Among the most wonderful things in Brian Percival’s film adaptation of The Book Thief is the relationship that forms between a courageous young girl named Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) and her foster father, Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush).
Liesel has just been sent to Germany as World War II is about to break out. While many make her feel like a stranger to their hometown, Hans tries to make her feel as welcome as possible. Pretty soon he is teaching her how to read and she begins keeping a vocabulary of all the words she learns.
When the country is thrust into war, things change rapidly as the Nazis begin burning books and the Hubermanns lend shelter to Max, a Jewish refugee whose father saved Hans’ life during World War I. From there, both Max and Liesel form a friendship that is bound by their love of words, and Liesel finds solace in books to the point where she steals them not just for herself, but to share with others as well.
Last week we had the chance to catch up with Sophie and Geoffrey when they appeared together at The Book Thief press conference at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. While there they discussed at length several topics, including what it was like working together, how much fun they had on set despite the serious subject matter, if they had read the book before shooting began and much more.
Check it out below and enjoy!
When you started working together, what surprised each of you about the other person?
Sophie Nélisse: At the beginning I had no idea who Geoffrey was. My friends would ask me, “So do you know who you are playing with?” I said Geoffrey Rush and they said, “Who’s that?” So nobody knew, but my mom told me that apparently he could act (laughs). Then I watched Shine and yes, he could act. He’s amazing in this and he’s just so good. I felt honored to play with such a great actor. I was so happy, and then I was a bit scared because, after only seeing him in Shine and Pirates of the Caribbean, I wondered, “What if he’s really crazy?” Oh, I saw Quills also, but I only saw the two minutes where he gets naked. That’s the only part I saw (laughs). I was at the Mill Valley Film Festival.
Geoffrey Rush: They showed clips from my films. But when I got up onstage to be interviewed, I just went, “Sorry Soph.”
Sophie Nélisse: I was a bit scared, but he’s just amazing. We had a lot of fun and I was just surprised that he was sort of like me. I’m not as experienced as him obviously, but he was just such a good actor. He just gets in and out of his character so easily and does the scene perfectly, and he would just be doing something in the basement, run upstairs, get into character and do the scene perfectly, and then make a magic trick with things in the kitchen. I was really surprised to see that he was the funniest onset.
It was just hilarious shooting with him all the time. We would never rehearse a scene properly. Once we were doing this really, really serious scene and I was laughing so much that I couldn’t even continue. We had to cut because my face was in the soup and I was crying. I couldn’t even speak.
Geoffrey Rush: This is tough material for these kids, you know, and I just felt that I’d never seen anyone at that age have such a natural, beautiful rapport with the lens and be able to delve into such a level of emotional credibility and subtlety as Sophie did. It seemed so effortless for her and there was a kind of gracefulness and a charisma onscreen that’s not showy and not something to decorate the character, just a natural radiance. So I knew that she was going to be extraordinary as Liesel. I had already seen that she had this wonderful range.
You’ve done a lot of theater. Could you see this film or the book being translated well onto the stage?
Geoffrey Rush: I think Steppenwolf in Chicago did a production that Brian and Markus went to see. This was maybe before we were shooting. I don’t know who did the adaptation. Steppenwolf might have done it as an ensemble created piece or something, I’m not sure. It helped Brian a lot. He said it was really, really good but they had adhered more to (which I think is a brilliant stroke of genius in the novel) having the whole story related by death. So they had a narrator present on stage all the way through which Brian kind of thought, “Hmm, I cannot have that in the film because we’ll never get to know the characters.”
I think Brian had a beautiful impact on the film. He’s a working class man from the dockside community who never in a million years dreamed that he would possibly get a scholarship to art school, and I think he identified very strongly the elements of the story with his own personal story. He wanted us to have no melodrama and no sentimentality. If we’d played out the emotions that the audience is supposed to be feeling or whatever, it would’ve killed 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.