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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Sophie Nélisse Is The Book Thief

Nov 06, 2013

By: Lynn Barker

Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) is a smart tween then teen living in 1930’s Germany. She is turned over to foster parents, suffers the loss of her younger brother but finds hope when her foster dad (Geoffrey Rush) teaches her to read. Her love of books helps her cope. Now all she has to do is survive the awful Nazis whose power is spreading across Germany like a plague.

13-year-old French Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse became a teen on the set of The Book Thief on a freezing cold set. Cake, balloons and hot chocolate cheered everyone up. We learned that Sophie was once a talented gymnast headed for the Olympics. An injury sidelined her just as her acting career was taking off.

Liesel finds a book in bomb rubbleLiesel finds a book in bomb rubble

In Beverly Hills for our interview, Sophie told us that she first saw famous, Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush, who plays her step-dad Hans in the movie, in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films and thought “What if he’s crazy?” During the shoot, they became the best of pals.

Geoffrey says about Sophie “I saw Monsieur Lazhar (a French-Canadian film Sophie was in) and I’ve never seen anyone of that age have such a natural, beautiful rapport with a lens. Sophie has a kind of grace, a charisma on screen that’s not showy and not something to decorate the character but just something natural that radiates. I knew that she was going to be extraordinary as Liesel in a much bigger part, carrying the film. I’d already seen that she had this wonderful range”. We agree and she’s fun to talk to as well.

Sophie at our interviewSophie at our interviewCourtesy of Lynn Barker

Check out this friendly and revealing interview…

Kidzworld: We hear that Geoffrey and your mom made you think you had stolen some books in order to prepare for the role? Tell me briefly about that.

  • Sophie: I really thought the plan was for me to steal some books. I didn’t know my mom paid for them. It seemed really true. She was like “Go, go, go!” Then a week after I did it, she told me “I paid for the books”. I was happy because I didn’t want to steal but it sort of broke my fun.

Kidzworld: Was it very difficult to give up training as a gymnast for the Olympics and choose acting? You had been injured?

  • Sophie: About four years ago I had a bone in my knee ripped off so I had to stop training for maybe a month. Then the other one ripped off so my ankle was taking my whole body weight and I got a big ankle injury. Some people would say it was broken, others said a bad sprain. I had to stop for two months. My coaches would force me to train so I changed clubs and coaches and they were really good but it still continued hurting. Then I got the auditions and made the decision (to quit being a gymnast).

Liesel reads to Max a Jewish refugeeLiesel reads to Max a Jewish refugee

Kidzworld: You made a good decision! In Liesel’s world the Nazi government was taking away books and all the people’s freedoms.  What do you think you would do if all the modern devices we all rely on were taken away? For example; no cellphones or Kindles or computers, even TVs etc. Would you survive okay?

  • Sophie: I would just have my friends and family. I think people get a too much involved with electronic stuff. People sort of think that if you are rich and have (all that stuff) that you are going to be happy. Some people are poor and happy. Like look at the kids in Africa. Some of them just have family and friends and a soccer ball and they are happy. You can invent some games. Sometimes, in a restaurant, I just find some things on the table and invent a game with my sister.

Liesel sneaks into a friend's library to borrow booksLiesel sneaks into a friend's library to borrow books

Kidzworld: Great advice! Which scene was actually fun to film even if it was serious and which was very hard to act?  

  • Sophie: The fun one was the snowball fight. It brought such fun to the whole set. It was very natural throwing snowballs. Just so real. I was supposed to get three dollars for each person I hit on the head. Max (played by Ben Schnetzer) said that to me. I got everyone on the head twice. I even got the camera operator. But Max never paid me.
  • The hardest scene was the last day. I had to cry all day. It was the whole sequence when everything is bombed. I was hot. The dress was really uncomfortable and I was so dirty. It was a bit depressing but at the end of the day I was proud (of the work).

Kidzworld: Liesel learning to read then enjoying getting lost in a story is such a huge part of this movie. Are you a reader, either paper books or on a Kindle? And is there a favorite book?

  • Sophie: I read “real” paper books. I love opening a book and going through the pages and the smell when it’s new. I don’t read on i-pads except for sometimes a script. I love thrillers. I read them in French. I like things like crime thrillers. Books I thought I wouldn’t like were fantasy books but I like one called “Fable Heaven” (a book series by Brandon Mull). I read the first one because my best friend said “You have to read it”. I’ve read all of them now.

Hans (Geoffrey Rush) finds out Liesel (Sophie) can't readHans (Geoffrey Rush) finds out Liesel (Sophie) can't read

Kidzworld: Liesel eventually became a writer. Do you write or keep a journal?

  • Sophie: I used to keep a diary but I had so many things to do I had no time. Right now I’m writing a book. I also like to write poems. Geoffrey Rush gave me the idea on the plane. He says that I always say that acting should be fun and you should play and not do it for other reasons so I’m writing a book on that.

Kidzworld: Cool! Had you read “The Book Thief” novel or did you read it after getting the role?

  • Sophie: I read the script and it’s the first time that a script made me cry. My third audition I started to read the book. I only got through the first 20 pages in French. I didn’t want to read the book because it would get confusing saying, “Is this in the book or the script?” I didn’t have time.
  • I said “I’ll read it when I’m done shooting” but then school was on, then summer and I really didn’t feel like reading a book in summer. So I read it about a month ago in English. 580 pages in English in a month is good for me. I really loved the book but (in my mind) I would see Geoffrey as Hans and Emily (Watson) as Rosa. So now I know that if I ever do a next movie based on a book, I’ll read it before.

Liesel and Rudy hide in a bomb shelterLiesel and Rudy hide in a bomb shelter

Kidzworld: Liesel learned to read then kind of escaped her dreary life with reading. What do you do to escape when your own life gets too overwhelming?

  • Sophie: I dance because I love, love, love dancing. I put some music on and I dance. If you have too much negative energy, dancing will just loosen you up. If I get mad at my dad or have a big fight, I’ll lock myself in my room and just do random dancing.

Kidzworld: Let’s talk general stuff. So, what kinds of music are you into?

Kidzworld: Good choices. Any fashion likes?

  • Sophie: The only ones I really know are Tory Burch or Stella McCartney. I have a lot of them. I like French Connection.

Liesel and her foster parentsLiesel and her foster parents

Kidzworld: Which actors are you dying to work with?

Kidzworld: Your co-star Nico Leirsch was really cute. His character Rudy spends the whole movie on and off asking to kiss your character Liesel. Finally she kisses him. Was that kinda weird for you?

  • Sophie: I was so awkward. Didn’t like it at all. We were like brother and sister. “I can’t believe we’re doing this”. That day we didn’t exchange a word. I kissed him twice during the scene because I had to. I counted and I had to kiss him 24 times because I did the scene over 12 times. It was awkward when we were doing it but for the rest of the day, it was fine.
  • I was really happy he was there. He is so joyful. Even if you were really tired he’d be jumping around non-stop. Sometimes it would be like “Nico, I’m trying to cry here so go jump somewhere else”. But at the end of the day he’d be there and we’d go watch “America’s Next Top Model”.

Liesel (Sophie) and friend Rudy (Nico Liersch) have fun in tough timesLiesel (Sophie) and friend Rudy (Nico Liersch) have fun in tough times

Kidzworld: This is a very serious film but it does have funny moments. Who was the jokester on set between scenes?

  • Sophie: Definitely 100 percent Geoffrey. All the time. He would never rehearse the scene property. He would make me laugh. He’d be singing or making funny faces. He’s hilarious. I loved working with him. He took off a lot of pressure.

Kidzworld: How difficult was it filming in such cold? Especially the book burning scene? What did everyone do to stay warm?

  • Sophie: It was so cold. That’s good and bad. When you are one of the main characters, you get to go in “green rooms” (in between scenes) and it’s heated and you have hot chocolate. But you can’t have those rooms for like 500 extras. It was hard. Everybody on set tried to keep everyone warm. Every time they would say “Cut”, they would come with big blankets and boots. I felt bad for all the extras standing behind me so I’d give my hot chocs to them. I’d keep getting more and giving it to them.

Kidzworld: You are very kind. Is there a life lesson you learned from Liesel’s story or from playing her?

  • Sophie: It makes me feel like in every bad situation, there is good and also, you don’t have to be rich to be happy. You have to try to make good things with what you have. Sometimes, now, when I’m having a big fight with my mom, I think “Why am I fighting? Okay, I’ll listen to her even if I don’t want to.”

See The Book Thief (rated PG-13) in theaters starting November 8th.  

The Book Thief Poster featuring Sophie as LieselThe Book Thief Poster featuring Sophie as Liesel