Meet Sophie Nélisse, The Book Thief

The Book Thief Liesel Rudy CROP

How do you solve a problem like Liesel Meminger? How do you find a young actress able to fill the shoes of a beloved heroine who, with her trademark grit, marched across the pages of her book to scale the New York Times bestseller list (where she has remained perched for six years and counting)? A young actress who not only has to carry a film but go toe-to-toe with the likes of Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson? It was a tall order, to be sure – but after watching over a thousand auditions, the filmmakers found their answer in the form of one petite thirteen year old French Canadian by the name of Sophie Nélisse.

The Book Thief Liesel CROP TALLBrian Percival, the director of the film adaptation, when asked how he knew Sophie Nélisse was the one, said: “We just did. Something clicks when you see Sophie.”

“There was just something about this kid that, it was like, wow. She just had this spirit. Funny enough, she reminded me of a very young Madonna, because there was this- You know, like jumps out the screen at you. Love or hate her, you can’t but not notice her, that sort of quality. And I don’t think she looks like Madonna, but it was that sort of- there was an immediate presence to it. But you know, she was very contemporary, and she was speaking in a French-Canadian accent, but there was something there about this soul that was special.”

“We took her to Berlin and did a proper screening test in Berlin, with make-up and wardrobe and things. And we did the scene in the back of the car where she’s waiting- she’s just been introduced to Hans and Rosa. And we did this with, I think, four or five girls that we brought to Berlin – and it was when we did that shot [with Sophie] that I thought, that’s it. There’s no question, she’s the one.” 

Said Geoffrey Rush of his tiny co-star’s talent: “It’s effortless, it’s graceful, it’s unpredictable – it’s got mystery. You sense inner secrets and thoughts.”

“Very Stanislavsky, but kind of also part Lucille Ball.”

Or as Brian Percival put it: “She just got better and better, and continues to surprise us.”

At a roundtable interview, side by side with Sophie, when asked how having a daughter of his own informed his performance, Geoffrey Rush replied: “I mean, I could remember- my daughter’s now just about to turn 21, but I could remember her in that period of twelve, thirteen, and going into puberty and young womanhood. And even though I adore this girl- [he turns to Sophie] I haven’t told you this, but I was always imaging that you didn’t even look like Sophie.” [Sophie laughs and pulls a face.]

“We had a really remarkable time together, because this- look, this [Sophie] is a natural, beautiful gift, a great emotional center for the piece.”

Said Sophie, of when she first learned who her co-stars were going to be: “Well, I didn’t know at the beginning who he [Geoffrey Rush] was. Well, actually I didn’t know who Emily was either – when they said you’re playing with Emily Watson, I thought I was playing with Emma Watson!”

“Same thing with Geoffrey – and then I heard apparently he could act. Quite well! But then I watched Shine, and then I said: he can act. God, he is- He was just amazing, and I was blown away by his performance, he was great. And then I felt really honored that I could play with- he won an Oscar.

“And yes, I was a bit scared at the beginning – what if he’s crazy like he is in Shine, you know? Because that’s the only movie I’ve seen so far. Well, I’ve seen a little part from Quills. Because we were at like, a thing-“

Geoffrey Rush: “Mill Valley Film Festival. Tribute clip.”

Sophie Nélisse: “And they played the part from Quills where he’s like naked. That’s the only thing I’ve seen from Quills.”

Geoffrey Rush (laughing): “I apologized for that. I got up there to do the interview and I went, sorry Soph!”

The Book Thief Hans Liesel CROPSophie Nélisse: “No, but like you see, we had a lot of fun. He was like my Dad. [To Geoffrey] And I never told you, but when I looked at you, I wouldn’t see your face at all…” [Geoffrey laughs]

“No, it was really, really fun.”

“I remember one time, we were shooting- and we were just rehearsing the scene, and it’s when he comes back from war, and it’s really a kind of serious scene. And he’d make these faces, and I couldn’t even continue the scene – I had my face in the suit, and I was crying. I was like, I wasn’t even able to speak, I was not even able to do the line, I was red. It was so hilarious.”

Geoffrey Rush: “We clowned around a lot.”

Sophie Nélisse: “You know the scene where Max vomits the soup, and then I say, ‘Is he going to be alright?’ And then he [Geoffrey] would go, ‘Of course…’ [and then whisper] ‘Not.’ It was so funny, and I would start laughing. He was just so fun to work with. “

Though Sophie couldn’t resist adding later on, oh so innocently: “He would sometimes forget his lines. And I would just remind him of them…”

And to think, she’s only thirteen. Sophie Nélisse – remember that name, folks. We’ll be seeing a lot more of this one, of that I have no doubt.