Geoffrey Rush Discusses Breaking Away From ‘Boisterous, Flamboyant’ Characters for ‘The Book Thief’

Geoffrey Rush, The Book Thief20th Century Fox

Geoffrey Rush is best known for playing larger-than-life characters like the pirate Captain Barbossa in the Pirates of the Carribean series. His character in The Book Thief, however, is markedly quieter and more restrained, a change of pace that the actor relished. In the adaptation of Markus Zusak’s novel, the Oscar winner plays Hans Hubermann, a German man who, along with his wife Rosa (Emily Watson) fosters a young girl called Leisel Meminger (Sophie Nèlisse) and shelters a Jewish man, Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), at the start of World War II. 

We sat down with Rush ahead of The Book Thief‘s November 8 release to talk about why Hans is so different than his previous roles, his long histroy with Emily Watson and how Sophie Nèlisse is like a “heat-seeking missile.” 

What was your first introduction to the story of The Book Thief? Were you at all familiar with the novel?
No. Shamefully, because it’s a great Australian novel – or Australian author’s novel – I never heard of it. But I certainly got onto it very quickly once I read the screenplay because the storytelling in the screenplay, I thought “This is very good film writing.” And then to discover that the novel had, on its own novelistic levels, a certain rare brilliance, it was really good and [also] good to have that there as a reference work.

What is it about Hans as a character that appealed to you, and made you want to be a part of this project?
For me, compared to what else is on my CV or what I’ve just been doing – I’ve been doing some theater in Australia, playing Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest or playing Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a big, bold, slapstick-y kind of show – so relative to that, when I then read The Book Thief, I though “This is a really nice challenge and creative contrast” to have something that’s not so obvious how to do it. And the fact that as the course of the story goes one, the character reveals greater and you know, for an actor, many more interesting quirks and depth.

You’ve worked with Emily once before, did your relationship with her help you to create that bond between Hans and Rosa?
Not specifically on this relationship, because, you know, being husband and wife as Peter Sellers and his wife is completely different set of circumstances to Rosa and Hans. But you know, we had enjoyed that experience in 2003 and also I’d shared, in my and probably for her, we were sort of on the promotional circuit back in ’96-’97, she was in Breaking the Waves when I was in Shine and we were in tandem on Secrets and Lies and The English Patient and Sling Blade and everything. You tend to run into people in corridors in the hotel, or at some event, or a BAFTA afternoon tea or something, and we had many, many enjoyable conversations during that period. So, I feel like I’ve known Emily forever. She was great, because I tend to have a gallery of characters that are fairly boisterous or flamboyant or crazy or a little colorful – I don’t know how to describe them. But she’s certainly got a great repertoire of very finely etched, exquisite, dramatic roles with a rich inner life. I would describe her as one of those people who doesn’t go out to the camera, she lets the camera come in and discover the secrets that are going on beautifully inside of her performance. I was excited by the fact that she really wanted to play, warts and all, this rather mean-spirited, downtrodden, tough housefrau and not let any vanity get in the way of that, because it’s very late in the film that her particular onion gets unpeeled and you get a glimpse of the richness of her humanity, and that’s the whole mark of the people who live on Himmel Straße.

Even the woman who was playing Rudy’s mum, you know, not the biggest role in the world, but I thought it had a wonderful, rich, emotional intensity of being torn between “Do we help Herr Lehman on the street or not?” or even when she’s saying goodbye to her husband, Rudy’s dad, “Don’t cry in front of the children. Don’t make this [worse].” Heartbreaking stuff. You know, life on Himmel Straße was really being battered and the natural sense of community was really being battered and bruised by the fanatical ideology of the National Socialist sense of control. It doesn’t want people to be human; it doesn’t want people to have fascinating social connections.

There are so many newcomers in this cast. What’s it like as a veteran actor to work with so many new faces?
Well, Ben was relatively new. I mean, I didn’t really know of him and we spent a lot of time together in Berlin. I only had certain key scenes in relationship, it was really Sophie that worked with him. But yeah, I think it’s great when there are fresh faces in parts like that because it introduces a new talent, and interesting talent to people. But you know, out of the 20-25 German actors, I mean, we had people in the roles of other community members of Himmel Street or Nazi members or various roles, who were all the cream of German stage and screen, all really keen to contribute to the making of this film.

Was there anything about Sophie or her performance that particularly surprised or impressed you?
All of it. She’s prodigiously gifted and has a natural gift. She’s like a heat seeking missile, she just kind of goes in on the pure emotional requirements and necessities that are in a scene and does them in a very unpredictable, very arresting way. She engages an audience’s imagination so strongly, and the thing I loved about her is that in between takes, she was just a great clown. We found our friendship not by so much discussing what Hans and Leisel would do together, just by Geoffrey and Sophie goofing off. Became a good way to break the ice and find a rapport and somehow I hope that’s found it was into the specifics of the plight of their relationship and the pressures that it’s under.