There’s a slowed-down cadence to Fred Rogers, one that was ripe for impersonations. Johnny Carson had one. So did Eddie Murphy and Martin Short.
But if you’re an actor, especially one with a household name like Tom Hanks, how do you even begin to play the much-beloved host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”? Hanks plays Rogers in the new film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” which centers on the friendship between the namesake of the long-running PBS TV series and his real-life journalist friend Tom Junod, known as “Lloyd Vogel” in the film and played by “The Americans” star Matthew Rhys.
Hanks, of course, is also beloved, an actor who’s taken on so many important roles over the years, including portraying other famous men like Walt Disney. So how did he get “in character” as Mister Rogers?
Hanks spoke of having to slow down, be as “specific” as possible and listen. Of course, the red knit cardigan helps, too. But the character has to go beyond mere imitation and singing, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
Hanks said he had a question for Junod, who was on set during filming, about the interviews and conversations he had with Rogers.
“Do you think it was on purpose? Was Fred answering questions in a self-defense mode? Was there a jujitsu kind-of-thing going on?” Hanks recalled asking Junod. “And [Junod] said, ‘Yes, it was. And it took me a while to figure that out.’”
Hanks said Junod was looking for the motivation that drove Rogers. “What is he trying to sell?” Hanks said, “and he wasn’t trying to sell anything. He was trying to make little kids feel safe. So, for me, as an actor, it’s like, what are my myriad, natural tendencies as a human being that are going to have to be whipped into submission so that I’m not falling into that same brand of cynical presentation?”
Hanks told the PBS NewsHour he worked closely with director Marielle Heller and had “faith in the process” as well as the people involved with making the film happen.
He also studied Rogers while watching loads of episodes of “Neighborhood.”
“There is a DNA that you sort of have to inject into yourself at the same time that you put on that version of Batman’s cape and cowl — except it’s a red cardigan sweater and blue deck shoes.”