Geoffrey Rush Escapes from Scene-Chewing Roles with ‘Book Thief’: “How do I Avoid Cliches?”

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

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.

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?

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