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Marielle Heller Praises Tom Hanks’ ‘Amazing’ Transformation Into Mister Rogers for ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’

Fred Rogers may be America’s favorite next-door neighbor, but the actor who portrays him, Tom Hanks, received praise of his own during a special screening of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” on Sunday at the Henry R. Luce Auditorium in New York City.

“It was a special experience, and I think we knew we were witnessing something really amazing,” director Marielle Heller told Variety about Hanks’ on-screen transformation into the man in the iconic red cardigan.

While stepping out on the carpet with her cast — including star Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson and Chris Cooper — Heller reflected on the making of the feel-good movie and the man who inspired it.

“Fred Rogers is the type of role model we don’t have a lot of right now, and we need one,” she said. “I joke that Fred Rogers was the one man that that could make me make a movie about men. I’ve made two other movies that were about women.” Last year, Heller directed “Can You Ever Forgive Me,” which garnered Oscar nominations for Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant.

“But he embodies a type of masculinity that we don’t get to see on the screen very much and that makes a lot of people scared. It’s a sensitive man,” she explained. “There are images in this movie that we don’t get to see in the film very often — men caring for their babies, men crying, men saying they’re sorry to each other. These are things that shouldn’t feel radical, but they do.”

In the theater, Heller took the stage to introduce the film, thanking her cast and crew in the audience. Hanks — sitting with his wife Rita Wilson — stood briefly and waved to the crowd when he was recognized.

“My whole life changed making this movie. It has been a gift. It has been a privilege,” she said. “I am so proud of it and I feel so lucky to be here.”

After the screening, Cinema Society hosted a swanky after-party at Le Bar, where Rhys and Keri Russell held court at a corner VIP table with Katie Couric. The group laughed as the real-life couple handed the news anchor their phone to snap a photo of them snuggling up in front of the sweeping view of the Hudson River.

Across the crowded room, Cooper mingled with writer Tom Junod, whose 1998 Esquire article about Fred Rogers inspired the film. Attendees included Sarah Silverman, Alexander Skarsgård and former Fred Rogers Company CEO Bill Isler.

But the guest of honor was Rogers’ widow Joanne Rogers. The wife of the late television host (who passed away in 2003) graciously shook hands with well-wishers, as she told them with a warm smile that she was “so grateful, so very grateful” for the film to pay “a great tribute” to the legendary life of an American hero.

“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” hits theaters Nov. 22.

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