Opening in limited release on November 8th, The Book Thief paints a moving and poignant portrait of the resiliency of the human spirit. Directed by Brian Percival based on Australian author Markus Zusak’s best-selling novel, the film tells the inspiring story of a spirited and courageous young girl named Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), who transforms the lives of everyone around her when she is sent to live with a foster family (Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson) in World War II Germany. The power of words and imagination becomes a source of joy and a means of escape from the tumultuous events enveloping her.
At the film’s recent press day, Rush and Nélisse talked about what surprised them most about each other when they first met, their familiarity with the book when they were cast, how Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company translated the book onto the stage, why Percival approached the film differently, how they tackled the tough scenes and found ways to entertain each other on set, and their upcoming projects: Rush’s adventure fantasy Gods of Egypt and Nélisse’s small role in the biopic Pawn Sacrifice. Rush also revealed why he felt the script was magic and making the movie was a bold choice. Hit the jump to read the interview.
SOPHIE NELISSE: Like you said, at the beginning I had no idea who Geoffrey was. (to Geoffrey) Sorry! When I was visiting my friends, they asked, “Who are you playing with?” and I said, “Geoffrey Rush” and they went, “Who’s that?” My mom told me that apparently he could act. (Laughter) And then, I watched Shine, and yes, he could act. He was just amazing in this and he was so good. I felt honored to play with such a great actor. Also, he won an Oscar. I was so happy. And then, I was a bit scared because I’ve only seen Shine from him, and also Pirates of the Caribbean, and he was a bit crazy in Shine. What if he’s crazy? Oh, I saw Quills also, but only the part, the two minutes when he gets naked. That’s the only thing I saw. I was at the Mill Valley Film Festival.
GEOFFREY RUSH: They showed clips from my films.
NELISSE: And then I just see him and he’s dropping the towel and I just go, “Mmmm…interesting.”
RUSH: When I got up on stage to be interviewed, I just said, “Sorry, Sophie.”
NELISSE: I was a bit scared. But he’s just amazing and we had a lot of fun. I was just surprised that he was sort of like me. I’m not as experienced as him, obviously, but he was such a good actor. I just hadn’t thought he was that good. Well, I’ve seen Shine so actually I did. He gets in and out of his character so easily and does the scene perfectly. He would be doing something in the basement, run upstairs, get into character, do the scene perfectly, and then make a magic trick just with things in the kitchen. I was really surprised to see that he was the funniest on set. We had to make the scenes, and even if it’s a hard subject, we would have so much fun. There’s a funny scene when Max (Ben Schnetzer) vomits the soup, and I ask, “Is he going to be alright?” and then he would say, “Of course….not.”
RUSH: This was only in rehearsal.
NELISSE: It was just hilarious shooting with him all the time. We would never rehearse a scene properly. Once we were doing this very serious scene, and I was laughing so much that I couldn’t even continue. We had to cut because I had my face in the soup and I was crying. I couldn’t even speak. I would go, [spitting out the soup] and I would continue laughing. And that’s how fun he was. But at the same time, he’s fun and serious when he shoots. He does his job amazingly. It’s not a job for him. It’s just really fun and he’s perfect.
Geoffrey, what about her blew you away?
RUSH: Well likewise, I saw Monsieur Lazhar which Sophie shot when she was ten. That film was comparably tough material for those kids. I just felt that I’d never seen anyone of that age have such a natural, beautiful rapport with a lens and be able to delve into such a level of emotional credibility and subtlety and so effortless, with a kind of gracefulness and a charisma on screen that’s not showy and not something to decorate the character, just a natural energy that radiates. I knew that she was going to be extraordinary as Liesel, which is a much bigger part, and really carrying the film. The other thing is that she had this wonderful range. In a way, we had some rehearsal. She and Nico (Liersch) who played Rudy had a little more time together because there scenes were quite compact, and Nico was not at all experienced. I don’t think so. (to Sophie) Had he ever done a feature film?
NELISSE: No. He was really good but he had a bit of trouble speaking English because he’s German, so it’s completely normal. But he did not always understand the scenes quite properly, so I have to say I was a bit scared at the beginning, because he would not stop at the right moment. I’m exaggerating, but he would go, “I miss…my dad. I don’t…even know if…he’s alive.” But I think every day he’d improve so much, and he’s just such a better actor now. He’s great now. He’s perfect for the role, I think.
RUSH: It was so cold in Berlin that the paint on the walls of the backlot set on the street froze and would peel off. So we had to go into the studio for a month. We shot all the scenes in the kitchen, which was actually a good, happy accident, because it gave Emily and myself some time to imagine our way through the backstory of their marriage and talk about their house and what side of the bed do you sleep on, all because Brian (director Brian Percival) really wanted accuracy of the day to day details of what people do, and who would sit where at the kitchen table, and where would she do her washing, and what was most logical and organic. And then, we’d shoot the scene where Sophie would come into that environment as a stranger. All of that was really good. So, in a way, I kind of got to know her. And then, once we’d done all the kitchen scenes, apart from when I’d come back from the war because my hair had to be cut, so we did that right at the end of the shoot, we pretty much had the pieces of the jigsaw from the whole film in the first month out of three or four. We could tell, “Ah, that’s a nice little string of beads,” and then we had to keep filming at all the other locations and all of that. I got to know Sophie and Liesel at the same time in a way. It was good for me as an actor to have a sense of empathy of, “What’s this young girl going through on this big picture? She seems really good and assured. I think she’s not too stressed.” I used to play games with her. I think it was on day one, I set her the task of [demonstrates a hand game requiring dexterity with your fingers]. You have to be on a table and you have to put your fingers on it like that, those two ones out and that one in, and then I said, “Now you’ve got to change them. Now you’ve got to do this.” [He does it faster] She couldn’t do it. And I said, “In two days, you’ll be doing it.” It’s a left-right brain thing. I just wanted to throw a little stuff that we could play with.
Geoffrey, you’ve done a lot of theater. Do you see this film or the book translating well onto the stage?
RUSH: Steppenwolf in Chicago did a production that Brian and Marcus (author Marcus Zusak) went to see. This was maybe before we were shooting. I don’t know who did the adaptation. I think Steppenwolf might have done it as an ensemble creative piece. I’m not sure. It was invaluable. It helped Brian a lot. He said it was really good, but they had adhered more to what I think is a brute stroke of genius in the novel, having the whole story related by death. And they had taken that idea, so they had a wraith present on stage all the way through, but which Brian thought you cannot have that in the film because we’ll never get to know the characters. In the film, it’s got to be her story from the train to the house with grief, with illiteracy, with no mother, with new parents, and there’s Rudy, and all of that playing through. I don’t know what Brian said, but I think he had a beautiful impact on the film. He’s a working class Liverpudlian from a dockside community who never in a million years dreamed that he would possibly get a scholarship to art school, and that happened. I think he identified very strongly elements of this story with his own personal story, and he really wanted us to, and with no melodrama and no sentimentality. If we played out the emotions that the audience is supposed to be feeling, it would kill it. It’s just seeing people entering into a country, into a regime that’s anxiety-ridden, terrorized, oppressed, manipulated, and corrupted by an ideology.
Had either of you read the book beforehand or did you read it during or after production?
NELISSE: I started to read the first 20 pages, because at my first audition I hadn’t read either the book or the script. I went really unprepared. Then, in the plane going to my second audition, because it was in L.A. and I don’t live here — I live in Montreal by the way — I read the script and it was the first time that a script had made me cry. And then, I just thought, “I have to do this movie. It’s really good.” So, for my third audition, I started to read the book. I only got to the first 20 pages in French. I got the part, and I didn’t want to read the book because I didn’t want to get confused saying, “Is this in the book? Is this in the script?” Sometimes you have time, like Geoffrey did, where you can put post-its everywhere saying, “This is in the book, but it’s not in the script and this could help” and things like that. But I didn’t have time. So I said, “I’m going to read it when I’m done shooting.” But then, school was on and everything, and then summer, and I just didn’t feel like reading the book in summer. (Laughs) So I read it about a month ago for a month which was really good for me because 580 pages in a month in English is good for me. I was really happy. I loved the book, but everyone said I should have read the book before, because I’d already seen the shooting of the movie at that point. So it’s like reading myself. Reading it the way I would read the book, I would just see Geoffrey as Hans and I’d see Emily as Rosa. I’d love to read the book to have my own perception of the scenes and everything. Now I know if I ever do a next movie and I have a book, I’ll read it before.
RUSH: Shamefully, I hadn’t heard of the book, even though Marcus is an Australian author. I read the script, and of course, I instantly went to the book as well and thought it was such a phenomenal rich piece of writing, but it is a novel. The screenplay is different in that the idea is in the narration of death that can take the non-dialogue parts of the story into a different, philosophical kind of terrain. I quickly found that because my teenage daughter said, “Dad, I’ve seen The Book Thief script on your desk. Are you going to be in it?” and I said, “Yes. Well, they’re offering me a part” and she said, “Oh. Are you going to be Death?” You know, everyone is a casting director in my house. And I said, “No. The father, Hans Hubermann. Do you know it?” and she said, “Oh yeah, we all read this book when we were in tenth [grade] as 15-year-olds, and that book changed our lives.” I thought, “Wow,” firstly because she used the word “book” in the sentence — I found that pretty wild — and then, the fact that it had changed their lives, and it did. It was always an adult publication, and I think people said it was on the New York Times/Amazon Best Sellers list for years. It’s in 30 languages or more now. But I can understand why, because for me, the language of the book is like James Joyce and Laurence Sterne. I know why teenage kids got into it because it’s also a bit like Lemony Snicket. You know how the playfulness was structured and bouncing words around and curious metaphors and all of that – things that you can’t do in a film. Brian has spoken a lot about that. He said, “I could have done it with chocolate-colored skies where the skies are like burning newspapers.” But then, it would have been like a Ken Russell movie. I don’t know. Not that I don’t like Ken Russell films. Lisztomania is one of my favorites.
Sophie, you spoke about Geoffrey entertaining you even during the tough scenes. What were the tough scenes for each of you?
NELISSE: For me, there was one day in the last week. It was the whole scene when everyone dies and then I had to cry all day. It was fun because it was a challenge for me, and at the end, I was really proud of myself, but it was just so depressing and so awkward at the same time because I had to kiss Nico. It was just not fun. It was just really awkward. I didn’t like it at all. We were like brothers and sisters, and then we’d look at each other and say, “I can’t believe we’re doing this. This is so…” We would speak all the time, but that day we barely exchanged a word. It wasn’t so fun. But at the end, we tried. What happened was that I kissed him twice during this scene because I had to, and they only put it in once. I was like, “Can’t you tell us before I have to do this scene?” because I counted and I kissed him 24 times. I did 12 times in the scene and it was twice. I was like, “If you had told me this before, I would have only kissed him 12 times.” It was awkward when we were doing it, but for the rest of the day it was fine. I was really happy that he was there because he’s so joyful. He brings so much joy to everyone. He’s so cute. And even if you’re really tired, he’d be jumping around non-stop and going, “Hey! You want to do this? You want to do that?” When I had to prepare, I have to admit it was a bit annoying because he’d jump right next to me when I was trying to concentrate. I was like, “Nico, I’m trying to cry here, so could you please go jump somewhere else?” At the end of the day, when I was depressed and so tired, and I was saying, “Oh! I cried all day!,” he would be there, and we would go and watch America’s Next Top Model at 11 o’clock.
NELISSE: When we were done that night, we almost partied, me and Nico, because our big scene was done. The rest of the scenes were not easy scenes, but for us, it was like, “Yeah. Fine.” It was like the scene when he says he misses his dad and he wants to run away. That for us was easy. We were just like, “Oh we did the big parts already. Let’s go and party all night and do our own thing.” We drank 11 cokes and 7-Up and watched three hours of television, so that was really fun. It was a hard day but a fun day.
RUSH: For me, it was nothing specific. I think the day that impacted the most was when we’d spent a lot of time in the studio doing the kitchen. Then the weather got good enough. It was still cold to do Liesel’s arrival in the snow. But one day it was really snowing, so they were able to use natural powdery snow. The next day we still had to do reverse shots and it wasn’t snowing, so they would bring out the machines with whatever it is, potato-based something, which then made a noise and we’d go, “Oh, we’re going to have to loop all of this stuff.” I actually looked forward to it. I’ve acted for a while, and then have now come around to 20 years in film after having 25 years of something on stage, and I’ve worked off some really interesting people, people that I really admire, like Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett, Charlize Theron, Dave Gray, Colin Firth and Johnny.
RUSH: Yeah. But I don’t have to say Depp. You just go, “Johnny.” (Laughter) On this role, I was really attracted to it because of its lack of flamboyance and its quite ordinary quality. Sophie really shifted the goal posts of what I thought screen acting was about. She’s somebody that doesn’t go out to the camera. The camera comes into all of everything that’s going on inside her. So I looked forward to even the tough scenes of having to explain who Max was, where the accordion fits into the story, what you’ve got to do, how we have to lie and we could be killed. To play that to a 12-year-old actress who’s sitting there, and I can feel her processing the burden of what the family now has to do. (to Sophie) I don’t want to upset your feelings, but in a way I was always projecting my own daughter at 12 or 13, even though I was getting a beautiful response. So I really enjoyed those days. But then, after we had done all the backlot stuff, we went off and did some location things and where my truck got off to war and the train station and all of that. In the meantime, the art department came in and bombed Himmel Street. Emily and I, when we walked on the set that day, we just burst into tears.
NELISSE: But I thought it was amazing. I actually thought it was the best set ever. I didn’t burst into tears. I burst into happiness and … but continue. (Laughter)
RUSH: No, that’s it really. There was a very strong day, and I said, “Okay. Pull ourselves together. We’ve got to be dead for this girl because she’s got to have something to work off.” It was a particularly glary day and I could feel the tiniest movements in my body. I could feel blood moving there and I thought, “Oh this is where the camera’s going.” And then, of course, you would pick up on every little bit. You said something like, “I saw your ear move.”
NELISSE: When I think of what I was doing, I actually could be crying and thinking, “Oh, he has less make-up there than there.”
Geoffrey, you’ve played some memorable characters over the years in film. How do you know when there’s a character you want to take on? Is there a moment when you’re reading the script and it just hits you?
RUSH: There is something that goes, “Do me! Do me!” I don’t know what it is, but I certainly know when it’s not there. With Shakespeare in Love, by page four of that script, I said to my agent, I was reading it in her office, and I said, “I have to be in this story.” The wit was great, the world and the playful level. And it’s the same with this. When I read that opening, I was like, “Oh my God, so much has happened on the first page.” And you turn it over, and then, “Oh my God, the mother is gone. She’s been taken to this foster parent home. What’s happening here? He’s playing an accordion.” It was just magic. I went, “This is beautiful!” and to be honest, not the sort of texture of script that’s around too often. I’ve read a lot of them. For Fox 2000 to take this on as a studio, because they’re mostly doing fantastical comic book adaptations, I don’t know. I had worked for Fox Searchlight many years ago with Quills and The Banger Sisters. I knew they’d done the Life of Pi and I knew they’d done The Devil Wears Prada and now they’ve got The Book Thief. I thought, “I can’t work out the house style. What is this team?” But I figured that they’re all bold. They’re brave. They break the mold of what we think could be in the cineplexes, and I think that’s fantastic.
What are you working on next?
RUSH: Now this is the interesting thing about the choice of roles. I have no idea how I’m going to tackle it, but there’s a film coming up called Gods of Egypt, a big, epic mythological story about the ancient gods of Egypt. I’m playing Ra, the Sun God. It’s going to at least give me a certain frisson and thrill to see that on my CV. The script is really good and it will have an epic, magical thing to it. But it’s also very domestic. It’s about fathers and sons in conflict.
NELISSE: I’m touring for a month and I come back the 17th, and I shoot the 18th. I have a small part in a film called Pawn Sacrifice with Tobey Maguire. It’s four days of shooting so it’s a little part. I keep reading scripts and I just see what I like.