Marielle Heller on 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood' Being a Non-Biopic: "Mr. Rogers Can't Be the Lead"

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Marielle Heller and Tom Hanks

The director also discussed how she convinced Tom Hanks to play Fred Rogers, and later gave a heartwarming introduction to the film — which invoked the beloved PBS host's own words — at a special screening in New York City.

It'd be easy to assume that a film titled A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood would center on the late Fred Rogers, who sang those very words over and over again on his PBS show, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. However, that's not exactly the case, according to director Marielle Heller.

"Mr. Rogers can’t be the lead of this movie," Heller told The Hollywood Reporter on Sunday at a special screening of the film in lower Manhattan. "He doesn’t make a good protagonist of a movie, because he’s too far in his evolution. He makes a great antagonist."

The protagonist to the film's Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks) is Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a character based on the real-life journalist Tom Junod, whose 1998 Esquire article "Can You Say...Hero?" inspired the movie.

Heller explained that Rogers was known for his ability to enact "catalytic change" in his friends and the people he came into contact with, which is what happens with Vogel over the course of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

It's this relationship between Vogel and Rogers that guides the movie, rather than the cradle-to-grave formula that's often used in biopics.

"[The film] is a reintroduction to the radical philosophy of kindness that Fred Rogers lived and preached," said producer Peter Saraf. "It’s a reintroduction through a relationship with a grown-up, an adult — which, for me, was really the genius of it, because we think of him as only associated with children. But he had something to say to all of us."

That sentiment was shared by nearly everyone on Sunday's red carpet, with most citing parenthood as the formation of their relationship with Mister Rogers.

Heller described loving Mister Rogers' Neighborhood as a child but quickly outgrowing it — something that, in doing research for the film, she learned Rogers knew would happen, "and he was okay with that" — and then later rediscovering the show as a parent.

Even the idea for the film's screenplay was sparked not by writer Noah Harpster's own experience with the PBS program but his toddler's. After watching her "listen to Mister Rogers in a way that she never listened" to him, Harpster quickly got to work with fellow screenwriter Micah Fitzerman-Blue.

That was nearly 10 years ago.

Since then, in addition to rewriting parts of the film as they furthered their research, the duo had been working tirelessly to land Hanks. Fitzerman-Blue told THR that Hanks had previously passed on playing Rogers, and it wasn't until Heller joined the project that he finally said yes.

"I said to him, 'I don’t think it’s a biopic, and I don’t want to do an impersonation; I want you to get the essence of him right, and I think this is a character study that could really make an impact,'" Heller explained.

Everyone then turned their focus to research, which led to the development of a relationship with the Fred Rogers Center and the people who were close to Rogers, including his wife, Joanne.

"We were welcomed with open arms in Pittsburgh ... we were so touched that we got to spend as many months as we did getting to know everybody and getting to know the neighborhood and Joanne," Heller said. "And I think it infused everything we did in the movie."

Junod himself worked with Rhys, and described sitting on a couch while the actor interviewed him. "Man, [Rhys] managed to put it up there without me even knowing he was doing it," Junod told THR.

As someone who came to know the real Rogers very well, Junod hopes that moviegoers will recognize that they themselves can carry on his legacy of goodwill.

"Kindness is not just a quality; it’s something that you work at," he said. "It’s something that’s attainable not just by Fred Rogers, who is like Superman to a lot of people, but he worked at it. And I think the movie really presents that, that kindness is something we can all do if we’re willing to take those risks to go there."

While introducing the film to a packed theater on Sunday, Heller invoked Rogers' wisdom after revealing that nearly everyone who has seen the film has told her they cried throughout it. "[Rogers] said, ‘People have said "Don’t cry" to each other for years and years, and all it has ever meant is "I’m too uncomfortable when you show me your feelings." I’d rather have them say, "Go ahead and cry. I’m here to be with you."' So I’m going to take my seat. I’m here to be with you."