Who else but Tom Hanks, award-tipped star of tear-jerking biopic A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, about children's television host Fred Rogers, could play a man millions see as goodness incarnate?
When you're a parent, you do everything wrong," says Tom Hanks, folding his arms and leaning back on his sofa. "You lie to your kids. You avoid them. You yell. I remember my dad telling us when we were crying in the back seat of the car that if we didn't knock it off he'd turn around and give us something to cry about. I mean, what are you gonna do, Dad? Choke the dog? That would make me cry. Hit Mom? That would make me cry, too."
When Hanks is sitting directly across from you in a London hotel room, talking in that familiar mug-of-hot-cocoa voice, the thought of him doing anything even faintly amiss seems insane. In person, as on screen, the 63-year-old actor radiates a glow of pure decency – accrued over almost three decades of playing steady hands and level heads. His latest film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, is a grand cashing-in of his movie-star chips, since he is playing a man many Americans think of as goodness incarnate.
That man is Fred Rogers, the presenter between 1968 and 2001 of a children's television show called Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood. Never broadcast in the UK and therefore virtually unknown here, it is adored by millions of American preschoolers – and ex-preschoolers. A recent documentary about Rogers became the highest-grossing biographical non-fiction film ever released in the US. During its entire UK run, it sold around 100 tickets.
But this new film, directed by Marielle Heller (whose previous feature was the literary drama Can You Ever Forgive Me?), will break the hearts of aficionados and newcomers alike. It's no off-the-peg biopic, rather an envelopingly warm and weird fictionalised account of Rogers's conversations in 1998 with Esquire journalist Tom Junod. The journalist on screen is not Junod, but an invented character, Lloyd Vogel, who is inspired by Rogers to patch up his relationship with his estranged father and reflect deeply on his own responsibilities as a new parent.
Lloyd is played by the Welsh actor Matthew Rhys, who joins Hanks for this interview. He had come on board soon after his son's second birthday and, while filming, found himself wondering the same things as his character, "why I hadn't been the parent I thought I'd be and said I'd be," as he puts it. "I had this moment when I suddenly thought, 'Oh, God, I really need to start listening to [my son] and stop dictating to him'."
"That's the wonder of grandkids," Hanks says. (A father of four, he has three grandchildren, all girls.) "The only time you have to say 'no' is when they throw a train at your head."
We're in the first leg of Hollywood's annual awards race, and the air is thick with actorly bonhomie. Earlier this week, Hanks was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Bafta for his work in the film. And last weekend, he accepted the Golden Globes' honorary Cecil B DeMille Award with what may prove to be the speech of the season: down-to-earth, witty and wise, with a turn of phrase that made each thought stick. (One quintessentially Hanksian piece of advice: "Showing up on time is one of the greatest liberating acts you can give yourself in a movie.") Even today, with an audience of one, he's working the room like a virtuoso stand-up, seeding the conversation with running gags and callbacks.
From his own childhood in California, Hanks remembered Rogers primarily as "a goof and a joke". The show first aired when he was 11 years old, and he and his four siblings, themselves children of divorce, "would watch it just because it was so odd – the surreal sense of timing, and use of sound and silence. It didn't abide by the rules of showbusiness as we knew them." He had an unsettled upbringing, moving between 10 houses in five years with his father, Amos, who separated from his mother, Janet, when Hanks was five. By the time Mister Rogers came along, Hanks was already worldly wise: he and his siblings had been fending for themselves while their father worked as a cook until 11pm every night.
"So it wasn't for me, just as it's not for you," he says. "You know how the world works. You know what fraud is, and what lying is, and what cynicism is. Fred was talking to two, three and four-year-olds so they could feel safer in a world they didn't yet understand."
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Looking directly into the camera and talking in a slow, even voice, Rogers delivered homilies on subjects as worldly as death and divorce, often with a glove puppet on hand, quite literally, to bring additional perspective. He was also an adjunct professor of child development at the University of Pittsburgh and an ordained Presbyterian minister: watching him in action, you can tell. According to its producer Margy Whitmer, a perplexed director once said of the show: "You take all the elements that make good television and do the exact opposite, you have Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood."
Rhys, who grew up in Cardiff in the Seventies and Eighties, knew "not a jot" about any of this until he was emailed the script. He sent it on to his partner of five years – and co-star in the television series The Americans – the California-born actress Keri Russell, with a note reading "Who's Mister Rogers?" "She couldn't quite believe I'd had to ask," he says. Rhys's childhood television diet consisted of Welsh-language programming on S4C and the anarchic Saturday morning series Tiswas: "A show in which children were regularly thrown in jail," he recalls.
Hanks, meanwhile, had already turned down the role numerous times in the preceding decade. It was a new version of the script, as well as Heller's particular approach to the character, that finally persuaded him to climb on board. "I said to Mari, 'OK, I get it, it's a story about a guy going through a tough time, whose life is changed by Mr Rogers'," he recalls. But Heller demurred, saying she saw it instead as a story about men and their feelings. "Which terrified me," says Hanks. "It was going to be a much deeper throw, and bigger challenge, than just putting on a red sweater and talking in a sing-song voice."
The silences threw the actors the most. Rogers was a master of the reflective pause, and these are replicated faithfully on screen: most notably in a scene in a Chinese restaurant, where the film falls almost completely silent for a minute and 18 seconds. Fred asks Lloyd "to think about all the people who loved [him] into being" – something Rogers often did in real life – and as time passes, and Fred looks smilingly on, the grizzled journalist slowly crumbles.
"In a modern motion picture, there's no such thing as a full minute of anything," Hanks notes. "Maybe 16 seconds, tops." Both actors assumed the scene would be cut, or at least trimmed: in fact, it survives in full, and is one of the most extraordinarily moving moments in any recent film. To which bruising actorly technique did Rhys resort to muster his reaction? "None," he says. "I just followed Fred's instructions."
Deliberately or not, as Hanks talks, his voice keeps slipping back into the peculiar Rogers cadence – a lulling monotone that neutralises every other sound until it's the only thing in your head and all seems right with the world. I find myself wondering how conscious Hanks is of this aura he has, and whether it actually comes from him at all, or if it's some kind of cosmic reverb from the characters he played in Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, The Green Mile, Cast Away, and even the Toy Story films.
Hanks acknowledges its existence, but says he only began seriously to reflect on it as recently as 2015, when Clint Eastwood approached him to star in Sully, his film about the US Airways pilot whose emergency landing of a passenger jet on the Hudson River in 2009 made headlines worldwide. "When Clint asked me to do it, I had to say, 'Are you out of your mind?'," Hanks recalls. "I don't have white hair. I don't resemble him. And he said, 'It's because people trust you to do the right thing'. And I thought 'How did that come to pass? I'm just an actor.' But you end up becoming this added-up countenance that goes back to every role you ever did – even movies that failed, because you end up taking them forward with you into the next mix." He traced its beginnings back to playing an HIV-positive lawyer in Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia in 1993, which he identifies as "the point at which I began to get challenging material".
"When you're young, you can only grow your spectrum in short bursts," he goes on. "Because they just want you to be the same charming, goofy, funny, loud, wisecracking guy. And you have to start trying to find films that deal with things that are beyond 'I'm going to try to get laid tonight' – which, you know, used to be the premise of an awful lot of movies. You learn what not to do; what not to bother with. But there isn't a single role that casts it in iron."
As cinemagoers, we're so used to Hanks's aura that, when it's snuffed out, we struggle to cope. Take the final scene of Captain Phillips, Paul Greengrass's 2013 true-life thriller about the hijacking of a cargo vessel, in which Hanks played the title role. He weathers unthinkable trauma with consummate composure – then, afterwards in the medical bay, the dam breaks, and he topples into shock. Hanks describes how the scene was shot entirely off the cuff: he and Greengrass had no idea Phillips had even been taken to the infirmary until talking to the captain of one of the destroyers involved in the rescue mission, who was advising them on set.
"We had no time to think about it, which in this case was a good thing to go through," he remembers. "It all had to be personal. No actor's bag of tricks involved." He likens it to his forthcoming picture, Greyhound, in which he plays a US Navy commander in the Second World War's Battle of the Atlantic.
"I was trying to do this artificially commanding thing," he says. "And the director, a guy named Aaron Schneider, said to me after the first day of shooting, 'Hey, why not just trust in your own gravitas?' And I said, 'Because I don't.' " But the Hanks own-brand gravitas was all that was required.
"Tell us about your gravitas," Hanks says suddenly, theatrically swinging round to Rhys. It feels like an instinctive deflection; a move to pull when conversation gets a little too self-absorbed for comfort. Rhys expertly picks up the baton and starts riffing humorously on the debt all Welsh actors owe to Richard Burton: "We just do impressions of him and everyone thinks, Ah! Gravitas!" I start laughing, and Hanks sits back again, smiling, arms folded.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is in cinemas from January 23.