Matthew Rhys on Working With Tom Hanks and Discovering Fred Rogers

matthew rhys, a beautiful day in the neighborhood
Sony Pictures

Matthew Rhys does "tortured man with a surprisingly emotional side" well. For six seasons, the Welsh actor portrayed Philip Jennings on The Americans, a murderous Russian spy who was also trying, with all his might, to be a good husband and father. It wouldn't seem that Philip would have a lot in common with Lloyd Vogel, the character he plays in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Lloyd is a journalist assigned to write a profile of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood creator and host Fred Rogers, who is embodied here by none other than Tom Hanks.

Lloyd, based on Esquire writer Tom Junod, goes into the interview ready to mix things up with Rogers, but his subject's intuitive calmness wears him down, forcing him to accept his own vulnerability. By now, this is classic Rhys material. It's also the center of the movie. For as much as the narrative around Marielle Heller's film is centered on Hanks' performance as the cultural icon, Rhys is actually the lead of the film. Rogers is an unchangeable force of gentle good; Lloyd is the person that needs to absorb his teachings. Heller's film is quietly radical in the way it cuts through the nonsense of masculinity, and Rhys' Lloyd demonstrates how it's possible, through the word of Rogers, to be a more gracious person.

When I meet Rhys in a hotel room the day after A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, he greets me in his jovial Welsh manner. We settle in to discuss Hanks and his personal introduction to the world of Fred Rogers. Rhys speaks passionately, emphasizing everything with sound effects, as he describes Rogers' effect on him as a parent.

Thrillist: I think the structure of this movie is what makes it so fascinating. It's a Mister Rogers story, but it's also largely a story about your character, sort of through the lens of Mister Rogers's teachings. How did you approach that? 
Matthew Rhys:
I was slightly maybe spooked by how many similarities I found with Lloyd, but I went, "Oh dear, this is at times close to the truth." And I hate using the word journey, but I will, but seeing Lloyd's journey through it, you kind of go, this is a dream of a part in that you always I think instinctively look for good conflict. Lloyd is sort of awash if not drowning in several different layers of conflict, and how they then manifest themselves into fear, anger, and all the externals. So immediately it just looked like there was so much to do and so much to play, and so far to go. And then having read them Tom [Junod]'s article and talking with him, the scale of the mountain got bigger.

How so? 
There's this enormously transformational journey that he goes on and achieves at the end. And then doing a deep dive into Rogers, having him as this sort of conduit to it was just fantastic.

Did you have any Rogers associations going into this? 
None. And interestingly -- or not... I preface that statement "very interestingly." Oh is it? Just being a new father I think put a different perspective on it for me. And what is strange is I came to Fred Rogers obviously in my 40s. And you go, oh my god, this man is incredible. And then speaking to Americans who are in the same age [range] there are a lot who go, "Oh my god, he was so instrumental or influential and so paternal" and people have a genuine usually warm reaction to his name. But there are some who go, "What was that about?" And then I always say, as an adult, go back to him now and see what he was doing, and I think you'll appreciate him with new eyes. Because I think as an adult, looking back on what he was trying to achieve, you just stand in awe.

You mentioned you were watching as a new father. Were you watching with your child at all? 
I tried to show him the show. He's too young. He's 3. But then I immediately put him on Daniel Tiger. He loves it. It is still made by his company, his people, his old producers, which is very lovely. Same messages and that calm. He was so insistent on the children need this calm and quiet. Some people mocked how measured he was, and it was incredibly thought through: They need time to process. He was very opposed to how this new era of children's television was so frenetic and so bad for them. He said, they need this time, this quiet, and you go, "My god, he's so right." Because you catch the other cartoons that they watch, even you go, "Oh my god, what's going on."

As a journalist watching the film, I did think that it was the most frustrating interview I've ever seen depicted. How did you build that with Tom Junod?
Well, I actually asked Tom Junod a question. I said: As a long-form journalist: what were your big techniques in going in and interviewing. He would spend days embedded with people. And he said, "My greatest weapon was time. I would wait it out. And eventually you started chipping away. With Fred, I met the master." They used to call it "Fred karate" because Fred was the great deflector. He never truly enjoyed being interviewed, but he enjoyed people. So he was the great deflector in interviews. Tom thought, "That's okay, I'm used to the deflecting." As time went on he went, "Huh, he's a new wave of something I've never experienced." Then suddenly [Tom] realized the tables had been turned somehow. I went into that initially, that initially he has his patience, and obviously we don't have the real estate in the movie. So you're trying to map it in a way that you kind of are paced with his building frustration.

Tom Hanks was attached to the project from the outset. What was the experience of Hanks' Mister Rogers on set like? 
When we started rehearsals, there was kind of no Fred. He said, "I just want to read the words first." We were fortunate to do rehearsals a few weeks before we started shooting, and then he kind of went away and then came back. And we were like, "Ah." He really captured something. He was so shrewd in what he did. He got the incredible essence of Fred, without impersonation. But there is a moment where he does the walk, and I went [gasps]. He doesn't do it all the time, but there's just this one moment where he does the walk, and he did this thing with his hand. Having watched a lot of Fred, I was like, "He just did that thing that Fred used to do with his hand." So without being too obvious he nods to the physicality. It's just enough. But I think the essence of Fred he caught beautifully.

a beautiful day in the neighborhood
Sony Pictures

The scene where Lloyd and Fred sit in silence in the Chinese restaurant is so powerful. What was the experience of doing that like? 
Those are all Fred's people. His wife was there and his producer was there. Marielle is very shrewd and simple in her direction, but clever in saying the groundwork from Fred is always there. Another great "Fred karate" moment in deflection is: He was so often asked to speak publicly. He did a number of graduations. One of his great things was to go up and say -- as opposed to him pontificating about what they should be doing -- to think about the people who got you to this place today. He did that often. And then Marielle just said, "That's all I want you to do in that moment."

Are you acting in that moment? Are you thinking of yourself?
I've always said, the beauty of a great director is they stop you acting and that's what she does. And then it's a real moment, and it was, and a testament to Fred. It's a very powerful process or tool.

How did this fulfill what you wanted to do after The Americans?
I've done two long-running series and you sort of go, What happens now? Who do you play now? And you sort of hope that there's a script out there. Ironically, the reason I was called in for this was because Marielle is a big fan of The Americans. So that comes full circle. I was very lucky. When I first met her she was like, "I watched six seasons of The Americans. That's why you're here." But, to me, Lloyd is incredibly layered in the same way, they both have an enormous amount going on underneath, that isn't on the table or spoken. Their hearts aren't worn on their sleeves. They sit on an inordinate amount. And the difference between Lloyd and Philip is Lloyd gets to at the end have this emancipation whereas Philip goes back to Russia.

These scripts both contain explorations of vulnerability and masculinity. Do you think about that when playing these characters?
The writers always said that from the get-go of The Americans that Philip -- not that he has a greater emotional landscape -- but that it's possibly viewed a little clearer or we are let in a little more than [with] Elizabeth. And they go, "We do want to turn the archetypal masculine-feminine roles on their heads." What I hope is the terms masculine and feminine are starting not to be used with regards to being vulnerable. You go, this is good dialogue for our society.

And Rogers is very important to that.
Yes. On a small scale. In the first meeting I had with Mari, one of the big things she said is, "My big thing is I want to push men having to talk about their emotions and having to be vulnerable and to articulate and not just punch things or shout."

a beautiful day
Sony Pictures

The Rogers family was around on set? 
Very much.

What was that like? 
It was almost more interesting in a sort of voyeuristic way, because we recreated that studio, in the exact studio. It was identical and then we watched them walk in, and that was the moment for me was seeing them kind of gasp. They couldn't believe it had been brought back to life. Because it was so emotional for them. I think the enormous pride is the fact that what he stood for is still relevant, and still talked about, and having a movie made about it to this day. I think they were incredibly proud and happy about that.

What was the set like? In a dream sequence, you actually enter an episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood
You can imagine the fun we had with the dream sequence. There was a lot of laughing and joking. And Hanks, he's incredible in that he has that thing where he has a true switch. I think it's from an inordinate amount of work and an equal amount of talent, where when it's "action" he can just go [sound effect] and it's laser like. And you sort of go [startled noise]. Because three seconds before, he's telling jokes or having fun. But he has that true switch ability, which I'm very envious of. So we had a great set. Mari set the tone, and it was fun and light, and every day we had a Fred quote on the call sheet. Everyone had to read and think about it. And you very quickly realize that it's a true philosophy. He was a philosopher in so many senses. His take and his vision on humanity was incredible.

Did you have a favorite Fred quote?
The biggest one was that "if it's mentionable, it's manageable." It is so true. If you can actually just say something, it's your first step to addressing it and processing it. He takes the sting out of the giant by going, first of all, you just say it, and then you can manage it. But you have to say it.

You mentioned the Hanks "switch." But I remember observing on The Americans set that you could switch in and out of the dialect really quickly. Do you feel like you have a switch?
It's different to me in that it took a number of seasons before you can have the switch, because then your character's grounded, you're bedded in, you're very comfortable with surroundings, the crew. But to do it on a movie is different. You have a very short amount of time. So I was all like [panicked noises]. But he's just like [snaps]. But he's the movie star, so this is what he's done for 40 years. So he knows the process better than anyone on set.

The structure is interesting. It's not the Mister Rogers movie I think some people are expecting. It's not a biopic. How would you frame it?
They said, Tom Hanks is playing Mister Rogers. This was before I read script. So I thought, "Alright, it's a biopic." Then you read it and you go, "This is a much bigger part than I thought. Oh god." But what I realized very quickly in getting to Pittsburgh is Tom -- [Rhys corrects himself] -- Fred did this with hundreds if not thousands of people. He would take them for a moment and do his best to help them on their way. He sent thousands of handwritten letters in checking up with people. His wife, still, to this day continues this mantle, still checks in with all these people. It's incredible. What I saw was Lloyd's story is a kind of vehicle to show what Fred did. One moment of Fred's life is what Fred did his entire life. They took one story of Fred's life and went, "This is what he did throughout his life." If you truly want to understand an element of what he did, you take one person and see how he transformed them. That's the conduit.

You didn't grow up with Fred Rogers. Was there a children's entertainer that you had any sort of Fred Rogers-like connection with?
No, not really. Having watched so much Fred now, looking back I go, "God, we had nothing like that. In that you had someone who trained as a child psychologist. He was approaching children's entertainment from that perspective. And you go, "Why didn't we have one of those?" How instrumental that he was aiding children to deal with divorce or war or bullying or death. All the big things that terrify kids: Being alone or feeling inferior. He was serving society in a greater sense. Because if you arm children with the necessary tools to hopefully live a better life, you're only making society better.

Why was it important for you to really sort of investigate Fred yourself given that you're playing someone who is investigating him? 
: I probably started diving more into Fred from a personal point of view, because I became intrigued by him. And then you really learn about what he was trying to do and when you watch him, with those kinds of principles, you kind of go, "Oh my god, he was a real visionary of his time." And then, likeI said, maybe just selfishly as a father, in a way he very much aids parents. By going, I think this is what children are and they want and they need. And then you kind of go, "Oh my god, I don't do that." You sort of start picking yourself apart. So selfishly, I started watching Fred longer than I should, just for my own selfish needs. But I was interested, because obviously Lloyd would have a very immediate reaction to being told that he was going to interview Fred Rogers. I wanted to feel like I knew him before. It was a little bit of both. That I wanted to know a lot about him, but also I became intrigued by him.

You mentioned that some people sort of roll their eyes at the mention of Fred Rogers. Did that seep in at all as you started researching him or were you initially enchanted? 
Truly initially when the script came, and I said to [my partner] Keri [Russell], "Did you ever watch Fred Rogers?" She's like, "Oh my God, Mister Rogers, yeah. He's a huge part of my life." So I immediately put it on, and then you go, "What? What is this?" And then you start reading about him, and Keri really informed me about what he meant to her, and you went, "Oh, he really touched an inordinate amount of people." So yeah, I had that thing whereby my initial reaction was like: This is some weird kind of community funded programming. And it's only when you realize what he's trying to do, you kind of fall in love with him.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.