled, cynical reporter who wants to get the lowdown on the man in the red sweater, with a soft voice and a sterling heart.

Hanks says he doesn't "look anything" like Rogers. He remembers director Marielle Heller telling him: "We will give you a wig and we'll try to figure out something with your eyebrows and the rest is up to you."

But he found that the zippered, cardigan sweater went a long way.

"It's kind of like a suit of armor," Hanks says. "I mean, Batman looks like Batman when he puts on that cape and cowl."


Interview Highlights

On whether, like Fred Rogers, Hanks knows what it's like to be known for being nice

I wake up in the morning thinking: How can I make something better today? ... I wouldn't necessarily say I'm a nice guy, because people have suffered my wrath — and anybody who has tried to take advantage of my good nature has suffered horribly ... but I feel as though I am a joyful person. And I think if I'm nice, it's because I am trying to share a sense of joy that I find a natural commodity. And why not? Why not have a good time? Why not bring a little bit of joy from anything from a long plane ride, to a short elevator ride, to an exchange over an extra-large, venti-sized latte in line at your local coffee place? To me, it's the natural order of things, the natural state of things.

On the story being inspired by a Fred Rogers profile that journalist Tom Junod wrote for Esquire's New American Heroes issue in 1998

Other writers were getting [assigned] Gorbachev and Reagan and Muhammad Ali [for the Esquire series]. And he got Fred Rogers — the short end of the stick. But what he found out later on ... is that Fred picked him. Fred had looked at all the work he had done. He was aware of his reputation as a writer. And Fred actually went against some people's wishes. ... Fred said, no, I want him to be the guy who profiles me. ...

Fred knew that there was nothing this guy was going to be able to sweat out of him. Tom, who was around the set quite a bit, would talk about how one of his techniques was to out-wait his subjects — just be around long enough, ask enough questions and also just observe and eventually the true self would emerge, and boom ... he would have the secret. He would have the con that, whoever he was doing a piece on, would reveal himself. And lo and behold, evidently Fred had no con.

On whether Rogers was performing

He was performing in the same way a great Sunday orator performs from a pulpit. He was performing the same way a great essayist is trying to communicate and examine a theme without becoming didactic. The greatest anecdote I heard about Fred was part of it was from the magnificent documentary ... Won't You Be My Neighbor? ... He was an ordained minister who ... never once mentioned God in any of his television programs. So here he's got a captive audience of 2- and 3- and 4-year-olds. And if he wanted to proselytize a very specific philosophy, he could have done it. And he never did. That is the performance, I think. ... He was going to be his message as opposed to speak his message.

On why Rogers went into children's television

He went into children's television because he saw that this magnificent machine that was going to be in everybody's living room was really meant to turn the children that were watching it into consumers. Meaning that if you don't eat this breakfast cereal, if you don't have this toy that you can ask your parents for, if you're not wearing these clothes, you don't have the same amount of worth. ... He viewed that, I think, as a great sin against the audience.

On connecting with his young viewers by speaking directly into the camera

He would be talking to anybody from Mr. McFeely [who played Mister Rogers' delivery man] to [cellist] Yo-Yo Ma, and he would just throw these looks down the lens — right down the barrel of the camera. ... And the look always said: "Hey, isn't this something? Isn't it great to share this right now? How about that?" ... That is the specific connection that he saw as the potential of television.

On Rogers' famous guidance that in times of tragedy, look for the helpers

He said, you look to the helpers, the people that show up to help the community ... as the example of what to do next. ... You can't go back in time ... but you can help those who have been touched or exposed or traumatized by the tragedy. And from that is the step of hope that I think keeps us all going somehow. ... There are those people who will always turn it into an example of hope and help and aid and succor ... you share the fact that we're all in this together.

Denise Guerra and D. Parvaz produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers - those words alone...

TOM HANKS: That's all you need to say (laughter).

SIMON: You know, that's more or less what follows in this intro, Tom. But, you know, I earn my living by writing these things.

HANKS: I get it.

SIMON: Can I continue to...

HANKS: Go ahead.

SIMON: ...Read a few words?

HANKS: Sorry, I added - this is how unlike Mister Rogers I am. I interrupted you. Go right ahead, Scott Simon.

SIMON: All right. I don't want to now, OK?

HANKS: (Laughter).

SIMON: I don't - but let's run a clip from the film.

HANKS: Go ahead.

SIMON: All right. Matthew Rhys stars as the grizzled, bruised and cynical reporter who wants to get the lowdown on the man in the red sweater with the soft voice and sterling heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD")

MATTHEW RHYS: (As Lloyd Vogel) And do you think living here makes it easier or more difficult to be a celebrity?

HANKS: (As Fred Rogers) (Laughter) Celebrity - mercy.

RHYS: (As Lloyd Vogel) You don't consider yourself famous?

HANKS: (As Fred Rogers) Fame is a four-letter word like tape or zoom or face. What ultimately matters is what we do with it.

RHYS: (As Lloyd Vogel) And what are you doing with it?

HANKS: (As Fred Rogers) We are trying to give children positive ways to deal with their feelings.

SIMON: The movie is "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood." It's directed by Marielle Heller - of course, Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys. Tom Hanks is in New York. You look very convincing in that sweater, you know?

HANKS: Well, it's kind of like a suit of armor. I mean, Batman looks like Batman when he puts on that cape and cowl. You put on blue deck shoes and any sort of, like, cardigan sweater - usually red, but something with lively color - you're only one person in the zeitgeist. You're Fred Rogers.

SIMON: We'll explain - this isn't a biopic, but a story based on the encounters between Tom Junod, who was then writing for Esquire, and Fred Rogers. Hard-bitten journalist meets Mister Rogers when life is biting him hard.

HANKS: Yeah. Not only hard-bitten journalist, but a persona non grata. Tom was ostracized from - the coin of the realm at the time was extensive profiles of celebrities. He had done a few. He had written one in particular in which people said, I'm not touching this guy. I don't want him anywhere near me. And when the series came out of - about heroes, other writers were getting Gorbachev and Reagan and Muhammad Ali. And he got Fred Rogers, the short end of the stick. But what he found out later on, Tom, is that Fred picked him. It could have been because of his ministering, of his, you know, private philosophy and gospel about taking care of...

SIMON: Yeah.

HANKS: ...People who need taking care of. But I also think that Fred knew that there was nothing this guy was going to be able to sweat out of him.

SIMON: Fred Rogers, demonstrably a great performer and a performer in the sense - look; he had to rehearse stuff, he had to do things to time. He had to do things over and over again - but a great performer. Was he performing?

HANKS: He was performing in the same way a great Sunday orator performs from a pulpit. He was an ordained minister. And for a man who prayed for people that he met every day, he never once mentioned God in any of his television programs. You know, he went into children's television because he saw that this magnificent machine that was going to be in everybody's living room was really meant to turn the children that were watching it into consumers...

SIMON: Yeah.

HANKS: ...Meaning that if you don't eat this breakfast cereal, if you don't have this toy that you can ask your parents for, if you're not wearing these clothes, you don't have the same amount of worth that the kids that do eat that cereal have. He saw that as a detriment to, I think, the well-being of any individual who needs to find out that they are special and unique and worthwhile even though they are confused by the world and even though they don't feel safe at some times.

If you watch a "Mister Rogers" television show, if you're not 2 or 3 years old, you don't get it (laughter). Why is it taking so long? What's the big deal? If you...

SIMON: Tom, I watched those into my 30s and loved every minute of it.

HANKS: Well...

SIMON: (Laughter).

HANKS: ...That - probably because you enjoyed the calm programming...

SIMON: I...

HANKS: ...To the cacophony of noise.

SIMON: I raised it with Fred once.

HANKS: And what did he say?

SIMON: He said, I think we all enjoy feeling like we're as loved and appreciated as when we were children.

HANKS: And he did that on the show by looking directly into the camera. He would be talking to anybody from Mr. McFeely to Yo-Yo Ma, and he would just throw these looks down the lens, right down the barrel of the camera, and making connection with the kid on the other side of the screen that was looking at. And the look always said, hey, isn't this something? Isn't it great to share this right now?

SIMON: May I tell you my Fred Rogers story?

HANKS: I have heard 8 million of them, and every one of them is unique.

SIMON: Well, so we were both at the opening of KPBS Studios in San Diego. I had just done an essay about the death of my cat. Fred Rogers came up to me. We said hello. And he said, well, you've had a rough time. And I said, you know, that's a long flight. And he said, well, your dear cat Lenore. And I said, oh, yeah.

HANKS: Oh (laughter).

SIMON: And...

HANKS: I got hair on the back of my neck standing.

SIMON: I just began to talk about Lenore - how much I loved her. And I felt so funny for feeling that way about a cat. I'm sorry. It's taking me now. And he said, we love people who were members of our family even when sometimes they're not people, don't we, Scott? Called me Scooter, actually.

HANKS: I think you fell into the thrall of his ministry right there...

SIMON: Sure did.

HANKS: ...Is that what - I think what he was saying there was, like, I've been sad, too.

SIMON: Yeah.

HANKS: I've been just as sad as you are. But you're going through it now.

SIMON: Yeah. One more question, OK?

HANKS: Sure.

SIMON: This film finished, and I thought of a phrase (laughter) about Fred Rogers - came to me. And then I realized - I looked it up. It was actually what Einstein said about Gandhi. So I'm going to risk using it anyway.

HANKS: (Laughter) That's a good name-dropping there.

SIMON: Just about - well, I - you know, you have to Google these things. And someday, it will be hard to believe that a man like Fred Rogers walked among us.

HANKS: Just after we finished was the Tree of Life murders in Pittsburgh.

SIMON: Which was his neighborhood, Squirrel Hill. He lived there.

HANKS: In fact, the city of Pittsburgh went through two things in a very short order, one of was the making of "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" (laughter). I mean, all of Pittsburgh knew that we were there. Everywhere we went, people were giving us the thumbs up. And then just as we had wrapped, the Tree of Life massacre happened.

SIMON: Yeah.

HANKS: One of the quotes that I think a lot of men of the cloth get and certainly somebody like Fred Rogers had is, what do you do in the face of such tragedy? And Fred - I've seen this a number of times; it's part of the materials that I looked at. He said, you look to the helpers - the people that show up - as the example of what to do next. You share the fact that we're all in this together.

SIMON: Tom Hanks, who stars with Matthew Rhys in Marielle Heller's film, "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood." Thanks so much for being with us.

HANKS: Let me just say, Scooter Simon...

SIMON: (Laughter) Uh, oh, yeah.

HANKS: I got news for you - you're Scooter Simon to me from now on, and I hope it catches on around the studio there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.