Geoffrey Rush broke out in America as the star of 1996's Shine, for which he claimed the Best Actor Oscar. There's been no looking back since, as Rush has graced pictures like Shakespeare in Love, The King's Speech, Quills, The Tailor of Panama, Intolerable Cruelty, Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Munich, and the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Now he's appearing opposite young actress Sophie Nélisse (Monsieur Lazhar) in The Book Thief, adapted from Australian Markus Zusak's novel and directed by Brian Percival (Downton Abbey). I had the opportunity to speak briefly with Rush, Nélisse and Percival when they met the press at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel the day after The Book Thief opened the Mill Valley Film Festival.
Groucho: Your characters Hans and Liesel have a very conspiratorial relationship. I wonder if that carried over into real life? How did you bond?
Geoffrey Rush: It did—yes it did.
Geoffrey Rush: I suppose it—organically the nature—you look at the call sheet and the first month, I think, we spent in the kitchen. Of course that was the best set, and it was too freezing outside on the street to shoot the exteriors and everything. So not that we were doing everything necessarily chronologically, but close enough to that. So we were able to start with finding out how the life of the household functioned for Emily and myself, what we talked about. Brian was very generous and said, you know, "If there’s anything in the kitchen you want to move around—where would your favorite chair be? Do you sit at the head of the table here?" You know, "How much stuff?" I think they might have over art directed at the beginning where there was too much material in the room—
Brian Percival: Yeah.
Geoffrey Rush: And we thought, no, they should look poorer and have a less well-stocked pantry. And you know, maybe the coffee grinder goes here because the hot water’s there—to make it more authentic. And then we would shoot scenes like—we hadn’t yet done the exterior of the arrival of the car until many, many weeks later, but seeing Liesel arrive in the kitchen for the first time. And I became aware that Brian was shooting very much her point of view going "Oh my God! Where am I? What have I got myself into?" And, being in a state of grief, having lost her brother, and her mother’s gone God knows where. So those sort of steps: I just watched this fine young actress dealing with those situations and responded accordingly, because I think Hans has a kind of natural emotional intelligence for he senses a spark of life and isn’t going to engage in therapy like "Are you feeling grief?." He’d rather play the accordion and say, "I understand something about you."
Groucho: Like you say "We needed that snowman." That’s very much an emotional intelligence.
Geoffrey Rush: Right. Yeah. And it’s in the story. I mean the fact that he calls her "Majesty" at the beginning is his way of going "It’s okay. Please, you’re very welcome and you’re—we’re exalted to have you in our presence." But in a much simpler way.
Groucho: Did you want to say anything about how you two bonded?
Sophie Nelisse: Well, I just think from the beginning he was like his character. He didn’t say, "Your Majesty," but he was really nice, and I was actually really stressed because I was scared he would think I’m bad or, I don’t know, because he’s such a great actor. And I would just—I don’t know what he would think of me. And from the first day he was nice, and he taught me some little tricks of my hands, and I think it just really came natural, and we just had a lot of fun. And when we were not shooting, we were making all these kind of—really funny stuff. And we would laugh and we would rehearse the scene in many different ways—completely doesn’t have anything to do with the scene we really have to do. And it was just really fun.
Groucho: Tricks of the hands—would that be sleight of hand?
Sophie Nelisse: No, he just—[demonstrates twisty hand movements:] like this, and then they have to go like this.
Geoffrey Rush: Brain teasers. And I forgot about the koala.
Sophie Nelisse: Oh yeah. And he also brought me a koala from Australia.
Groucho: Australian pride. Another good reason to do The Book Thief.