Tom Hanks led a group of on- and off-screen collaborators on Sony’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood keeping the positive vibes going at a press conference at Toronto on Sunday. The film received a warm reception following its world premiere Saturday night.
Inhabiting the role of children’s TV host Fred Rogers, who forms an unexpected bond with journalist Tom Junod (played by Matthew Rhys), persuaded Hanks that it the film has a message the world could use right now.
“Cynicism has become the default position for so much of daily structure and daily intercourse. Why?” he wondered. “Because it’s easy and there’s good money to be made at it. It’s a great product to sell.”
Acknowledging the “excellent” 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Hanks said director Marielle Heller’s film similarly aims to offer an alternative to the often-dispiriting tenor of today’s public discourse. “When Fred Rogers first saw children’s programming [in the 1950s], he saw something that was cynical,” the star said of early TV shows depicting pie fights and the like. “That’s a cynical treatment of an audience, and we have become so inured to that when we are met with as simple a message as, ‘You know what? It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood’ that we get some sort of slap, a little bit. And we are allowed to start off feeling good. … There’s a place for cynicism, certainly. But why begin with it right off the bat?”
Susan Kelechi Watson, who plays the wife of Rhys’ character, delivered a compelling two-minute invocation of the unique potency of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which she watched as a child with her younger brother. “There’s this way that he would look through the screen and just talk to you,” she recalled. “It was just calm and it was peaceful and it was like ‘Somebody’s treating me like I have sense,’ you know?
“‘OK, what are you talking about? Oh, you couldn’t figure it out either, huh, Mr. Rogers? We can’t either. What are we going to do about that?’ You’d have this dialogue in your head with him and you couldn’t wait until the next day till this very generous man would come on the screen again and just want to talk to you and figure things out with you and not bombard you with an answer but be present with you. And maybe you wouldn’t come up with a conclusion but it’s cool that we talked about it, right?”
Hanks, who has been interviewed for decades, as was Rogers, took evident delight in recounting the “jujitsu move” that Rogers would make when journalists asked him questions, a feat depicted in the film. “‘Mr. Rogers, don’t you ever have bad days?'” Hanks said, drawing laughs by adopting Rogers’ soothing, soft vocal pattern and twisting his body as if actually practicing a martial art.
“He’d say, ‘Well, of course I have bad days. You must have bad days every now and again, too. Particularly with the fact that you have to do this story on a deadline. That could really put some pressure on someone like you. Is there ever a time when you haven’t made a deadline and you felt bad because of it? That must make you feel pretty blue.'”