NEW YORK—Geoffrey Rush, the Academy-Award winning actor best known for his role as Barbossa in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, has seen it all. He’s worked with Kate Winslet and Johnny Depp, and directors Tom Hooper and Steven Spielberg.
But the ability to lead a feature drama set in World War II, to play a young orphan who deals with a new foster family, to keep a secret about a Jew in the basement of their shabby house in a small town in Germany, and then go off set and do homework in a different language was a talent Rush hadn’t encountered before.
The Book Thief is based on the 2005 bestselling novel by Australian author Markus Zusak. Rush spoke about the achievements of his young co-star, Sophie Nélisse at the Waldorf-Astoria on Monday morning.
“For someone to have… such a natural gift, you question [if] is this something you can train, or is it something you have to have?” he said.
The novel tells a story of an 11-year-old Liesel played by 12-year-old, French-Canadian Nélisse, who is sent to live with foster parents Hans and Rosa, played by Rush and Emily Watson, after her mother gets taken away and her brother dies. Liesel has a hard time at school as classmates discover the girl is illiterate.
“This role is a challenge for anyone, at whatever age,” Rush said. “She completely moved the goal posts onto another part of the field,” he said about Nélisse in terms of how she approached acting.
Liesel quickly finds refuge in words, and wants to learn how to read, which papa Hans encourages. Liesel is a spirited, curious, and intelligent girl, who stands up for herself and has to fight for survival at a very young age.
Rush was impressed with Nélisse’s ability to articulate her character with emotional precision, effortlessness, and grace, and be able to pull off all the “tough-call scenes.”
The young actress, who previously stared in the Academy-award nominated Monsieur Lazhar, bonded with Rush while “mucking around” off-screen.
For her part, Nélisse admired that Rush had a similar quality of being able to go in and out of character on a whim.
“He will be downstairs and playing with I don’t know what, and when they say ‘Rolling’ he’ll run upstairs and go into character and he’ll do a fantastic job, and when they say ‘Cut’ he’ll pick up a spoon and a towel and make a magic trick,” Nélisse said during a press roundtable on Monday.
The key was to be truthful, and tell the story of a simple family dealing with difficult circumstances, without putting on “emotional fireworks” and overdoing it with dramatic acting.
“It’s that lovely quality of mystery, where you can watch her, and because she’s not taking the easy path of heart-string pulling or sentimentality, letting you know that this is a scene that will make you weep,” Rush said.
Rush said he wouldn’t have been able to pull off that kind of performance and articulation at his age, saying that by the time he was 13, he did one-act plays in the school library at lunch time.
“In grade 8 we were just miming Beatles songs and strumming tennis rackets—we weren’t doing a major emotional drama…It’s pretty dazzling,” he said.
Nélisse is also a prolific reader. She not only encourages her friends to read more, she even bought an eReader for her dad last Christmas.
“Reading is important, because for the time that you read, you’re not yourself, you’re in your little bubble… and you get to imagine some things,” she said.
The young actress says that her participation in the film will draw attention to the time period and the historic significance of the Holocaust for kids her age, especially her friends, who will go to see the film.
“Then maybe they’re going to talk more [about Holocaust],” she said.
The Book Thief opens in theaters nationwide on Nov. 8.