By Holly Rosen Fink | Women and Hollywood November 12, 2013 at 10:00AM
Here is a small fact: You are going to die. With a first line like that in a novel, you know it's going to be serious. And important. The Book Thief, based on the book by Martin Zusak, opened nationwide on November 8th. It's a powerful film with a difficult subject matter -- something the main actresses in the film, Sophie Nelisse and Emily Watson, knew as soon as the script landed in their laps. Despite their age difference, they both found a profound obligation to the words in both the book and the script and were determined to make a film that people of all ages would enjoy.
Nelisse, a 13-year-old French-Canadian actress, is very believable as a young girl living in 1938 Germany and took great care in her performance, including getting the German accent right. She was cast after a worldwide search via a tip from the author himself, who had seen her in Monsieur Lazhar.
Watson, known for her brilliant performances in classics such as Breaking the Waves and Hillary and Jackie, plays Rosa, a moody mother living in Germany under Nazi rule. The producers knew immediately that they wanted her to take on the lead role and went after her and no one else.
Women and Hollywood recently spoke to the two actresses about the importance of the film and the need for more movies about this time period.
Women and Hollywood: How did you feel about playing a role in The Book Thief?
Sophie Nelisse: When I auditioned, I didn't think I would get the part because, first of all, I was doing gymnastics, and my goal was to go to the Olympics. So when I auditioned, I really auditioned for fun and tried just to know what it'd be like to audition for an American movie. And then when I got the part, I was just so happy, but at the same time, I was stressed, because if my performance is not good, then maybe the movie is not going to be good. My friends were like, well, this is a huge part, you have to take the part. And it's fun, but, at the same time, it's a bit stressful. Geoffrey [Rush] helped me a lot.
Emily Watson: It was a chance for me to do something really extreme and out there and a sort of transformational kind of job. I really, really enjoyed that. I enjoyed being mean and spitting at everybody every day, and it was very liberating.
And I could, you know, eat and not worry. She's very giving in that she runs the household, and she does everything, and she's the one who does all the hard work, washing other people's clothes, and she's cross about that. She's cross about most things in life.
But when that young boy falls through the door, which way are you gonna jump? And instinctively in that moment she does what a human being should do and what is right. They both do. I think in that moment you know of her innate goodness but also of their relationship and that they really do love each other, and that there is something very strong there, because this young man's father saved Hans' life, and that is a debt that there is no question, you pay it.
WaH: What did you do to prepare for the your role?
SN: I read a book called Hana's Suitcase when I was in sixth grade, but that's the only thing I knew. To know what happened in that period, I had to watch a lot of movies like Schindler's List, The Reader, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and also The Pianist. When I was in Berlin, I went to see some bomb shelters and some historical things like the Berlin Wall.
EW: Well, I think that is generational. We've seen all those movies. We've learned it all in school, and Sophie hasn't. And that's why you have to keep making films like this because there's a whole generation of kids who think that Adolph Hitler is a football coach.
The book was really the resource for us. For me, anyway. That was where all the detail was.
I met an actress whose family had been there. After a long time, I managed to kind of get the courage to ask her, what happened in the war, is it okay for me to ask? And her eyes filled with tears, and she really wanted to talk about it. She'd been brought up to believe that her grandparents and her parents, because she was then in East Germany, had not been involved, that they had been good people. She'd sort of built her career and her life on that belief that she came from a stock of people with integrity, and then she found out it wasn't true, that her grandparents had been in the Nazi party and that her parents had spied. It just all came out and she was devastated by it. She was really destroyed by it.
WaH: What was it like shooting the film at Babelsburg near Berlin?
SN: It was so fun shooting in Berlin because you could really feel like you were there years ago, and then when you were done shooting, you would just get out and be in this completely new city. It was just so awesome to pass from Berlin to being on set. It's a bit weird, but it's fun at the same time.
EW: That moment in history is incredibly current still in Berlin. They're still rebuilding and surviving it, because after the war, their city was split, and it's still massively in their consciousness and they are recovering from that. But it's incredibly honest. They're not covering it up. Everywhere you go, there's an exhibit about how many people died on this spot, and it is relentless, really. You can't get away from it. But you are also surrounded by people whose families all were there. You can't really say, oh, thanks for the coffee, were your grandparents Nazis? It was a really weird etiquette of not knowing how to talk to people and ask people.
One thing I found really telling was that photograph, and I can't remember where I saw it, but it was somewhere in an exhibit, of one of the rallies where there were something like 2.5 million people. And that's kind of everybody, isn't it? It's just they all went -- everybody signed up. And that just tells you, you bought into it, or you had to buy into it.