The turning point

Wendy Makkena on Tom Hanks, Chris Cooper and Matthew Rhys in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Wendy Makkena is Dorothy in Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers with Chris Cooper, Matthew Rhys, and Susan Kelechi Watson
Wendy Makkena is Dorothy in Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers with Chris Cooper, Matthew Rhys, and Susan Kelechi Watson Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In 2018, Morgan Neville’s magnificent and devastatingly timely documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor? was a big success, reminding us of Fred Rogers’ humanist ideas and emotional learning. Marielle Heller's A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, screenplay by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, based on Tom Junod's 1998 Esquire Mister Rogers profile, Can You Say…Hero?, braids the fictional family story of journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) together with his life-changing encounter with the iconic children's program host, played superbly by Tom Hanks.

Wendy Makkena, playing Dorothy, on Chris Cooper as Jerry: “He's heartbreaking.”
Wendy Makkena, playing Dorothy, on Chris Cooper as Jerry: “He's heartbreaking.”

Lloyd's attitude towards work and private life is bound to his estranged relationship with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper), who years ago abandoned Lloyd's dying mother. When Jerry pops up at Lloyd's sister's wedding and performs a drunken love song in an attempt to reconnect, hell opens up again, not only for Lloyd, but also for his wife Andrea [Susan Kelechi Watson] and their baby.

Jerry, who is dying, wants to introduce his children to Dorothy (Wendy Makkena), the woman he spent the last 15 years with. Dressed in low-cut animal prints and full makeup, she hugs and cradles and protects her man at any occasion. It is clear that she did her best to try to be his everything. Instead of competing with Jerry's children, she seems to want them to reconcile.

In A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, Tom Hanks masters the art of slowing us down the way Mister Rogers did. The moments of calm, silence, reflection are the most powerful in the film - as if in a realisation that tapping into our common humanity had become a long forgotten magic trick from the old century, albeit one we desperately need for survival.

Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers in Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood
Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers in Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood

At Sony in New York, Wendy Makkena joined me for a conversation on her role in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood.

Anne-Katrin Titze: We sit with Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth on the wall.

Wendy Makkena: That's really good company.

AKT: It doesn't get any better. I want to start with your relationship to Mister Rogers. Did you watch his show [Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood]? How familiar were you when the script came your way?

WM: I wasn't familiar as a kid, but when my daughter was little I was one of those parents who didn't want her to watch really fast cutting, fast-paced things. So this poor kid, I only had her watch Teletubbies and Mister Rogers. I remember I was in the kitchen while she was watching TV and my ears would perk up and I would watch. And then I would watch more than I would have wanted to watch. And I just thought, is this guy for real? I also watched how he was with kids. All I could think of was, he's so present. And of course I found out that he talked about presence a lot.

Wendy Makkena on Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers: “Connecting with your inner child again.”
Wendy Makkena on Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers: “Connecting with your inner child again.”

AKT: It's amazing to look at the subjects he was tackling, his show right after 9/11, or a week talking about divorce, a week about death.

WM: Racism. Isn't it crazy that nobody, as far as I know, was writing about it? Mister Rogers - a prophet.

AKT: The world we live in right now, where do you find kindness?

WM: I have to tell you, on the red carpet, one of the journalists stopped me and said "i have one question for you, why is kindness important?" And I was taken aback and almost got a little sarcastic like "Really? That's a question? Because the opposite's kind of crappy."

AKT: I'm curious, was it a man or a woman who asked you that?

WM: It was a woman. I remember thinking what kind of a crazy question is that. The fact that we're asking that question is why kindness is important. Have we gotten that far?

Tom Hanks in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood cinema ballyhoo
Tom Hanks in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood cinema ballyhoo Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: I think so, yes, we have. Did you see Morgan Neville's wonderful documentary on Mister Rogers last year?

WM: Yes, I did. I was blown away.

AKT: Did you watch it before preparing for your role?

WM: I did not. I wanted a callback so badly. I wanted to check him out and then I watched it.

AKT: Most of your scenes are with Chris Cooper. You have a few moments, where it's almost like a Pietà. You are cradling him, holding him. You are not playing the Virgin Mary, but he is held by you. Is that the core of Dorothy?

WM: Yeah. Thank you for asking that question. She's present, but it's not a big role. I always wonder when I do smaller roles we fill in what we think is really going on. My imagination was, she's in that old, beat-up Cadillac in that alleyway, sunk down so that she can't be seen, saying to Chris Cooper "Go, go ahead, it's okay, talk to him."

I think Dorothy sees something in Jerry [Cooper] that Jerry didn't see in himself. I think Mister Rogers [Tom Hanks] saw something in Lloyd, that Lloyd didn't see in himself. Andrea [Susan Kelechi Watson], Lloyd's wife saw something in him that he didn't see in himself. That's another recurring theme. And about Dorothy, there is a line where he says "She saved my life."

AKT: 15 years is the length of their relationship?

WM: Yeah. And she has no family that we know of. She just has Jerry and Jerry has her. And when Jerry passes away, she inherits this family.

Tom Hanks is magical as Mister Rogers
Tom Hanks is magical as Mister Rogers Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: She's in the picture. The girl stays in the picture.

WM: Not that this was her intention. I have to tell you, when Chris Cooper has the wedding scene and he is singing …

AKT: … that Frank and Nancy Sinatra song [Somethin’ Stupid]?

WM: I was sitting at the table and that scene's not about me at all. They didn't even cover me, you just catch a little glimpse of me - every time he did a take, I was weeping, because he's that good. He's heartbreaking. I think that's probably what Dorothy thought about him too.

AKT: I knew I would be talking to you, so I wondered, where is Dorothy? And then you get a proper introduction. "Let me introduce Dorothy" says Jerry. But of course Mister Rogers isn't present when that happens. I thought, the real Mister Rogers would have asked your name.

WM: Oh, that's a good point! We have to add another scene.

Wendy Makkena on Chris Cooper: “I think Dorothy sees something in Jerry that Jerry didn't see in himself.”
Wendy Makkena on Chris Cooper: “I think Dorothy sees something in Jerry that Jerry didn't see in himself.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: He's greeting the baby, he knows everybody else's name. The real Mister Rogers would have gone up to you.

WM: That's a really good point. I never thought of that.

AKT: Did you have a special friend growing up? [Mister Rogers asks Lloyd, the journalist in the film, that question, and so did the real Mister Rogers to Tom Junod.]

WM: You mean like a little …

AKT:toy?

WM: I did. It was a sow, a little pig. It was an orange pig. It had eight little snaps on its belly, which were supposed to be nipples. And there were eight tiny baby pigs that had the other part of the snap. They snapped onto the mom so that the baby pigs could suckle. It was this interactive pig and I used to carry it around with all the little baby piglets.

AKT: And you never lost one?

WM: I never lost one. I haven't thought about this in a really long time. Oh my gosh.

AKT: Did the pig have a name?

Tom Hanks with the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood trolley in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood
Tom Hanks with the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood trolley in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

WM: I don't remember. I'm sorry, Pig, wherever you are! It was a great toy. They were all stuffed and very soft and very orange.

AKT: It's a way in to connect with another person. This is how Mister Rogers did it.

WM: Connecting with your inner child again.

AKT: And the things we loved. And the people we loved. The moment of silence is so strong, where he asks to think about the people who "loved us into being."

WM: That's actually my favourite scene in the film. The other thing you just said, which is so interesting, is that that's - and you know this because you're so so smart - the turning point in the film. When Mister Rogers says "Did you have a stuffed animal? Did you have a special friend?"

And Matthew Rhys [as Lloyd] who's just so brilliant - you watch him remember that he had a rabbit. At first it's sort of like, "Yeah, I guess I had some rabbit." And then you watch him go through remembering the rabbit, like a sense memory thing. That was the turning point for Matthew Rhys in the film, for Lloyd.

AKT: And that's the beginning of the Esquire article. Old Rabbit and the idea of the friends we had when we were little. The film shows it well how you need an entryway to the kindness of another person. We have such thick facades, so many barriers, especially now with all the screens.

WM: Barriers to entry within ourselves. Social media, all the things we put on.

Matthew Rhys is Lloyd and Susan Kelechi Watson is his wife Andrea
Matthew Rhys is Lloyd and Susan Kelechi Watson is his wife Andrea Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: We don't talk about things like that wonderful pig that I now can imagine very well. Your name in the film is Dorothy.

WM: It's real old-fashioned, isn't it?

AKT: The Dorothy most people would think of is the one from Wizard of Oz. It is about children's shows after all, so maybe not such a coincidence. Were you yourself named after Wendy from Peter Pan?

WM: I was. You connect the dots really well. Yes, and my brother's name is Peter.

AKT: Your mother …

WM: …. my mother had a sense of whimsy. My mother loved children's books. I still have every children's book that I read and some I gave to my daughter.

AKT: Did you have a favourite? Probably not Peter Pan?

WM: No. Though I did love Peter Pan as a kid. I do have a favourite. I love Are You My Mother? About a little bird that falls out of a nest and loses its mother and then goes around town. It goes to a tractor-trailer and goes "Are you my mother?" And the tractor-trailer goes "Snort". And I loved Pat, the Bunny. I love anything about Christmas.

AKT: The wish fulfilment is interesting in the film, when Jerry is dying. To have someone say "I was selfish and cruel." To hear a parent say that, admit that - it is a wish fulfilment that doesn't happen very often.

WM: Closure.

Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks) greets journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys)
Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks) greets journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys)

AKT: That he admits to it was very strong.

WM: I thought it was very powerful. Although it seems that some closure in him had already happened before Lloyd says that. And when they cut to Matthew, you see that he still needed that in a really big way. He doesn't need to say "Thanks, Dad, I needed that." You just see it in his face.

AKT: From certain people we really crave that.

WM: And when you're my age. Most people my age, have walked two parents home, as I like to say. And I certainly craved it. Luckily for me, I did have that closure.

AKT: That's great. Totally different subject to close this interview. The zebra top you are wearing in the film - I like to ask actors how much the clothing helps them to get into the character. Every time I talk with Isabelle Huppert, we talk about shoes. She says it's always the shoes for her.

WM: It is everything! I can't say it enough. I teach acting as well, and I teach character work. How to get in. What is your way in? As you just started this, what's your way in? Every actor's different. For some it's the script. My way in is clothing, is behaviour. How does this character sit? How do they talk and look.

Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks) with Daniel Striped Tiger
Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks) with Daniel Striped Tiger

I once had a director say to me "You're having trouble with this scene." I said "I know." I had to age from a 20-year-old to a 50-year-old, when I was about 30. I didn't know how to do the 50-year-old. He said "What do you need?" I said "I need shoes and I need underwear." "What?" "I need different shoes and different underwear." He thought I was crazy. That's just my way in. And he was a great director and he said to the wardrobe people "Get her whatever she needs." Once they changed my outfit, my brain changed.

AKT: I saw in your list of films The Bling Ring. That was not the Sofia Coppola Bling Ring.

WM: Oh no, that was a different thing. I just remembered my favourite children's book. I think it's called We're Going On A Bear Hunt. It's about a family that's trying to go on a bear hunt and they get to those obstacles - there's a boulder, there's a river. And the dad says to the kids "Well, we can't go over it, we can't go under it, so we have to go through it." And it's a metaphor for …

AKT: Life.

WM: Life! You have to go through obstacles.

A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood opens in the US on November 22 and in the UK on January 31, 2020.

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