'The Book Thief'
'The Book Thief'

The best thing in Fox 2000's World War II drama "The Book Thief" ($16 million domestic to date) is Australian actor Geoffrey Rush. Ever since he broke out in his Oscar-winning "Shine" in 1996, he's been a go-to actor for big-screen character roles, from the Marquis de Sade in "Quills" and the whacked out Barbossa in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series to going toe-to-toe with Colin Firth as George VI in Oscar-winner "The King's Speech," one of Rush's four Oscar nominations. Shooting with director Brian Percival ("Downton Abbey") in Babelsberg, Germany, on "The Book Thief" Rush reunited with old friend Emily Watson ( "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers"), who he first met 16 years ago when they "galloped through the awards season" with "Shine" and "Breaking the Waves."

The trick with "The Book Thief" was crafting the role of a quiet nice man that is fun to watch. We talked on the phone about how "The Book Thief" fits into his career choices (how it got made here).

How do you play a loving adoptive father who takes in a lonely girl during wartime without getting sappy? 

Look, for me, I did take it on as a self-challenging project, because in the last ten years with 'Pirates' and some things more recently in the theater--in Ionesco's 'Exit the King,' I was playing a mad king in a very burlesque performance, Lady Bracknell in 'The Importance of Being Earnest,' it was a blast. I'm a big Broadway musical fan--I was looking for those knockabout classic roles, a bit crazy, like Larry Gelbart's 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,' the role played by Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane, a good classical comedian's showcase.

So you were ready to take a break from these "heavily adjectival roles" with noisy bells and whistles?

When I read the screenplay of the [Marcus Zusak] book I gravitated toward the character because my stepfather was in WWII, he was self-taught, did seasonal work, came to live with me and mum. He was an outback kind of guy, left-wing politically, a union sheep shearer. The script gave me a strong impact of him, he died some years ago. His ancestry was German.

This is a low key role compared to your recent showy theatrical roles and tentpoles. You referenced the book?

I had my novel post-it notes all the way through, with its rich description of subterranean activities within these simple country folks.It seemed so still and quiet and assured. He had this natural gift of emotional intelligence, he had an empathy, was able to read during a pretty horrific chapter and be able to understand a young girl who was illiterate, had to break the news to her that her mother was probably killed, with all her burdens he was able to give her a loving bond. Not one note, too twinkly. You want to have counterpoint. There's that old acting adage: if you are playing a drunk you want to play it like you're desperately attempting to look as though you're sober. It gives you tension and contradiction. 

I wanted to find moments where you could see he was carrying the burden of this country that was not heading in a very good direction, had experience of the first World War. Some of the older soldiers in WWII, which stretched into six years, were in their 40s and 50s going into battle, they'd also been through WW I. That generation felt completely battered by global conflicts. I wanted to try and get feeling from some moments, but I didn't want to frighten children with horrors that were fairly direct and strong, what they did at the front without him yielding. If he fell apart there would be a level of demoralization.