Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks is known for both his comedic and dramatic roles in many revered Hollywood films including Big, You’ve Got Mail, Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryan, Cast Away, and Sully. And now, he can add a new role to his impressive resume: Portraying the beloved iconic television personality Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

The film is based on an encounter in 1998 between Rogers and the jaded Esquire journalist Tom Junod played by Matthew Rhys. Indeed, Junod penned the article “Can You Say … Hero?” after several meetings with the PBS children’s television star; much to his own surprise, his cynical attitude gradually melted after spending time with the exceptionally kind, accepting, and understanding Fred Rogers.

“Every person I talked to said when you spoke to Fred, you felt like you were the only person in the world that mattered to him,” Hanks said during a CBS This Morning interview. But Hanks was quick to admit his biggest challenge in portraying the host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: “Slowing down!” he exclaimed. “It was terrifying.” 

In fact, soon after accepting the role, he started having night sweats. “Look, I have played a lot of real people; Fred was a very very public persona. And everybody has an idea of what Fred is, what Fred was like … But the terror that goes along with it is you want to land in a place that people recognize as true human behavior whether you’re playing somebody who’s real or somebody who’s not. And if it’s not authentic, you’re actively lying in an art form that is supposed to be holding the mirror up to nature,” the star explained.

Hanks expanded on this fear during a PBS interview, saying, “For me as an actor, it’s like what are my myriad natural tendencies as a human being that are going to have to be whipped into submission so that I’m not falling into that same brand of cynical presentation. There is a DNA that you sort of have to inject into yourself at the same time that you put on that … red cardigan sweater and blue deck shoes.” 

To prepare for the role, Hanks visited the Fred Rogers Center at Saint Vincent College in Pennsylvania to research the Fred Roger Archives housed there. He watched hundreds of hours of footage of the man both on camera and behind the scenes, adopted a swim routine as the real Rogers used to swim each day. And especially, Hanks had to discipline himself to slow down significantly and learn to incorporate many pauses as he speaks. To do so with authenticity requires tremendous patience and listening skills.

Hoping to capture the pauses Fred Rogers regularly practiced during his conversations, the film’s director Marielle Heller told Variety, “I would push [Hanks and Rhys] I would say, ‘Longer. Wait longer. Sit until you are uncomfortable with how long you have been sitting looking at each other in this moment.”

Some might assume Hanks’ most challenging role would be gaining 50 pounds and then losing it all in four months to play the desperate and isolated Chuck Noland in Cast Away. But Hanks insists portraying Fred Rogers opposite Matthew Rhys’ Junod proved to be “as physically exhausting and physiologically exhausting as any scenes I’ve ever played.”

Critics and audiences alike are praising Hanks’ performance. Indeed,  A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood holds an approval rating of 96-percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

Fred Rogers

But the story doesn’t end there. According to Ancestry.com, Hanks and Rogers are actually related. They share a common ancestor named Johannes Meffert (born 1732). “Fred Rogers and Tom Hanks are sixth cousins sharing the same 5x great-grandfather … who immigrated from Germany to America in the 18th century,” Ancestry spokeswoman Keri Madonna revealed. Hanks, however, accepted the role before being informed about this astonishing relation. “It just all comes together, you see,” Hanks said.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood premiered on November 22 and is in theaters now.

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