Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister turned children’s TV host who hosted Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for over three decades, is having something of a moment right now.
Rogers himself passed away in 2003, but two movies have popped up in the past two years that have brought renewed attention to his work and his legacy: last year, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? became one of the highest-grossing non-musical, non-nature documentaries of all time; and now, Tom Hanks is playing Rogers in a dramatic film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and is set to open across North America on November 22.
The new film is based, in part, on ‘Can You Say… Hero?’, a 1998 Esquire article written by Tom Junod — and unlike the documentary, which explored Rogers’ personal background and the social implications of his work, the new film focuses on Rogers’ relationship with a fictitious journalist (played by Matthew Rhys and loosely based on Junod) and how the journalist finds healing through Rogers’ message of empathy and kindness.
I had a chance to speak to Junod by phone a few weeks before the new film comes out. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
I didn’t read your article until after I had seen the film. In the film, the character, Lloyd Vogel, is clearly not technically you, but I’ve read that he’s sort of based on you or a version of you, but there’s actually not a lot about you in the article, and the film kind of led me to think that there might be. Can you talk about how involved you were in developing the film, if at all? And to what extent the character in the film might actually resemble you or be based on you, and to what degree he might be sort of purely fictitious?
Junod: Yeah, I mean, the story that I wrote is essentially plotless, right? And other than Old Rabbit, I don’t know if there’s any back-story, really, provided at all. It’s all pretty much in the moment. So in order for there to be a back-story, Micah [Fitzerman-Blue] and Noah [Harpster], the screenwriters, approached me, and I went out to California and spent two solid days with them, basically, just talking about my life. So in terms of the character, I would say that the character is based on me, even to the extent that– Last year, I went to the set in Pittsburgh and met with Matthew Rhys, and we talked for a couple of hours, and seeing Matthew on the screen is to realize that when he is playing Lloyd Vogel, he is playing me.
So there’s definitely aspects of my character and my back-story that are in the movie, and I definitely consulted with the screenwriters and the producers on all of the drafts for the story, but I asked them to change my name for a reason, because some very essential facts, especially those regarding my family, have been changed in the plot. So I had a complicated relationship with my dad, but I never got into a fight with my dad at my sister’s wedding. My wife and I adopted our daughter Nia the same year that Fred died – Fred died in February 2003, and we adopted Nia in January of 2004 – whereas Lloyd and Andrea in the movie have a two-year-old son named Gavin. So those things are pretty basic, and that’s what led me to ask for the Tom Junod character to be Lloyd Vogel.
I’ve read other interviews with Mister Rogers where something very similar to what comes up in your article comes up – his tendency to want to interview the person who is interviewing him. So is it safe to assume that these aspects of your life story were something he was aware of?
Junod: They were the things that he got to know. We didn’t only meet each other for the story and interact with each other for the story. This past summer I went to my attic and I got an old laptop that had been baking up there for 20 years, and I went to a place that does data recovery and found 70 e-mails from the first year that I knew Fred alone, that were exchanged between Fred and I. Those were 70 e-mails from him, and I’m sure I wrote him 70 in return. But we’d talk about those things. We’d talk about a lot of different things and a lot of different aspects of my life, including my dad. So, yeah, you mentioned that with a lot of people he acted like this, and that has made it kind of easier for me to just say there are some variations in my life and in Lloyd Vogel’s life, but it still sort of represented me, and I look at that character as representative not just of me but of a lot of people that he had those relationships with. I’m certainly not the only one.
There’s a scene where he is praying at his bedside and is mentioning a bunch of different people by name, and I know that he did that, because he told me he did that. He prayed not only for me, he prayed for my wife, he prayed for my niece who was going through some difficult times back then, and he kept open this ministerial relationship with me, but he also kept open a ministerial relationship with a lot of other people as well.
You mentioned that you were speaking to the screenwriters for a couple of days. How would you compare being interviewed by them to having Fred interview you, as it were, about your personal story?
Junod: Well, you know, they’re not Presbyterian ministers! So there’s a difference there. The outcome that they were looking for was a film script. The outcome that Fred was looking for is still a little bit vague to me, but I think ultimately Fred wanted me to see something in myself, maybe something that he saw. I know why Micah and Noah interviewed me, and I know why we got along, and I love the script that they wound up writing. But I don’t know exactly why Fred took such an interest in me, and I don’t know of anybody who has had that experience with Fred and knew why Fred took an interest in them, other than that’s kind of what he did. I mean, one of the things that really struck me when I read all the e-mails this summer – and I was fantastically moved by them, because they brought me back to that time – but the other thing is that he was tireless when it came to that. So his purposes were somewhat obscure, but I would say that they were obscure to everybody but him. He did what he knew, and kind of worked his magic accordingly.
What do you make of the fact that the film is so much about the journalist who’s covering him? Some people might come to the film expecting a more traditional sort of biopic. Would you even say that Fred is necessarily the main character in the film, or is it perhaps the Lloyd Vogel character – do you know what I mean? Whose story is it?
Junod: I know exactly what you mean. I mean, the film doesn’t exist without Fred, but I think that the story that moves the viewer through it is the Lloyd story. So, yeah, you’re right.
How do you feel about that? As one who wrote about Fred and reported on him, do you feel there should have been more about Fred in the film? How do you feel about the balance, the mixture of the two?
Junod: Two things: Number one, just as a genre, I can’t stand biopics. I think that the percentage of biopics that don’t quite hit the mark is probably greater than the percentage of biopics that do. I can name a handful of disappointing biopics, so I think that avoiding that is probably a wise course, because the intensity of Fred’s life, within his relationships with people, it wasn’t a back-story. And he didn’t talk about himself. He really didn’t. He took me to Latrobe, and he showed me his parents’ grave – he showed me his family mausoleum – and it felt like he talked about his childhood that much. He was really, in his own really quiet way, he was a demonstrative person, and everything that he did, thought about, to the maximum extent of his beliefs, were found in his relationships with people, not in his back-story. So I think that they made a really wise choice, when it comes to this movie. The other thing is that there is – and nobody of course knew this when they were in pre-production for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood – but Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was a brilliant documentary that came out in the summer of 2018, and it sort of serves as a bookend to this movie. It’s the biopic that A Beautiful Day isn’t. And I think they work sort of extraordinarily well together.
Junod: Hmmm, no, because, I mean, meeting Fred was, like, disorienting. The 143 thing, you rubbed your eyes because you couldn’t quite believe it. It seemed like a superpower, you know? And there are so many things that happened in my time with Fred that— I was continually thrown off-stride, and he seemed continually a step ahead, or a move ahead, and that was my experience with Fred. Would I have liked to see the 143 thing in this movie? I mean, yes and no. Yes, in that I think it’s amazing, but at the same time, the experience of 143 was part and parcel of the experience that is so well documented in the movie that’s so part of its grain, which is of Lloyd being thrown off-stride and being moved very very purposefully by Fred towards a certain end. And to me that’s what the movie is about, and that’s what my experience was about. It wasn’t about the particulars, it was everything.
In the documentary, you raise the question about whether or not Fred succeeded in changing the world or in getting the world to slow down and so forth. Are these films trying to help achieve or continue his success, or at least work toward the success he was working towards?
Junod: I think that they are reminders – both films – and you have to ask yourself, “Why Fred? Why now?” And I think that he is a reminder of so much that we’ve lost. So you can look at that in two ways: You can say, okay, he is a reminder that we have lost so much, but he is also a reminder of what can be gained, and what’s good enough. I have an essay on Fred coming out in The Atlantic – I guess it’s going to be in their December issue in print, but I think it’s coming out around November 7 online – but that’s what I wrote about, is this question of “Why Fred? Why now?” And how would Fred respond to Twitter, and how would Fred respond to the political polarization, and all those questions. So those are the things I take on in that essay. But I think the answer is what I just said: the answer is he’s a reminder of what we’ve lost, and he’s also a reminder of what can be gained.
Do you have a favorite moment in the film – a moment that really captures what Mister Rogers was all about?
Junod: Well, there’s remarkable moments in the film all around. I’ve seen the film twice. When I saw it the first time in the summer, I saw it completely by myself at a screening room in New York, and I was overwhelmed. I was overwhelmed with the experience of it, I was overwhelmed by seeing some version of myself on the screen, I was overwhelmed by being thrown back into that world and being thrown back into who I was back then, so all those things really really hit me super super hard. But I don’t know if I really took in the film as much as I did just recently when I saw the film with an audience, and when I saw the film with an audience, I was struck by how much the film asked of its audience, how quietly audacious it is, and the risks that it takes. And so of all of those things, the thing that really affected me the most is the minute of silence, because not only does the character of Fred ask the character of Lloyd Vogel for a minute of silence, but the character of Fred asks the audience for a minute of silence. And when you see the movie with an audience, you feel each tick of the clock. So just as a feat of moviemaking and interactive moviemaking, that just kind of blew me away.
The minute of silence was definitely a standout for me, too. Comparing the two films, it seemed to me that the documentary was very concerned with the social effects of the TV show and so forth, but the dramatic film seemed a lot more personal. Does that make sense to you? Is there a difference of emphasis there?
Junod: Yes, I think that makes a lot of sense, but I think the thing with Fred is that he really dealt with one person at a time. I think that all of his social goals and objectives were attained one person at a time. So I think that the personal is the foundation of everything that Fred did. That’s what I think the movie really excels at.
The film is getting a push towards religious audiences through Affirm Films and so forth, and your article ends with the prayer, and there is prayer in the film, but do you feel that that element could have been more pronounced in the film? Or how do you feel about its representation in the film?
Junod: I knew Fred and talked with Fred a lot over the four years that I knew him, and we corresponded a lot, and his correspondence with me was much more spiritual in nature than my face-to-face discussions with him. But he never proselytized. I don’t think that he ever— He mentioned God a lot, but he never mentioned — and I might be not remembering something — but I don’t remember him ever mentioning Jesus. As far as the spirituality of Fred, the movie is completely, completely representative of that, and accurately representative. And to the question of whether the movie goes there enough, I can’t think of the last movie that shows anybody kneeling beside their bed and looking at scripture and saying, “Thank you, God.” It’s one of my favorite things in the movie because I think it definitely witnesses to the very essence of Fred’s spirituality and his love for God. So yeah, I think it’s extremely accurate that way.
— The photo above shows Tom Junod, Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys at the world premiere of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood in Toronto. The film comes to theatres across North America November 22.