Nicholas Ma Tells the Story of Fred Rogers in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
Nicholas Ma appeared on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood twice as a child with his father, cellist Yo Yo Ma. Now he has produced a documentary called Won’t You Be My Neighbor? about Fred Rogers. It is a deeply moving tribute not just to the beloved PBS star but to kindness, patience, and listening. For our interview, Ma greeted me wearing a Mr. Rogers-style sweater and a Mr. Rogers-style neighborly welcome.
What was it like to go on the show?
So you’re watching television and you see a guy who is about six inches big and you are transfixed (at least my sister and I were) and then to have the opportunity to meet him is sort of heady and when you get there and he is 6 feet tall or something and he is three dimensional and in color it really takes you by surprise. I was very scared. It was one of those quintessentially Fred moments of grace where he just took his time. He didn’t come rushing up to me to say hello or anything. He let me find my way to him in my own time. Probably much to the annoyance of the producers it took me a little while to get comfortable and really understand how to approach him as a person and not just to listen to him as a neighbor on television.
I was very excited about this piece of music that I was going to play on the show with my dad — it’s my favorite thing in the world. The only two times I’ve ever performed publicly with my dad were on Mister Rogers and I think only he could’ve convinced me to do it. I just remember a feeling that he gets inside your personal space a little bit.
Right, your father said that, too, in the movie.
Yes, it is something he and I both talk about. It’s this very firm request to be vulnerable because inside that space to be anything other than vulnerable is really hard. And there’s something beautiful and scary about that but I think it’s one of those little hints at the intensity that he wielded as a person.
Do you think he was more vulnerable with children than he was with adults?
I think he was very able to be vulnerable. But I think he was also very deliberate. We think of vulnerability as being out of control but I think he felt that being vulnerable was a place he could still feel in control…