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Going into the Toronto International Film Festival, there was widespread suspicion that Tom Hanks’s performance as Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood would emerge as a frontrunner for the Best Actor Oscar. It turns out that suspicion was only half right. When the film premiered at TIFF on Saturday night, it became apparent that this is actually a supporting performance—the film’s real star is Matthew Rhys, who plays Lloyd Vogel, a troubled journalist (inspired by Tom Junod) profiling Mr. Rogers—but it’s such an extreme tour de force that Hanks is an undeniable lock for a Best Supporting Actor nod.
After Saturday’s world premiere screening, he joined the film’s writers, cast, and director Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl, Can You Ever Forgive Me?) on stage to explain how this touching (and occasionally hilarious) transformation came about.
Hanks explained that he has been aware of this script for many years, but due to the supporting nature of the Mr. Rogers character, he wasn’t sure he was right for the project. “Mari and I had been searching for something that we could possibly do together and this was one of the screenplays that had existed in Hollywood around the industry for a very long time,” he said. “I read it probably about eight years ago for the first time… but I honestly did not know what it was because of the nature of Lloyd Vogel and the story with his father. When Mari called and said, ‘We have this thing,’ and I said, ‘I read that a long time ago, but let me take a look at it now’ because I’ll be seeing it in some way through her eyes.”
Hanks plays Mr. Rogers as a kind of all-knowing mystic, but he had to consider the opposing perspective. “The thing about Fred was he’s instantaneously, to almost every adult in America… one of two things: a saint or a fraud,” he said. “I think maybe even Tom [Junod] experienced that when he was first meeting him. It’s like, you can’t be both. You have to be one or the other because that’s the way movie life works… in order to get to that place where we never make fun of Fred, we slow down in order to listen to him. Even some of the physical aspects of it were always going to be deconstructing the myth of it, in order to show he’s a regular guy who went out to Chinese food. But at the same time, in scene after scene after scene, there is this mystery of, ‘What’s his motivation here?’”
For those who think Hanks was an obvious fit to play Mr. Rogers—including his co-star Matthew Rhys—the two-time Oscar-winner is quick to recall a memory from the making of 2002 gangster drama A Road to Perdition: “It was a night shoot. We were in the back lot of Warner Bros., where they don’t actually make a lot of movies anymore. They had Rain Birds and wind machines set up because we were going to be shooting a scene in a torrential downpour. All the actors were dressed in black and carrying umbrellas and I entered the shot from the end of the street with a submachine gun and I butchered twelve guys and shot Paul Newman dead. And I thought, ‘God, I hope I get to play Mr. Rogers some day.’ I’d like to think that between the executioner in The Green Mile and the Nazi killer in Saving Private Ryan, it was all leading up to playing the man who created the neighbourhood of make believe.”
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood arrives in theatres on November 22. Check out the trailer below.