Marielle Heller: 'His consistency was part of what made him so comforting and he kept going because he felt like he wasn't done'

Marielle Heller: 'His consistency was part of what made him so comforting and he kept going because he felt like he wasn't done'

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood director discusses the film's subject, Mr Rogers, and Tom Hanks' portrayal of the childhood favourite

Marielle Heller is curled up on a hotel sofa in London's Knightsbridge. It's a rare moment of stillness for the 40-year-old director from California. After the success of her 2015 debut, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, she returned with last year's delicious literary forgery tale, Can You Ever Forgive Me? – which gained three Oscar nominations including for its stars Richard E Grant and Melissa McCarthy.

Now she's pulled the same trick for her third film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, with Tom Hanks up for his first Oscar in almost two decades. He plays TV legend Fred Rogers, whose show Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood educated generations of kids in its 33-year run. 'I grew up watching Mr Rogers like every good child in the 70s and 80s in America,' smiles Heller.

Recently, Rogers was immortalised in the 2018 documentary Won't You Be My Neighbour? – a huge $22 million-grossing hit in the US, proof of his popularity there. Heller believes the two films complement each other. 'Our movie isn't really going to give a huge number of facts about Mr Rogers … it's not a traditional biopic in that way. And in so many ways, the documentary is a great precursor.'

Marielle Heller: 'His consistency was part of what made him so comforting and he kept going because he felt like he wasn't done'

Here, inspired by the experience of Esquire reporter Tom Junod, the story sees Hanks' Rogers encounter Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a world-weary journalist tasked with writing a profile of Rogers. 'There are thousands of stories [like this] of people who feel like they came into contact with Fred at the moment in their life when they needed it,' says Heller, 'and he changed the course of their life.'

Casting Hanks – who originally passed on the role before Heller was involved – made absolute sense. But while he might seem born to play the ultra-sweet Rogers, it was 'tricky at first' to calm Hanks down. 'Fred was really comfortable with silence, he didn't mind awkwardness. Tom is boisterous and loud and funny and constantly moving and drinks as much coffee as I do.'

A gentle film that radiates kindness, just like its subject, A Beautiful Day … shows just why someone like Rogers endured for so long (he died in 2003, aged 74, two years after his last show). 'I think he knew his consistency was part of what made him so comforting and he kept going because he felt like he wasn't done.' Now, thanks to Heller and Hanks, his legacy lives on.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is in cinemas from Fri 31 Jan.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

  • 4 stars
  • 2019
  • US
  • 1h 49min
  • PG
  • Directed by: Marielle Heller
  • Cast: Matthew Rhys, Tom Hanks, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper
  • UK release: 31 January 2020

Lloyd Vogel (Rhys) is a journalist assigned to interview beloved television host Fred Rogers (Hanks), arriving with cynicism but finding himself charmed and disarmed by Rogers’ unexpected complexity. Audiences expecting a treacly tearjerker will be surprised; Heller makes bold choices, with Rhys conveying bitter, curdled…

Post a comment