Rush, Nelisse Steal a Moment in ‘Book Thief’
Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) meets her new foster parents, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) in "The Book Thief." ©20th Century Fox. CR: Jules Heath.

Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) meets her new foster parents, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) in “The Book Thief.” ©20th Century Fox. CR: Jules Heath.

Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—Geoffrey Rush has worked with a lot of talented leading ladies in his day—from Kate Winslet to Cate Blanchett to Charlize Theron—but one of the most enchanting young actresses he has met is Montreal-born adolescent Sophie Nelisse.

The Oscar winning actor says the blond, blue-eyed thespian has a preternatural ability to make the camera come to her. The two co-star in the World War II drama “The Book Thief,” in which he plays the German foster father to a little girl who is enamored with books and words. The drama is based on the Markus Zusak novel, which has been on the New York Times bestseller list for nearly seven years and has been translated into 30 languages.

Living in a tyrannical regime, where Germans can be arrested and hauled off for associating or even being suspected of consorting with Jewish people, the Hubermanns try to scrap by and keep a low profile during the war. But when a young man named Max (Ben Schnetzer) shows up on their doorstep one night seeking refuge, the family risks everything to hide him from the Nazis. It turns out that Hans (Rush) owes his life to Max’s father so he feels both a moral and personal obligation to protect him.

In the meantime, little Liesel (Nelisse) borrows books from the generous but fearful wife of the local burgermeister. As years pass, the war gets closer and closer to their working class neighborhood and the family’s ability to protect their guest becomes even more dangerous.

Rush, of course, is the Australian-born Academy Award winner of 1996’s “Shine.” He also is a Tony and Emmy award winner. Nelisse previously appeared in the 2011 Canadian Academy Award-nominated “Monsieur Lazhar.” She was only 12 when she was cast in “The Book Thief,” but Rush, 62, says the young actress (and one-time prospective Olympic gymnast) was a complete professional. The two recently spoke about their roles in the drama and the friendship they formed on set is evident as they laugh and joke with one another.

Q: What surprised each of you about each other?

Nelisse: At the beginning I had no idea who Geoffrey was. (To Geoffrey) Sorry. Neither did my friends. They’d say, “So who are you playing with?” I’d say, “Geoffrey Rush.” And they’d go, “Who’s that?” My mom told me that apparently he could act. So I watched “Shine” and, I thought, yes he can act. Then I worked with him on this and I felt honored to play with such a great actor. Also, he won an Oscar. I was so happy but I was a bit scared because I’d only seen “Shine” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” (where he played Captain Barbossa). Oh, and I saw “Quills.” It was just two minutes of it—the scene where he gets naked.

Rush: They showed clips from my films at the Mill Valley Film Festival.

Nelisse: Then I saw him drop the towel, and went, “Hmmm. Interesting.”

Rush: I got up on stage and said, “Sorry. Soph.”

Nelisse: So I was a bit scared (to work with him). But, no, he’s just amazing. We had a lot of fun. I was surprised he was sort of like me. I’m not as experienced as him, obviously. But he is just such a good actor. He gets in and out of his character so easily and does the scene just perfectly. He would be doing something in the basement, run upstairs, get into character and do the scene perfectly and then make a magic trick with things from the kitchen. I was surprised that he was the funniest person on set. Even if the scene were about a really hard subject, we would have so much fun. I don’t think it’s a job for him; it’s just fun and he’s perfect.

Q: Geoffrey, what did you think of Sophie?

Rush: I saw “Monsieur Lazhar” which Sophie shot when she was 10. It was comparably tough material for a kid. I’ve never seen anyone of that age have such a natural, beautiful rapport with a lens and to be able to delve into such a level of emotional credibility and subtlety and so effortless and with a kind of gracefulness, a charisma on screen that’s not showy and not something to decorate the character but just a natural that radiates. So I knew that she was going to be extraordinary as Liesel in a much bigger part. I’d already seen that she had this wonderful range. We had some rehearsal, but she had more time with Nico (Liersch), who plays (the neighbor boy) Rudy, because their scenes were quite complicated.

Q: How was it working in Berlin?

Rush: It was so cold there that the paint on the walls of the backlot froze and peeled off. We had to go into the studio for a month. We shot all of the scenes in the kitchen, which was a good happy accident because it gave Emily (Watson, who plays Hans’ wife Rosa) and I some time to find our way through the backstory of marriage. Brian (Percival, the director) really wanted accuracy of day-to-day details. So I got to know Sophie and (her character) Liesel at the same time. It was good for me, as an actor, to have this sense of empathy. I thought, “What’s this young girl going through on this picture? She seems really good and assured and she’s not too stressed.” So, I always used to play games with her. I set her to the task of putting her fingers on a table (he demonstrates a finger tapping game, and she joins him) like that. Then you’ve got to change them (faster and faster as they both demonstrate). It’s a left and right brain thing. I just kind of wanted to throw a little stuff we could play with.

Q: Did you read the book before you got the part?

Nelisse: In my first audition, I hadn’t read the book or the script, so I went in unprepared. On the plane to my second audition, I read the script. It was the first time a script made me cry. I thought to myself, “I really want to do this movie. It’s really good.” So my third audition I started to read the book. I only got through the first 20 pages in French. I didn’t want to read the book because it would get confusing for me. I guess I could have noted which was which 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 then it was summer, and I really didn’t feel like reading a book during the summer. So I read it about a month ago in English. It’s 580 pages, and I read it in English in only a month, which is good for me. As I read the book, I would see Geoffrey as Hans and Emily (Watson) as Rosa. I wish I had read the book before so I would have my own perceptions of the scenes. Now I know that if I ever do a next movie based on a book I’ll read it before.

Q: How about you, Geoffrey?

Rush: Shamefully, I hadn’t heard of the book even though Markus is an Australian author. So I read the screenplay and instantly went to the book. I thought it was a phenomenal, rich piece of writing. But it is a novel. The screenplay is different in its ideas and narration of Death. It can take the non-dialogue parts of the story into a philosophical terrain. My teenaged daughter said to me, “I’ve seen ‘The Book Thief’ script on your desk. Are you going to be in it?” And I said, “Yes. They are offering me the part.” And she said, “Oh, are you going to be Death (who narrates the film)?” Everyone is a casting director in my house. I said, “No, they want me to play the father Hans Hubermann.” She said, “We all read this book when we were in year ten (at school) as 15 year olds, and that book changed our lives.” I thought, “Wow,” firstly because she used the work “book” in a sentence—I found that pretty wild—but that it changed her life. I can understand why it’s so popular because the language in the book is like James Joyce and Laurence Stern. I know why teenage kids got into it because it’s also like Lemony Snicket—the playfulness and structure—all of that. The words bounce around and he uses curious metaphors.

Q: What were the toughest scenes for you?

Nelisse: It wasn’t the last day but it was the scene of the bombing. I had to cry all day. It was kind of fun because it was a challenge for me. At the end, I was really proud of myself but it was just so depressing and awkward at the same time because I had to kiss Nico. I just didn’t like it at all. We were like brother and sister. I thought, “I can’t believe we’re doing this.” We usually talked all the time but that day we didn’t exchange a word. I kissed him twice during the scene because I had to. And they only used one of the takes. It was awkward when we were doing it but for the rest of the day, it was fine. I was really happy he was there because he’s so joyful. Even if you were really tired, he’d be jumping around. It was hard, though, when I had to cry and he’d be jumping around. I’d say to him, “Nico, I’m trying to cry here so go jump somewhere else.” At the end of the day, he’d be there waiting for me and we’d go watch “America’s Next Top Model.”

Rush: There was nothing I found specifically tough. The day that impacted me the most was the day when we did Liesel’s arrival in the snow. One day it was snowing and the next day it wasn’t so they had to bring out the machines.

Q: What surprised you about Sophie?

Rush: I’ve acted for a while. It’s coming up on 20 years in film after 25 years on stage. I’ve worked opposite some really interesting people that I respect and admire. On this role, I was really attracted to it because of its lack of flamboyance and its quiet, 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 her. So I really looked forward to even the tough scenes of having to explain to (her character) who Max was and that we could die hiding him. I could feel her processing the burden of what the family had to do. In a way, I was always projecting my own daughter at 12 or 13 even though I was getting a beautiful response from Sophie. After we did all the backlot stuff we did some location shooting and going off in the truck and to the train station. In the meantime, the art department came in and “bombed” Himmel Street. When Emily and I walked on the set that day, we just burst into tears. I said to Emily, “We’ve got to do our best in this scene for this girl because she has to have something to work off of.” It was a particularly glary day. I could feel blood moving through the veins in my neck and I was worried the camera would pick it up. Sophie noticed that my ear moved.

Nelisse: I thought it was amazing. I thought it was the best set ever. I didn’t even burst into tears.

Q: I heard you wanted to try out for the Olympics. Are you still involved in gymnastics?

Nelisse: No, that dream kind of failed. If I leave for a month, I can’t go back to gymnastics.