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How Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys got into character for Mister Rogers movie

The film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” out Friday, examines the life and career of Fred Rogers, better known as Mister Rogers from the beloved children’s television program seen for decades on PBS. Jeffrey Brown sits down with Tom Hanks, who plays Mister Rogers, and Matthew Rhys, who plays an "Esquire" magazine writer who forges an unusual friendship with the entertainer.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally: a tribute to an icon.

    Fred Rogers hosted almost 900 episodes of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" over 31 seasons on public broadcasting stations.

    The film "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" opens today and explores the friendship that Rogers forged with a magazine writer.

    Jeffrey Brown talked with the stars of that film, Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys, in New York.

  • Fred Rogers (singing):

    It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor.

  • Tom Hanks (singing):

    Would you be mine?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Tom Hanks has morphed into many characters over his storied film career. But in Fred Rogers, he says, he met his match.

    The film "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" was directed by Marielle Heller.

  • Tom Hanks:

    Mari, who is ironclad in her discussions about what she's going to do, she said, essentially, you will get a wig. You will get some eyebrow. You will get a sweater and blue deck shoes. The rest of it is up to you.

    Do you know what this is? It's Lloyd.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    His foil is a driven and cynical journalist sent to write a profile of Mister Rogers for "Esquire" magazine, and the film is based on a true encounter in 1998.

    Played by Matthew Rhys, best known for his role as a Russian spy in "The Americans," the journalist is confounded by the sincere…

  • Tom Hanks:

    Wonderful to meet you. So glad you're here, Lloyd. I'm looking forward to…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    … and glacially paced Mister Rogers. And, as it turns out, so was the Welsh actor Rhys.

    So did you know Mister Rogers growing up in Wales?

  • Matthew Rhys:

    Not a jot.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Not a jot.

  • Matthew Rhys:

    Nothing. I dived into YouTube and thought, what's going on? I had no idea. It seemed bizarre to me that this — I was like, has he forgotten his lines? Is that why speak so slow?

    This is — what's happening?

    (LAUGHTER)

    What's been incredible was having a 3-year-old son.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes, you have young kids.

  • Matthew Rhys:

    Yes. And for him to be the conduit of what it truly is has been eye-opening and equal part groundbreaking.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Rhys would come to see what millions had: Fred Rogers was utterly unique in the history of television, an ordained minister on a mission to reach, teach and help children be themselves.

    He didn't shy from serious subjects, including divorce, death and racism. And every child felt he was speaking directly to him or her.

    I asked the two actors about their experience in Mister Rogers' neighborhood. For Hanks, as for many of us, one question lingered: Was this guy for real?

  • Tom Hanks:

    What is he trying to sell? Well, 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?

    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.

    The individual scenes between the two of us, of which there's five or six, of course, were exhausting. They were as physically exhausting and physiologically exhausting as any scenes I have ever played.

  • Matthew Rhys:

    Do you consider yourself a hero?

  • Tom Hanks:

    I don't think of myself as a hero, no, not at all.

  • Matthew Rhys:

    What about Mister Rogers? Is he a hero?

  • Tom Hanks:

    I don't understand the question.

  • Matthew Rhys:

    Well, there's you, Fred, and then there's the character you play, Mister Rogers.

    These two men kind of circle each other with different intentions, but also — but seemingly the same tactics of waiting and questioning, until one either broke or opened up.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Rhys' character, here called Lloyd Vogel, visits the set to interview Fred Rogers.

    But Rogers wants only to know Vogel, to understand him and his struggles, especially his anger at a father who abandoned the family long ago and now seeks reconciliation and forgiveness.

  • Tom Hanks:

    If I was going to show you, admit to you what the first day of shooting was, you — I would point out to you how I'm talking too fast, I'm not being as specific as I need to, I'm not waiting for — I'm not really listening, because I'm kind of, like, petrified.

    And think about all the people who loved us into being.

  • Matthew Rhys:

    My perspective of you on that day is completely different. And you kind of came in with this — it was like — it was like what they said about Rogers. Everything slowed down, because you didn't dictate a tempo. You actually just listened.

    And that, in itself, dictates a tempo.

    There is this moment I kind of had that, oh, God, he's got it. He's got it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    With Fred Rogers, there's another element, because the question was, was he acting?

    So are you acting as Fred Rogers, who's acting as Mister Rogers?

  • Tom Hanks:

    Absolutely. There is a performance that he was giving.

    There was — there was rules that he was following that were based on his philosophy on how to do this.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, who was the real Fred Rogers or who was the real Mister Rogers?

  • Tom Hanks:

    I heard an audiotape. There was a child psychologist who is one of his great mentors that he — that he discussed everything with in front of — and they were talking about trying to come up with an opera for children.

    And this lady had this kind of — what I think what we could do is, is the thematic element of the chorus here with the frog could actually be a bridge to the original theme of the first act.

    Pause, pause, pause, pause.

    And this is Mister Rogers now. If the frog could have a worry that he brings — and these are just people talking. These are people at work trying to figure out how to…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Tom Hanks:

    This is like a production meeting that he's going on. And he's still put that brand of thought to it.

  • Matthew Rhys:

    I think, to me, what seemingly the performance element is only to succeed in a greater communication to that audience at which it is aimed.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Fred Rogers believed in the power of television, right, as a tool for change, a tool for reaching people.

    Television hasn't really worked out that way.

  • Tom Hanks:

    Well, he didn't change television on as a technology as an art form, but look what he created for a half-hour at a time, extraordinarily wise, smart things that made children understand the world a little bit better. If you only get a half-hour out of that once a day, I think you're still a half-hour ahead of the curve.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What about in the general culture, a film like this? Do you think there is a craving, a need for Fred Rogers?

  • Tom Hanks:

    Don't you think there's some, like, marketing executive, you know what we got here?

    (LAUGHTER)

    What we have here is counterprogramming.

  • Matthew Rhys:

    Yes.

  • Tom Hanks:

    You see what I'm saying?

  • Matthew Rhys:

    I like it.

  • Tom Hanks:

    What we're going to do is, we're going to have a guy with the puppets.

  • Matthew Rhys:

    Yes. Oh, that's good. That's good.

  • Tom Hanks:

    We will shoot it in Pittsburgh. No, I think it can work, if we hit it.

    (LAUGHTER)

    If we hit the counterprogramming situation.

  • Matthew Rhys:

    It is like this — there's an incredible symphony going on at all times.

    And it's in the pause that sometimes the greatest potency is found. And I think, if we do that for a small number of people for a brief moment, so much so the better.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" ended its television run on PBS in 2001. Fred Rogers died two years later at age 74.

    The new film, "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," opens today around the country.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A reminder we could sure use Fred Rogers right now. I can't wait to see this film.

    Online, we continue our conversation with Tom Hanks, who explains in detail how he got into character for the role of Fred Rogers. That's on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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