Although the Holocaust is a well-visited subject for Hollywood, Geoffrey Rush says he was struck by how The Book Thief — based on the 2007 novel by Marcus Zusak — offers “another different perspective on everything.” Rush, who has an Oscar for 1996’s Shine and three subsequent nominations, plays Hans, an adoptive father who’s trying to survive World War II and Nazi Germany. Directed by Brian Percival, the film introduces 12-year-old actress Sophie Nelisse as Hans’ daughter, Liesel, and features Emily Watson as the patriarch’s hardbitten, overbearing wife. Although the role was relatively light on dialogue, Rush says learning to play the accordion connected him strongly to his character.
AwardsLine: What struck a chord with you when you read the script for The Book Thief?
Geoffrey Rush: I think I got about five pages into it and thought, this is a remarkable story. It’s already got me hooked. It’s not what you call a soft opening, to meet this 10-year-old girl whose 6-year-old brother dies on page one. Then in the next scene, her mother’s a Communist and gets taken away. I can’t think of many films that start with a 10-year-old with a burden that’s comparable to Hamlet’s.
AwardsLine: Was Sophie Nelisse already cast when you came onboard?
Rush: I can’t remember the timeline, but I think I agreed to do it in October and she was found in December. I had actor friends who were back in Melbourne shooting a television show and they said, “There’s this young girl here shooting a screen test for this movie you’re about to do.” And I thought, they did throw that net far and wide. It’s just one of those types of protagonists where you have to find someone who can act. And you don’t find many 12-year-olds (like that). She was 10 when she met us. Her rapport with the lens was just so extraordinary. I remember a director once saying—or maybe I read this somewhere—that it’s always good on film for actors to have secrets in their character because the camera really loves finding that. We saw a lot of great girls who had a natural, emotional sort of range in their acting talent, but then who didn’t have the feistiness. But she and I had such a good time; she’s such a spritely girl.
AwardsLine: Did you draw on anyone you knew to play Hans?
Rush: My stepfather came into my life when I was 16. He was an old lefty, and he was a self-taught man. I could see something of Hans in him, the quiet politics, the emotional intelligence. Hans is so sensitive to Liesel’s plight. I mean, it’s not like he went to college and has done a grief-therapy course, you know? When he first plays the accordion, he chooses that moment to connect with her, saying, “That song you were singing last night, crying yourself to sleep, I know that song. Could I just share it with you this bright morning?” It’s not a heavily dialogued role, but every time I had accordion pieces, they were like my monologues: To me, they were a great expression of the character. I worked with a tutor, just to get used to (the accordion). A lot of it was getting the different bellows, the breathing of the instrument. It felt like Hans’ breath of life.
AwardsLine: How important is wardrobe for you in getting into character?
Rush: The first person you always meet on a film is the costume designer and hair and makeup people. (Costume designer) Anna B. Sheppard was just so amazing. Her World War II pedigree was that she designed Schindler’s List (1993) and Inglourious Basterds (2009). And this was a different sort of artistic palette that she would have to work on. I (also) wanted my hair to be up. The hair to me is always the brain of the character, like Barbossa’s hair in Pirates Of The Caribbean (2006), the vanity, the arrogance, the pomposity, the flamboyance of the man. For the hair thing with Hans, we had (period) photographs of people in small towns, and they weren’t people who would spend money to cut their hair, particularly during World War II, when everyone in the military had it short in the back and the sides. So I liked this idea of his hair being wide and bohemian, something about the spirit of his personality.
AwardsLine: Did you have a rehearsal period?
Rush: I know Brian worked with Nico (Liersch, who plays Liesel’s friend Rudy) and Soph for about two weeks before Emily and I arrived, and we spent about 10 days rehearsing as much as we could in corporate rooms and the Babelsberg studio. But he always allowed enough time on set because he wanted a very detailed authenticity. They wanted a wintry open to Liesel’s arrival into Molching (the fictional town in which the film was set), but it was so cold. So the happy accident (was) we went inside and shot all the kitchen scenes, (which) was great because it established the central domestic story, with a girl arriving into this new foster-parent environment. Emily and I were able to talk about our marriage: How do we live in this kitchen? What jobs did I do to help out? What side of bed do you sleep on and why? So many little things. And having Soph come in, how do we adjust to that new guest? In a funny kind of way, Geoffrey the actor got to know Sophie almost at the same rate as Hans got to know Liesel.