Marielle Heller on Landing Tom Hanks for 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood'

LACEY TERRELL/SONY
"This was just such a universal story that needed to be told," says Marielle Heller, on the set of 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood' with Tom Hanks.

The director also discusses why she had to turn the beloved kids TV host Fred Rogers into the film's antagonist.

Marielle Heller had no intention of ever making movies about men. "I had decided that we don’t have enough movies about women, and so if I spent my whole career just making movies about women I would be happy with that," says the director, who most recently helmed the 2018 Lee Israel biopic Can You Ever Forgive Me? But then she read the script for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the story based on Fred Rogers, and she knew she had to make the film. The Sony release, which debuts Sept. 7 at TIFF ahead of its Nov. 22 theatrical release, follows a jaded journalist (played by The Americans’ Matthew Rhys) as he sets out to write a profile on the kids TV icon but soon discovers the healing nature of Rogers’ kind spirit, which has shaped the upbringing of generations.

Why did you decide to direct this movie?

It was the script [by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster]. I felt like watching a grown person grappling so deeply with their emotions in a real way was something I never got to see onscreen. I also thought their script was so smart because Mr. Rogers can’t be the lead of a movie — he’s not someone with enough conflict. He doesn’t have the dynamic nature you need for a protagonist for a movie, but to have him be essentially the antagonist of a movie — who comes into someone’s life and flips it upside down through his philosophy and the way he lived his life — was so smart.

Was Morgan Neville’s 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? already in the works when you signed on?

This project predates the documentary, actually, but my involvement didn’t. We’re really buddies with the documentary. In so many ways I think the two pieces are good companions for each other. If you’ve seen the documentary, it will only help your enjoyment of our film even more. And if you haven’t, I think our film will make you want to go back and watch the documentary.

How did Tom Hanks end up playing the lead?

I sent the script to Tom. He and I had already had a number of meetings, and he had seen my first movie and we had been keeping in touch, looking for things to work on together. He had already passed on the movie a few times, apparently. And then when I sent it to him he said yes, so then suddenly we were off and running.

I love how casually you mention that you and Tom Hanks hang out.

You know the thing about Tom Hanks is once you're friends with Tom Hanks it feels casual like that. He's really a normal-feeling guy. You don't feel like you're in conversation with one of the world's biggest movie stars.

And how did you land on Matthew Rhys to play journalist Tom Junod?

I was such a fan of The Americans and I just think he's an incredible actor. It was important to me it was somebody whom you really buy as a quick, smart journalist who just feels too cynical for Mr. Rogers. He’s sort of our entry point into Fred's teachings through this lens of cynicism. It's also really important that his character is going through this major life transformation, which is becoming a parent. This weird thing happens — you start to reflect on your own childhood, you start to figure out who you want to be in the world in a new kind of a way because suddenly you're responsible for shaping somebody else's childhood. Matthew's also a recent father, and somebody who I felt like just connected in a really inherent way to that part of the character's struggle.

You re-created the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood stage on the exact same stage. Can you give me an example of the details you sought out?

We got the blueprints to the original set and rebuilt it perfectly. We consulted with all the people who had worked on it about all of the little details. Everyone who had worked on the program and walked in was so blown away by the care and amount of detail that went into making sure we were re-creating it perfectly. It made us really happy.

You were shooting this while Can You Ever Forgive Me? was going through the awards circuit last year. What was that experience like?

It feels like there are two very different parts to making movies. There’s the making of it and then there’s the putting out of it — and I like the making of the movies a lot more than putting it out into the world. I was living with Fred Rogers’ messages of hope and forgiveness and kindness every day and then on the weekends entering into these, like, human competitions where artists are pitted against artists. That feels so wrong to my soul in so many ways. So if anything, it was nice to have Fred Rogers’ words to keep me grounded during a pretty otherwise weird time.

Interview edited for length and clarity. 

A version of this story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's September 6 daily issue at the Toronto Film Festival.