It was only a matter of time before Markus Zusak’s bestselling young adult novel got the big screen treatment. This is the WWII-set story of a nine-year-old German girl whose foster parents hide young Jewish man in their basement.
Geoffrey Rush twinkles (there’s no other word for it) playing a German man who adopts an orphan girl and hides a Jewish man in ‘The Book Thief’ – the new film of Markus Zusak’s WWII-set best-selling novel. The Australian actor is best known as the speech therapist who cured Colin Firth’s stutter in ‘The King’s Speech’ and as a pirate in Johnny Depp’s motley crew in the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ films. The 62-year-old came to screen acting late, after a career in the theatre, and won an Oscar in 1997 at 45 for playing a troubled pianist in ‘Shine’.
It’s been said of you that you make acting look easy and fun. Is it both?
‘Look! It’s still a mystery to me. But if I’ve come up with any kind of mantra for myself it’s to try and put myself into a state of imaginative play. So yes, I suppose that means yes: try to make it fun and easy.’
Do you get nervous anymore?
‘Yes, in a sort of exciting, butterflies-in-the-stomach way. Not so much with film, because you’re doing it in bits. But a play still puts the wind up me. Is this going to be as good as it was last night? And doing eight shows a week, you know you’re going to be horrible eventually. It’s the law of averages.’
The novel of ‘The Book Thief’ is hugely popular. What’s the appeal?
‘It’s a five-handkerchief movie. I think that Markus Zusak’s great gift to the world has been to write a fresh, almost strangely beautiful, empathetic version of events from the point of view of a small town in Germany – a town corrupted, corroded and seriously fucked up by a fanatic ideology that turned the country into something so inhumane. I was drawn to this man I played, his quiet, seemingly normal temper. He’s ultimately revealed as quite a political maverick in a funny kind of way.’
Your character turns out to be a very brave man too. And that’s a question the book throws at us – what would any of us have done? Would we be able to risk our lives like this family do?
‘Yes. Would I have been complicit? Would I have been self-preserving? It shows what is it like to be shit-scared for a period of six, seven, eight years. Probably most of us would have kept our head down: let’s get through this.’
Do you consider yourself a character actor?
‘I don’t put it on my tax form, but I definitely describe myself as a character actor. Though ultimately, you have to say that everything you play is a character!’