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Geoffrey Rush Escapes from Scene-Chewing Roles with 'Book Thief': "How do I Avoid Cliches?"

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood December 26, 2013 at 1:10PM

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 "Pirates" series to going toe-to-toe with George VI (Colin Firth) in "The King's Speech," one of Rush's four Oscar nominations.
Geoffrey Rush and Sophie Nelisse in "The Book Thief"
Geoffrey Rush and Sophie Nelisse in "The Book Thief"

You and Emily Watson took opposite tacks with this husband and wife.

We must not let sentiment or melodrama spoil the domestic details. Emily was the wicked stepmother and I was the happy woodcutter. I wanted that to become an authentic credible place. Look at the middle-aged people who've been though a devastating depression after the failure of Germany in WWI. She was disappointed and frustrated in the marriage and created a personality that was angry and bitter at the world.  

The cast rehearsed for ten days in Berlin?

We read through the major scenes and expanded that out in discussion and improv on the street life of the town. I had seen 'Monsieur Lazhar.' It was extraordinary tough dramatic material. So I had no worries about Sophie Nelisse, it's a big leap to carry a film, but she's such a smart interesting young woman, trained on the balance beam in gymnastics to go to the 2016 Rio Olympics. She did the auditions for fun, didn't think she'd get the part against hundreds of girls from all over the world. Her heart was set on doing beam work, crazy dancing on the floor to cheesy music. That helped her as an actor to find her marks and knowing where people are, where energy needs to be conjured at right moment. We hit it off well.

Picking projects you never know whether it will be hit or miss. 

There's got to be something in the ideas, the director, the fellow colleagues I'm acting with. 'This is going to be great adventure.' I personally loved the nutshell of the story in 'The King's Speech' between the imperial and colonial family. That was the crux of the conflict, I had doubts. Tom Hooper had a scene that was 10 or 11 pages long. You don't get that in films. Most film scenes max out at three pages. This was two middle-aged men talking in a room. But one happens to stutter. I didn't feel lines at the box office. That becomes part of the challenge. People found it more deeply personal in terms of shyness and lack of confidence, and stutterers rejoiced in the film's opening up a dilemma they have struggled with."

Another surprise was "Shakespeare in Love." 

For me it was the actor the party of the year, the first international film I was involved with. I loved the script and the young actors, but we all felt, 'this has got the word Shakespeare in title, it was a nice little niche marketed arthouse movie. Judi Dench was still then an unknown film commodity, even though she had 40 years of great theatrical work behind her at the RSC and on the West End. Then we thought Harvey would never call it 'Shakespeare in Love.' It ended up crossing that magic line and made $100 million. I didn't see that coming, either.

Are you doing Biblical epic "Gods of Egypt" for Summit with Australian director Alex Proyas?

We're in early negotiation stages for me to play Ra the Sun God. I laughed out loud, it's too audacious to have that on my CV. I knew nothing about Egyptian mythology except Cecil B. DeMille's "Ten Commandments" with Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston. "I like the challenge: again, you've got to find the domestic level, even though they're gods. What is the conflict between grandfather and grandchildren and father and son? When gods squabble it's in global mythology.  How do I avoid cliches?

This article is related to: Interviews, Interviews, Interviews , Geoffrey Rush, The Book Thief, Awards, Awards Season Roundup, Awards

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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.