Newcomer Sophie Nélisse Steals Show in ‘The Book Thief’

Sophie Nélisse in "The Book Thief" (Photo: 20th Century Fox)

After seven years and millions of sold copies, Markus Zusack’s heartbreaking World War II novel “The Book Thief” has finally found its way to the big screen.

The film, directed by “Downton Abbey’sBrian Percival, is helmed by 13-year-old newcomer Sophie Nélisse.

Nélisse, a relatively unknown French-Canadian actress who made waves with her breakout performance in the Academy Award-nominated film “Monsieur Lazhar,” portrays Liesel, a young girl adopted by German parents (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) during the height of the war.

I recently sat down with Zusack, Percival and Nélisse to discuss bringing the story to theaters, working with Geoffrey Rush and teaching kids about the Holocaust:

Laura Hibbs: Markus, did you know your book would be such a big hit with both adults and children?

Markus Zusack: I thought no one would read it. I thought it would be so unsuccessful that I would just have to write my next book immediately. You know, a 560-page book, set in Nazi Germany where everyone is surrounded by death – I wouldn’t have picked it up in a book shop.

Hibbs: Did you write the novel with the intention of someday turning it into a movie?

Zusack: No, that would just be suicide. I’d sooner put myself between two elevator doors. I thought this would be my least successful book. I’ve heard some authors say, “Yeah, you know I had Tom Cruise in my mind.” To me, that’s just a lazy imagination.

Rush and Nélisse (Photo: 20th Century Fox)

Hibbs: Many Holocaust stories are told from the point of view of the Jewish victims. How did you come up with the idea for a book about a German child during that time?

Zusack: It’s the old rule of write what you know… and I knew about that. My parents told stories about growing up after the war when they were really little kids. I heard their stories about growing up in Germany and Austria, they told me about the bombings and kids who gave bread to starving people. I knew those stories, but I hadn’t seen them represented too often so I might as well write them.

Hibbs: Why did it take seven years to adapt the book for the big screen?

Brian Percival: The producers of the film had heard about the book, and I believe they got a manuscript before it was even published. They read it, but weren’t particularly interested in making it into a movie at the time. Every movie has its time – and six or seven years ago it wasn’t ready. Then a year or two ago, that time came. I just got noticed in America because of a show I did called “Downton Abbey,” and I was sent the script and fell in love with it straight away.

Hibbs: How did the cast come together?

Percival: Well, for the role of Liesel we looked at about a thousand girls. Actually it was probably more, but Markus first mentioned Sophie from the film “Monsieur Lazhar,” which I watched and loved and thought she was terrific in. It’s a difficult, difficult character to play because she had to play down to age 10 and up to age 16. She has a sort of naïve vulnerability and an innocence that really pulls at the heart strings but, at the same time, she’s got to be quite ballsy and feisty and spirited and be strong-willed. It’s hard to find a kid who has got all those qualities. Sophie really had the flexibility to play both.

Sophie Nélisse: I actually didn’t want to audition for the part because I was doing gymnastics and I wanted to go to the Olympics. That’s what I was training for. So I didn’t really want to do it and I just said, “Fine, I’ll do it anyways, just for fun.” And then they called me back to go to L.A., and I read the script on the plane and it was actually the first time a script made me cry. I loved the script and my character. I got to the audition and I really, really wanted the part.

Zuscak: Other than mentioning Sophie, I wasn’t really involved in casting at all. I just wanted them to do what they wanted to do. It took so much effort putting the book together… it would have been the fastest way to an ulcer if I had become too involved with the film. I was very grateful to just say, “Alright, here it is. Be creative and do what you need to do.” I’ve always loved books and I’ve always loved films, so I was pretty trusting in that.

Nélisse and Liersch (Photo: 20th Century Fox)

Hibbs: What was the hardest part of filming for you Sophie?

Nélisse: The hardest part was kissing Nico [Liersch]. Boys aren’t necessarily gross if you love them, but I don’t love him. We were like brother and sister and it was just so hard because we did everything together… we’d have breakfast, lunch, dinner together. I mean I would wake him up everyday and we would go watch television together. We were so close, but I don’t think we loved each other, like, at all. I really didn’t love him, I’m sorry if he hears this and he’s in love with me, but I didn’t love him. It was so hard to imagine that and it was so awkward on the day of the shoot. Normally we’d talk all the time, but we barely exchanged one word that day. It was really awkward.

Hibbs: Did Geoffrey Rush give you any acting pointers?

Nélisse: Well, I didn’t know who he was, I had only heard that apparently he was a great actor –  that’s the only thing I knew. So I watched “Shine,” and I was like “Oh my god, he is a great, great actor.” I thought he was amazing and his performance blew me away. It was so fun working with him, he was like a clown. On the first day he was like my dad—always taking good care of me, making sure I was okay, that I wasn’t hungry, or that I don’t have any questions about anything. It was impressive just watching him act, and all the detail he put into every scene.

Hibbs: What do you hope kids take away from this movie?

Nélisse: I hope that when people see the movie they learn enough to go home and want to type “Holocaust” in Google to learn a bit more. There was a girl who went to the screening, she was only 10 years old, and at the end she was crying and saying, “Mommy, why were these people so terrible to the Jews?” So if that is the question that is raised, I think that is what is really good. I know adults are going to see the movie, but I am always so happy to see kids in the theater.

“The Book Thief” opens in theaters on Thanksgiving Day. Click here to check times and buy tickets through Fandango.


The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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