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First look at 'The Book Thief'


Director Brian Percival took a big chance with Sophie Nelisse for "The Book Thief" giving the 12-year-old girl the central role in the movie adaptation of the international best seller. "She was wonderful to work with," says Percival. "I don't think I have ever come across such a natural talent. She's remarkable."

Director Brian Percival knew it was crucial to find the right actress to play Liesel Meminger, the young heroine of Markus Zusak's best-selling novel, The Book Thief.

But after seeing "thousands" of actresses from around the globe, Percival was stuck as he prepared for the film, out Nov. 15.

"Some were good in different ways but nobody was actually Liesel," he says. "And it was key that we found someone who didn't have to act it so much as just be Liesel."

When he received the audition tape of 12-year-old French Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse, Percival knew he had found the perfect person to play the vibrant girl mired in Nazi Germany.

"It was quite uncanny, this kid. I was taken right away," says Percival. "It was this mixture of naive innocence but at the same time she's actually quite ballsy. You feel that you can get kneed in the groin at any point."



Nélisse (whose 9-year-old sister Isabelle starred in the horror flick Mama) jumped on board with a cast that includes Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. The two play German foster parents who care for Liesel before hiding a young Jewish man (Ben Schnetzer) in their working-class home. Liesel discovers the joy of reading to such an extent that she resorts to stealing ever-scarce books.


Nelisse's character, Liesel Meminger, is taken in by the Hubermann family who serve as her foster parents (including Emily Watson as Rosa Hubermann). Together the family has to endure living in war-torn Germany. "It's quite rare in films to see ordinary German people in bombing raids," says Percival. "I find it interesting to explore that perspective. At the end of it, we're all people."

"It's a big ask to have someone that age carry such a key role. If Sophie didn't get it right, everyone else would have struggled around her," says Percival, who helmed numerous episodes of PBS's Downton Abbey. "Fortunately, she just nailed it."

Even though she starred in 2011's Monsieur Lazhar, Oscar-nominated for best foreign film, Nélisse says accepting the Book Thief role was daunting.

"There were so many big actors (already cast) I thought they'd say, 'Oh, she's not very good.'" says Nélisse. "But after the first week they found that I was not that bad."

Rush, who won an Oscar for 1996's Shine, was smitten.

"I've had the opportunity in my career to have played opposite some extraordinary actresses and Sophie is just a true, natural original," says Rush. "She's a gifted performer who has an instinctive and highly creative rapport with the lens."


The Hubermanns also take in and hide a young Jewish man Max (Ben Schnetzer, with Sophie Nelisse), a significant risk in Nazi Germany. "You might imagine the tension that causes in Nazi Germany," says Percival. "But Liesel begins to learn from Max, who is hiding in the basement."

Despite the tough emotional content of the story, in which Sophie comes of age in an intolerant society while dealing with allied bombing attacks, Rush found that Nélisse was a "great ally" in keeping the set buoyant.

"She is an absolutely hilarious clown," says Rush of his co-star, who celebrated her 13th birthday with a cake on a German soundstage that replicated the novel's downtrodden village. "In between takes she would have me rolling on the floor laughing my (butt) off. There were some tough scenes to do, but she would always prick the bubble after and make me laugh."

The celebrations have quietly continued for The Book Thief. The filmmakers are quickly completing the project, whose release date was moved from winter 2014 to Nov. 15 — a key calendar slot for dramas seeking awards buzz. "There is a real air of excitement, we're feeling very buoyant," says Rush.


Sophie Nelisse, left, Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush all shot serious, dramatic scenes in "The Book Thief." But once the crew got to know each other, laughter followed when the cameras were off. Nelisse celebrated her 13th birthday with a surprise cake on the set. "In the middle of the scene, Geoffrey (Rush) came and they all started singing 'Happy Birthday' and gave me presents," says Nelisse. "I was really shy. I was in front of everybody."

The Book Thief deals with some heavy subject matter, but ultimately it's an uplifting story about human perseverance.

"There are some devastating aspects of watching a girl going from age 10 to 15 trying to make sense of a world so badly off balance," says Rush. "But in a way it's such a fresh story, there is such rich detailed humanity in the ordinary lives of these people."


Sophie Nelisse and Nico Liersch seem to play in a street, but actually, the entire German town was rebuilt on a soundstage. Nelisse says the drama, which is narrated by Death, is ultimately inspiring. "Liesel is a character who inspires everyone around her," says Nelisse. "She's a fighter and strong girl. No matter what happens, she will never give up."


Geoffrey Rush compares working with Sophie Nelisse to working with some of the best actresses he has ever encountered. And the relationship was apparent on the set. "They got on incredibly well. It's wonderful to see a great actor like Geoffrey respond wonderfully to a newcomer like Sophie who is 13 years old," says Percival. "There's a magic between them. It's quite special."

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Tags: actor / actress, adaptations, books / authors, film - drama, film director
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