During his 40-odd years as an actor, Geoffrey Rush has worked opposite a spectacular array of performers, from Johnny Depp to Colin Firth to Salma Hayek. But in discussing his acting challenges opposite 12-year-old Sophie Nelisse in the Holocaust drama “The Book Thief,” he revealed that there’s apparently only one former costar he might not like to team up with again.
“I knew she could act,” Rush said of Nelisse. “There was no question of going on this film thinking, is it going to be like the monkey in ‘Pirates’?”
Speaking to TheWrap editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman at a screening of the film Thursday evening, Rush said that the young woman’s poise and talent made him feel like his decades of experience were superfluous, even when acting in such weighty material.
“To suddenly work opposite someone who is 12 who was just mind-blowingly focused, graceful, effortless, disciplined, deeply moving, I found it shifted the goalposts for me for what I thought acting was about,” he revealed. “She had a purity of just being on screen, and there were times shooting those emotional scenes that I found so profoundly and deeply annoying. Why did I do all of that?” he laughed.
In the film, Rush plays Hans Hubermann, a German painter who adopts Nelisse’s character Liesl just as World War II breaks out. He indicated that the two of them got along immediately, but a change in the shooting schedule helped them bond as an on-screen family.
“We hit it off really well,” Rush said. “[But] we had a very lucky break in that it was the coldest winter in 60 years or something – it was so cold that the paint on the set was just constantly peeling off. So we ended up shooting all of the scenes in the kitchen, which was a studio set.”
“So we absolutely got to tell that story from that intimate domestic hub of the Hubermann household that she enters into as an illiterate, grief-stricken young girl at the beginning.”
In terms of her performance, Rush credited Nelisse’s first ambition for the focus and intensity of the work that she did. “I think a lot of that came from the fact that she was training to be a gymnast,” he said. “She was doing 35 hours a week. Her goal, her dream was to go to the 2016 gymnastics in Rio.”
In fact, Rush said that it might have actually been Nelisse’s preoccupation with gymnastics which eventually landed her the role. “She said, ‘I didn’t think I’d ever get this part’,” he remembered.
“They looked at a thousand girls all over the world, and she had her heart set on going to the Olympics. And she said she went into the audition completely in a playful, open way.”
According to Rush, director Brian Percival indicated that even though she might not have given one the best auditions that he saw, she demonstrated qualities that he felt were essential to playing Liesl effectively. “[Brian] said, out of all of the people he saw, this is the only girl who sort of threw the audition away, but revealed that she had the feistiness, the vulnerability, she had the secretive life that was going to be [necessary].”
“You know – she’s going to be in 97 percent of the film,” Rush observed. “If that doesn’t work, you’re not going to have a very good story.”
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