Hanks is playing Mister Rogers in a new movie and is just as nice as you think he is. Please read this article anyway.
Here is a list of stories about Tom Hanks I've heard over the last few miserable months, as it appeared that politeness and civility and manners were facing an extinction event in this country.
Once, in 2008, when he was shooting Angels & Demons in Rome by the Pantheon, a bride and her father couldn't approach the chapel because of the hullabaloo, so Hanks stopped filming to escort them to the altar.
Once, in 2015, he stopped by a table of Girl Scout Cookies and bought some boxes, donated an additional $20, then offered selfies to passersby as an enticement to buy. That same year, he found a young woman's student ID in a park and used his charming Twitter feed, which is filled with found items, to get it back to her.
Once, in 1997, before shooting Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg sent Hanks and other cast members out to do military training in the woods with a former Marine. After spending time in the rain, they all voted to quit the training, except for Hanks, who chose to obediently perform the job he was hired for and spurred the other men to stick with it as well.
These are the regular-nice acts of a person who holds the mantle of Everyman in our movie star culture. But lately they have signified more than simple good deeds. They're something like the embodiment of a gold standard of menschiness, which is not just gone from the culture at large, but now plays like a parody of it.
There's more. Spielberg once said about him, "If Norman Rockwell were alive today, he would paint a portrait of Tom."
Quick, who is your favourite president? Is it Abraham Lincoln? Well, you'll never believe this but Tom Hanks is related to him. The maiden name of Lincoln's mother, Nancy, was Hanks, and yes, it's the same Hanks.
Quick, who is your second favourite president? If it's Barack Obama, here's what he said about his true-life friend Hanks at the Kennedy Center Honors reception in 2014: "People have said that Tom is Hollywood's Everyman; that he's this generation's Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper. But he's just Tom Hanks. And that's enough. That's more than enough." Two years later, Obama gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The day after Hanks' new movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, in which he stars as Mister Rogers, debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, he was sitting on a bench in a hallway outside a conference room, making jokes to a group of publicists, waiting for me ahead of the appointed time. That does not really ever happen, an actor waiting for me ahead of the appointed time, versus clearly dreading me two hours past it. "I think a long time ago, I learned how important it was to show up a little bit early," Hanks told me. "Be ready to go, you know? And to respect the whole process, and I think that you could respect the whole process even when the other people don't."
So Tom Hanks is as nice as you think he is and exactly what you hope him to be, which is great unless you are someone trying to tell a good story about him, with elements like an arc and narrative tension. "Saintly Actor Playing Saintly Public Television Children's Host Mister Rogers Is Saintly" is not a great story. But what am I supposed to do? He sat facing me, cheerful and focused and willing. Maybe this could just be a story that makes you feel better.
An hour later, he sat on a panel with the filmmakers and other actors, all of whom seemed giddy to put a Mister Rogers movie out into the world, relaying all the stories they'd heard about him. Tom Junod, who wrote the 1998 article in Esquire that the movie is based on, would talk about the way his interactions with Fred Rogers changed his life. You sit there and you listen and it's hard to believe that those stories are real.
In our first interview there in Toronto, Hanks sat back in a chair with his left ankle pressed against the top of his right patella. He was wearing clear-plastic framed glasses and a beard for shooting News of the World, which is set in the aftermath of the Civil War. In our interviews, he says "oh dear" and "geez" and "for cryin' out loud." He is a history enthusiast. He is an information enthusiast. He is an enthusiasm enthusiast. At one point, I can't remember why, he recited the Preamble to the Constitution.
In the panels after the premiere, some of the questions seemed to be based on the notion that Tom Hanks is so wonderful and Mister Rogersy that he just had to show up and read some lines since hey, they're both essentially the same: easygoing nice men with graying hair.
This created as close to a crisis as the people who made this movie will probably have: It has been 24 years since Hanks won an Oscar (two in a row for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump); it has been 18 years since he was even nominated, even though he has had an unrelenting leading-man career that includes the last three devastating minutes of Captain Phillips. So while other movies this year opened to PR disasters around the offscreen behaviour of their stars or directors or producers, it was this that the Beautiful Day team felt they had to get in front of: the notion that Hanks wasn't acting when he was playing Mister Rogers.
At a panel, a journalist suggested that he's actually playing Tom Hanks, but just "slower." But the slowness of Fred Rogers — the un-self-conscious, considered slowness — was hard, Hanks said. It felt ridiculous when he first tried it out. He studied hours of tapes, because sometimes he couldn't imagine that he was supposed to go this slowly. "When you get over that there is some point where you just go, oh dear lord, this just has to be slower, and it's not dumber. It's a combination of procedure and behaviour that was singularly Fred Rogers."
It wasn't just about pace, though. It was about a specificity of cadence, and an intention. When Hanks watched those tapes, he saw that Mister Rogers was "always talking to a single kid, a single person two feet on the other side of the camera screen. They said when you were talking to Fred, you felt as though you were the only person in the world that mattered to him."
Performance aside, it's not hard to see why director Marielle Heller wanted him so badly for the role. He bears a somewhat passing physical resemblance to Rogers, which was a good start. He is most often cast in roles that need what Robert Zemeckis (who directed Forrest Gump, among other Hanks movies) calls "that classic Everyman quality." Over my reporting, many, many people told me what an Everyman he is.
But Mister Rogers wasn't an Everyman. It didn't hurt that whereas Mister Rogers was the closest thing my generation had to a living saint (even Mother Teresa got cancelled, eventually), Tom Hanks was the closest thing we had to Mister Rogers — an uncomplicated-seeming, scandal-free man with a long career who never had to issue a public statement that included the phrase "It was a different time." In other words, having Hanks cast as Mister Rogers removes a layer of suspension of disbelief that is the burden of a movie depicting a real-life person.
Hanks had read the script years before, but while Mister Rogers is the hero of the story, he's not necessarily the protagonist of it, and so it felt like just another midlife crisis movie about a man dealing with a fraught relationship with his father. But by the time a revised script got to him, circumstances had changed. Back in 2015, Hanks read a story on female directors in The New York Times Magazine and had decided he wanted to make an effort to work with some of them. That week, at his granddaughter's birthday party, he met Heller, who had been featured in the story. He went home and watched her debut, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and told her that he wanted to try to make something work. A few years later, now attached to Beautiful Day, she sent the script over to him and here we are.
"I think it's an essence thing," Heller told me of Hanks' portrayal, which, she insisted on that panel and to me, was a performance. "It's something in the energy and the essence and behind the eyes that you feel the same way looking at him as you feel looking at Mister Rogers, and that was what was so important to me. I never wanted him to be doing an imitation."
A week after our first interview, a member of Hanks' team would call to plan our second interview, and she would casually bring up that he was actually acting as Mister Rogers, and that yes, he was nice, but he was very much more than that and please maybe I should not tell another story in which Tom Hanks is simply depicted as nice. And then she told me a story about a time she was with him en route to the airport and was feeling a little nauseous in the car. She was trying to make sure he didn't notice, but he did and he changed seats with her so that she could sit the way she needed to in order to feel better. (I then told her the story of the time I interviewed an actor in a hotel lobby, where I was so sick that a member of the hotel staff came over and asked if I needed painkillers or a doctor, and the actor not only hadn't noticed, but continued to not notice even after this happened.) What she was saying was that playing any role successfully takes talent and work; what she was also saying is that being nice is a choice.
In Can You Say ... Hero?, the magazine article that A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is based on, writer Tom Junod follows Fred Rogers as he interacts with children and commits acts of kindness and empathy that are simple yet totally astounding. But the protagonist of Beautiful Day is not named Tom Junod; he's named Lloyd Vogel. In the movie, Lloyd (Matthew Rhys) is an Esquire writer with a bad reputation whose broken relationships with his father and his new son have led to anger and despair. His editor assigns him a short piece on Mister Rogers that changes his life. (The movie veers into science fiction when it features a female editor-in-chief and a 90s-era Esquire staff filled with people of colour.)
In the last part of the article, Junod prays with Fred Rogers at Rogers' behest, and he writes that his "heart felt like a spike, and then, in that room, it opened and felt like an umbrella" — that just being around him was enough to make him see the world differently, and then, to be loved by him, was enough to make him a completely different kind of journalist and a completely different kind of person.
But neither the movie nor the magazine article tell the real back story of the meeting: Junod (who is a friend of mine) profiled Fred Rogers after writing a story in 1997 in which he, in effect, outed Kevin Spacey (who only recently revealed that he is gay, after a #MeToo scandal). The story briefly made Junod something of a pariah in Hollywood, and flung him into soul searching about the kind of writer he wanted to be. He'd had a ruthlessness to him, he told me in Toronto. He didn't want to be ruthless anymore.
It was then that he met Mister Rogers, who prayed for him and his family every day, and who kept a file on Junod, which the screenwriters, Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, found in Rogers' archives in Pittsburgh. In that file, he laid out four pillars of journalism that he hoped Junod would stick to: 1. Journalists are human beings not stenographers, human beings not automatons. 2. Point out injustice when you have to. 3. Point out beauty when you can. 4. Be aware of celebrating the wonders of creation.
It's been a long time since a magazine article about a celebrity could sell tickets to a movie. But Hanks doesn't mind doing interviews — "I hate doing disingenuous press. The stuff that you have to essentially perform through the whole damn thing"— though he can now smell the ones that are just trying to get something incendiary into a headline. Ones where the writer says, "Tell me about that divorce." In 1985 he and his first wife, Samantha Lewes, the mother of his son Colin and his daughter, Elizabeth, split. Hanks then married Rita Wilson, who was his co-star in Volunteers. They've been married since 1988 and have two sons together, Chester and Truman. There has not been much drama in this marriage department. So he'll say, "What? We got divorced!"
What happens next confuses him more. "Then they'll say, 'Why won't this guy let me really get to know him?' It's because we're going to be spending altogether about two hours of my 63 years on planet Earth getting to know each other."
I committed something akin to this line of atrocity when I asked him if he had a dark side. He said, "Yes, and finally, finally I'll get to tell it to The New York Times."
In our interviews, he doesn't evade any questions, but he doesn't spill either. He doesn't appear to have a need to be known by his public, but he also doesn't have the same strains of contempt for journalists that I've seen from other movie stars. Maybe that's because he's never been truly screwed by one, but just as likely it's because he believes in the truth. "The best articles I've ever read that have come out have been an accurate reflection of the time I spent with that journalist," he said.
That night in my hotel room I watched the Kennedy Center Honors from 2014. There's a moment when the a cappella group Pentatonix sings That Thing You Do!, the title track from the movie Hanks directed and starred in about a boy band that is filled with the kind of wholesome, debonair, charming and witty characters that he tends to favour. At the ceremony, as the group sings, Hanks sits in the balcony with Wilson right behind him, waving his head in joyous, uncomplicated beat. For maybe two seconds, a second camera goes to the grown Hanks children in the audience, each of them singing along and bobbing their heads, too. Colin is an actor and owns a handkerchief company called, uh, Hanks Kerchiefs. Elizabeth is a writer. Chester has been chasing a rap career (with attendant rap controversy) and now plays a rapper on Empire. And Truman is working on film sets and, his father tells me, has a degree in mathematics from Stanford. I watched those two seconds at the Kennedy Center maybe 10 or 12 times.
Tom Hanks got his first typewriter when he was 19. He told me this at our second meeting, which was in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he's shooting News of the World. It was a Sunday, and he'd just come from seeing Ad Astra with his youngest son, Truman.
He'd altered his schedule that day for me. Santa Fe has an elevation of 2,190 metres, and I'd woken up breathless and had gone to an urgent care centre for oxygen that morning. So after they'd gone to an earlier movie than they had planned, he met me in a conference room at a hotel ahead of schedule so I could leave town earlier than I'd planned. He walked in wearing a big straw hat and the same beard he'd had in Canada. Once, a person I was interviewing showed up four hours late so that our interview began at 11pm.
Hanks grew up in Northern California, in the era of the Zodiac Killer and Patty Hearst and the Black Panthers and the People's Park riots. He was 5 when his parents divorced and he and his older brother and sister went to live with his father, while another brother lived with their mother. Both parents were in rough shape, just trying to survive. His father worked in a variety of small restaurants, remarrying again and again and moving every few months.
He and his siblings had the run of the house while their father worked long hours. They didn't eat the frozen vegetables he brought home, and they mostly knew what time it was because of what was on television. "No one told me how to brush my teeth," he said. "I never flossed until I was out of high school, because dental hygiene was handled by a filmstrip that we saw in second grade that said, really, try to eat an apple, and that cleans your teeth. So, hey, I had an apple last week, so my teeth are kind of clean."
He was never angry at his parents; he's still not. He saw how hard it was for them to function. They never explained things to him. Now he knows, "it's because they didn't have the verbiage. They didn't have the vocabulary. And they were so racked with self-loathing and guilt and et cetera, all that stuff that went along, and there were four of us, for God's sake, and they just, you know, couldn't do it. Now, I've got four kids myself, and as soon as you start having your own kids, you go, like, oh, I get it."
He remembers Oprah once asked him on her show about his dysfunctional family growing up, and he thought, "What's that? Oh, that's us." He'd never thought of himself that way. But somewhere underneath he must have known that something was off because he had started accumulating a lot of typewriters. Hundreds of them. It was something about how he never got to keep the things he loved through all of his family's moves. Now that he's 63 and he's thought a lot about it, he realises that when he was young, he'd often have to move on a moment's notice and was not in charge of packing, so he often lost things that were important to him. "I had nothing, actually, that stayed with me all through my life. I don't have anything from when I was 5 years old. I don't have anything from when I was 3."
Like I said, he was 19 when he got his first typewriter. A friend gave it to him — "it was a hunk of junk — a toy," he said. He went to get it serviced, and the repairman said to him, "This is a toy. Why are you using a toy?" The man sold him a Hermes 2000, which is now lost. So he invested in another. "I said, oh yeah, this is going to stay with me for a while, and I am soothed by it. I'm soothed by having it. I'm soothed by knowing that I can take it anywhere with me."
Everyone I spoke with about him told a story about notes they received from one of his typewriters. Sally Field recently received a note from Hanks that conveyed how moved he was by her 2018 memoir, In Pieces. She was kicking herself because she has yet to convey to him how much she enjoyed his book of short stories, Uncommon Type, which she had read a year earlier. (She also told me about the weekly newsletter he wrote, on a laptop, on the set of Forrest Gump, about happenings among the cast and crew. A weekly newsletter.)
He loves typewriters because "they're brilliant combinations of art and engineering. But art, engineering, and purpose," he said. "Every machine is as individual as a set of fingerprints. So, every time you type something on a typewriter, it is a one-of-a-kind work of art." He even created a sweet little app called Hanx Writer that allows you to type and send a message rendered in typewriter style.
When he started collecting them he was married, but he was just as transient as he'd been as a child. He was getting gigs on The Love Boat and at the Great Lakes Theater outside Cleveland. He began to collect typewriters maybe because he finally had control over his belongings, even though he still moved a lot. When he thinks about that time, he said, "I start thinking about mistakes I made with my own kids and not explaining things or not being there for them. Or being so preoccupied with other things that are going on in our adult world. My son Colin was born when I was very young. As well as my daughter, but that means we have this gestalt understanding because they remember when their dad was just a guy trying to, you know, make the rent. My other kids, they were born after I had established a beachhead in every way. And so their lives were just different."
I told him then that I'd watched his Kennedy Center Honors ceremony probably more times than is appropriate. His older children have weathered divorce and uncertainty. His younger sons have weathered a life of wealth and privilege and I wanted to know how you could be a transient person trying to make a name for yourself in the world and also end up with children that sing along to your songs with great affection when you're done raising them.
My children were getting older, the oldest about to turn 12, I told him, and I felt like lately, everything I said was misunderstood — everything was seen as criticism or nagging — and suddenly I could clearly see how a child who used to want to lie in bed with you and watch movies on his birthday could drift toward someone who could barely look at you. Someone who didn't understand that all your insistence was just about being a good person in the world, and the myriad ways to do that, and the even more myriad ways you could stumble upon the opposite. This coupled with an awareness that being good wasn't so simple anymore, and that I ran the risk of my children seeing behind the nagging and criticism, down to my basic daily deeds, and finding that I wasn't so good in the world — that at best, I was neutral.
It isn't easy being a parent, not for any of us, he said. "Somewhere along the line, I figured out, the only thing really, I think, eventually a parent can do is say I love you, there's nothing you can do wrong, you cannot hurt my feelings, I hope you will forgive me on occasion, and what do you need me to do? You offer up that to them. I will do anything I can possibly do in order to keep you safe. That's it. Offer that up and then just love them."
He looked at me for my next question and when he saw my face he said, "OK. Go ahead. I'm right here for you, Taffy. It's good to cry. It's good to talk."
Somewhere in the last 40 years, Hanks came to the conclusion that he doesn't scare anyone. "I recognised in myself a long time ago that I don't instill fear in anybody," he said. "Now, that's different than being nice, you know? I think I have a cache of mystery. But it's not one of malevolence."
So when people ask him why he rarely plays a bad guy, that's what he says: "It's because I never get them, because bad guys, by and large, require some degree of malevolence that I don't think I can fake."
Not that all of his characters are saints. He played an assassin in Road to Perdition, and a terrible villain as one of the several characters he played in Cloud Atlas. ("But that was under an awful lot of makeup," he said.) But he can't play a villain who wants to destroy for no reason because he can't bring himself to understand what that motivation might be. That's one of the reasons his production company, Playtone, options and develops so much nonfiction material — it's why he ends up playing so many real people. Real people have real motivations. They are complicated in realistic ways.
But it's more than that. He favours stories of extraordinary acts that are based on reality — proof that extraordinary things exist, that they don't just have to be imagined. It's a movie with optimism. It's a role where you get to wear a uniform and a hat. It's a debonair man with good values who has the perfect comeback. It's war heroes and the promise that science will make us better and how history should be memorised. It's a belief in humankind, that we can't all be that bad.
I laughed out loud. He looked at me again and waited. It's just all been so dark lately, I told him. It feels like the world has been engulfed in a chronic-seeming grimness, and it was beginning to feel like it was no longer an aberration but the new reality. I told him I remembered that in 2015 we'd make jokes on social media about what a cursed year it was. But it got worse and so on until now, here we were, a journalist crying in a conference room in Santa Fe.
He told me about these speculative fiction books he reads by Kim Stanley Robinson. In one of them, about New York in the year 2140, it says, "history is a record of humanity trying to get a grip."
"It's completely relative," he said, "and if you had gone back not very far, this level of vitriol and excitement and worry was just as huge back in the Monica Lewinsky era. And we thought, oh, that's about as big and as insane as it's going to get." And then along comes something equally big and insane.
Then he told me about a trip he and Truman took on the Los Angeles light rail. So many people complain about public transportation, and most people as recognisable as Hanks wouldn't dream of using it. But while he was on the train, he couldn't think of a thing you'd complain about. He couldn't stop marveling about how well it worked — what a miracle it was. Meaning: things were always this bad. But they were also always this good.
Lately, he's been giving away his typewriters. Now that he's had a home all these years, and stability, and a wife who sings to him and children who bring his three granddaughters to visit him regularly, he wants to get a little leaner on stuff again. He's down to about 120. One day he'll just have one. The one he'll keep is the Olivetti Lettera 22, the same model they keep at MoMA. I told him I make too many mistakes to work on a typewriter. But Hanks is more optimistic than I am.
It was this optimism I'd been hoping to capture when I took on this story; it was this optimism I was hoping to marinate in so that I'd feel a little better about the world for a couple of hours a day for a few weeks. I'd been depressed lately and the amount of time you have to spend researching a profile — reading the old articles, rewatching the movies — would help me avoid any kind of subversiveness. In exchange, my story would be boring. It's OK, I told him. Some stories are boring.
And maybe it was because this paragon of professionalism spent half of the interview crying, or maybe because Hanks felt bad about my altitude sickness, or maybe this is just what it means to be nice, but this is what he said to me:
"Let's not call this a dark side, but: I realise, and I used over and over again, the ability to seduce a room, seduce a group of people, and that it started off when I was very young as a self-defence mechanism but then turned into a manipulative kind of thing, because I didn't realise that I was as good at it as I was. And part of that is I am not malevolent. I'm not mysterious. You're not going to get a huge amount of anger out of me or anything like that. I'm not coming in to dominate a room, but I am coming in to seduce it somehow."
The niceness is the seduction; it's the thing he can do better than anyone. But it also helped him hide, he said. "I thought the thing to do was to win the moment more than carry through with an idea. I'd come to a meeting, and they'd say, 'I understand you have problems with the rewrite.' I'd say, 'No, no, no, hell, we can make it work.' That's a cowardice there. And that's me being willing to seduce whoever that person is on the other side of the room. In which what do I come off as, 'Oh, he's got no problem, he can make it work, he's a good guy to work with,' et cetera, et cetera."
Which is not much by way of darkness, and all it really proves is that Tom Hanks is even nicer than I thought: He wants to save my story from being boring.
Which I could do on my own. I could make a convincing argument that performance art as a nice person — from your public actions to your choice of roles as altruistic, heroic types — is a way to hide from expanding your range. I could ask questions about that weird one-sided feud with Henry Winkler, who was fired from directing Turner & Hooch after 13 days and who recently told Andy Cohen that he "got along great — great — with that dog." I could call old assistants to try to find out what he was really like back then, since the most recent ones I spoke with were warmly talking about how wonderful he is.
But if I had that kind of instinct I was worn down over the next few weeks as I spent hours on the phone with people who knew him well. The things they said about him were both remarkable and unremarkable: Heller called him "a human" who "treats everyone like people." Meg Ryan, who starred with him in Sleepless in Seattle and other movies said he has an "astronomical" curiosity. Peter Scolari, who co-starred with him on the sitcom Bosom Buddies and then Lucky Guy on Broadway, called him "this very special man who is touched by God." Sally Field told me that Hanks is so good that it actually makes her feel bad. She calls him "Once in a lifetime Tom."
Hearing that made me think of something Tom Junod said to me in Toronto, how he went into the Mister Rogers story looking for who Fred was but came out knowing only what he did. He stared at all his reporting for a long time before he realised that the doing is actually the thing we should be paying attention to. "I don't know if Fred was the mask or the mask was Fred," he said. "But in the end does it even matter?"
I'm not sure where we got the concept of an Everyman, but Tom Hanks isn't really it. I don't know people with hundreds of typewriters. He is the Platonic ideal of a man, a projection of what we wish we were, or, more worrisome, a theory of what we actually are, and, well: Have you read the other pages of this newspaper?
I am too old for Mister Rogers. My children are too old for Mister Rogers, too. So instead I showed them Splash, then Forrest Gump, then Big, then A League of Their Own. I showed them That Thing You Do! and parts of Cast Away. I told them about the man who heard I wasn't feeling well and adjusted his schedule for me. I told them that it doesn't matter why you do nice things; all that matters is that you do them. And one day, something changed. I had just finished Toy Story 4, and suddenly all my algorithms were recommending openhearted movies with heroes and good values, and I realised that I had begun to feel a little better. My heart was never a spike; it was always an umbrella but sometimes it would invert against a storm. That day I recalibrated, and suddenly my umbrella was upright, once again able to shield me from the weather. It was enough. It was more than enough. This is an accurate reflection of the time Tom Hanks spent with a journalist.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is in NZ cinemas on January 23, 2020.
Written by: Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Photographs by: Daniel Dorsa
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES