The Rogers family was around on set?
Rhys: Very much.
What was that like?
Rhys: 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.
Rhys: 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?
Rhys: 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?
Rhys: 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?
Rhys: 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?
Rhys: 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?
Rhys: 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?
Rhys: 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.