At the movies

‘Book Thief’ actress prepared for sadness in role

Nelisse and Rush
Nelisse and Rush
Christopher Polk / Getty Images for DCP

When Sophie Nélisse read the script for The Book Thief, she was so touched that she cried. But ironically, she couldn’t muster up the same tears on camera.

“I didn’t know how to cry,” Sophie, 13, said in a sit-down interview at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach Hotel. “I’ve never cried before, like on demand.”

After shooting the first scene when crying was called for, she figured it out.

“I just think about sad things,” she explained. “I think of my sister dying or some member of my family getting hurt.”

In The Book Thief, which opens locally Friday, Nélisse plays Liesel, a foster child living in World War II Germany. The movie, an adaptation of Markus Zusak’s 2006 New York Times bestselling novel of the same title, pits Liesel in a time where Hitler sought world domination.

In one scene, throngs of Germans happily toss books into a growing fire. The young girl cannot read but wants to learn. Liesel even grabs a book from the fiery pile.

Nélisse “stole” books to get into character from an actual store in front of her hotel when the camera wasn’t rolling.

Or so she thought.

“I later learned that my mom had paid for the books and called the store [beforehand] so I didn’t get arrested and end up in like, The New York Times or somewhere saying, ‘Actress in The Book Thief stole some books,’ ” Sophie said with a grin.

For Sophie, taking on a subject like the Holocaust involved heavy research. She watched movies like The Reader and Schindler’s List.

Working with Academy Award-winner Geoffrey Rush, who plays Liesel’s foster father, helped her performance, too. Sophie welcomed his shift in character on and off the set.

“He’ll be doing a random thing downstairs and then when they say ‘Action,’ he’ll come up and do the scene perfectly every single time, and then, when they say ‘Cut,’ he’ll do a magic trick,” she said.

Critics are calling The Book Thief a dark horse for at least one Oscar nomination. The good buzz doesn’t faze Emmy-award winning director Brian Percival, who directed key episodes in each of the first three seasons of the PBS hit Downton Abbey.

“That’s really not on my radar,” Percival said.

What is on the director’s radar: Making younger people aware of the Holocaust. Percival said that he was surprised “how little” the younger generation, including some child actors who worked on the film, knew about that time in history.

But that’s OK.

“What’s the point in preaching to people who believe they already know about this subject?” Percival said. “If I make a film that appeals to all ages and attracts a youth audience, then I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

Anthony Cave

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