NEW YORK — Tom Hanks has never played a superhero. But when the actor recently donned a very simple cardigan sweater, and the slacks to go with it, he felt like one.
“I felt like Batman. It felt like I was wearing the cape and the cowl of the Dark Knight detective,” Hanks says. “There’s only one person you can be when you put those things on, and that’s Fred Rogers.”
Since it was first announced, Hanks’ casting as the beloved children’s television host in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” has had the feeling of kismet. Here was an actor nearly synonymous with affability, with “niceness,” playing one of the friendliest faces to ever flicker across a TV screen. Hanks might as well have been answering a Bat Signal in the sky.
But as inevitable as Hanks playing Mr. Rogers may have seemed, it never would have happened without Marielle Heller, the filmmaker of the literary forger drama “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and the ‘70s coming of age tale “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.” The film’s script, by Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, had been floating around for years before Heller got attached. Hanks had already passed on it, more than once.
“I didn’t pass on you,” Hanks said in an interview alongside Heller. “I just passed on a thing.”
It would probably please Mr. Rogers that the first big-screen fiction film about him was based, from the start, on a newfound friendship. Hanks and Heller met at a backyard birthday party for Hanks’ son Colin. Hanks had just read a New York Times article about female filmmakers and mentioned it to Heller after learning she was a director.
“And she said, ‘I’m in it,’” recalls Hanks. “And I said, ‘Well, of course you are and I have to remove my shoe from my mouth.”
Hanks, newly resolved to work more with female directors, promised to watch “Diary of a Teenage Girl.”
“I thought, ‘Sure, Tom Hanks. I’m sure you’ll run right out and watch my movie,’” says Heller. “And you did!”
Within days, Hanks called to set up a meeting, and that led to “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Sony Pictures releases it in theaters this weekend. Based loosely on an Esquire Magazine article by Tom Junod, the film’s protagonist is a New York journalist named Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) assigned to profile Rogers. Heller and Hanks view Rogers as the movie’s antagonist — the agent of change in Lloyd’s life, whose sincerity and caring disarm the cynical reporter.
Getting close to Rogers also altered Hanks and Heller. The production had the blessing of Joanne Rogers, Fred’s widow, and much of it was shot on location in Pittsburgh. Hanks wore Rogers’ old ties. He swam the same laps in a local pool. They collectively tried to live the kindness preached by Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister. The movie impresses the point that Rogers wasn’t a saint; he had to work at being good.
“At one point early on, Tom said to me, ‘I get the feeling none of us are going to be the same after making this movie,’” Heller says.
That meant trying to slow down not just the tempo of the scenes but the entire workings of a movie set. Heller’s son, 2-years-old when they started, was often on set, and occasionally in the director’s chair. Heller shortened the day-to-day schedule so that everyone, including herself, could be home by their children’s bedtime on most nights.
“For me, as a mom of a little kid, that’s the difference between being able to keep making movies or not being able to keep making movies,” says Heller. “How do we think about our humanity while making movies? Would Fred Rogers have wanted us to make a movie about him where we all abandoned our kids in order to make the movie? I don’t think so.”
Both were relatively new disciples to Rogers. As a kid, the 40-year-old Marin County-raised Heller dismissed him as too schmaltzy. But now a parent, she found herself gravitating toward Mr. Rogers as a guide to explaining the world to her son. Hanks, 63, hadn’t raised his four now-grown children watching “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” so the dozens of hours he spent watching it to prepare for the role was eye-opening.
“I almost feel silly talking about it,” says Hanks. “This movie has actually made me think a lot about myself as a man and a father. When I saw Mari, I said, ‘Hey, thanks putting me in this movie, because you kind of changed my life, boss.’”
For Hanks, the greatest lesson from playing Rogers has to do with listening. As an actor and a celebrity, it’s part of his job to be entertaining, to be glib. And he is extraordinarily good at it. Few people in person live up to their reputation more than Hanks does, who began the interview delighted at the idea of drinking from “a box of water.”
In Hanks’ Mr. Rogers, Heller wasn’t interested in an impression. A wig and some eyebrows were OK, but that was it. And, of course, the cardigan. The first time Hanks stepped onto set at WQED’s Fred Rogers Studio in character, sweater-to-sneakers, Heller says, “the room gasped.”
“It was like coming in as Elvis into Graceland,” says Hanks, a little sheepishly. “I had no sense of self. I really felt like I was having an out-of-body experience of watching this other guy be Fred Rogers.”