In The Book Thief, Geoffrey Rush plays a WWII-era German who adopts a little girl (played by Sophie Nélisse) who was displaced by the Nazis because her mother was a Communist; he also hides a Jew in his basement because the man’s father saved his life in a previous war. Although it would be suicide to denounce the National Socialist Party outright, he and his wife (Emily Watson) do what they can with their limited resources, even if it means diverting their own food to feed these extra mouths. In the spirit of the movie, we gave Rush our own meal during a Peggy Siegal luncheon, and in exchange, he chatted at length with us about his prodigy co-star, Hitler’s paranoia, and what he’d like to have happen in the next Pirates of the Caribbean sequel.
It’s such harrowing subject matter. How did you lighten the mood on set?
Bad magic. We’d been doing serious scenes in the kitchen, and I would start doing things like this to her [lifts napkin with a knife so that it seems like it’s floating in the air] and Sophie [Nélisse] said, “I’ve always wanted to know how to do that trick!” I think I was doing it with a wooden spoon. I’m not really a magician, but what I did teach her on the very first day — as my way of saying, “I’m a little nervous, and I’m sure you’re a little nervous” — I did this, [demonstrates a trick that requires very nimble fingers]. Try it!
[Trying.] I could probably do this better if I played piano. This is tricky!
She said, “I can’t do it! What’s wrong with me?” And I said, “In two days’ time, you will be able to do it.” It’s a little bit of a left brain/right brain training. So I would do stuff like that, and she’d be like, “You’re so cool!” So we were just off and running, no barriers. She was saying how stressed she was, because I had won an Oscar, and it’s a company of great actors. “What if they think I’m bad? What if I am bad?” But I’ve never seen such a natural before.
Sophie was 12 and turned 13 while you guys were shooting this …
That blew me away. I turned to all the guys on the set and said, “Do you realize, she’ll be as old as Liesel got to be in the year in 2090? She’ll be around in 2090?” Wrap your head around that. But she’s a dear girl. It was like working with Lucille Ball in between takes. She’d have me laughing, with her clowning around. She had some more lighthearted moments with the boy who played Rudy, because they played together, while every time I seemed to be in a scene with her, I was explaining things like how my best friend died in the first World War, and she’s going, “You were in a war?” and I was like, “Yeah, and I have to tell you something extremely important.” Because I’m asking her to lie [about hiding a Jew in the basement], and I’m telling her about the horror of war. And she was so beautiful playing that scene. I could see her 12-year-old mind playing with it, like some ball.
That was one of the lovely things about the movie, that it didn’t pull on huge, obvious heartstrings, but went for those subtle touches.
I think that was [director] Brian [Percival]’s greatest contribution. We all agreed, we didn’t want any bombastic, loud, sentimental acting when people are in dire situations. No melodrama here … Oh, that looks good! What is that?
Free-range chicken. Here, you take it. This one isn’t technically mine anyway.
[Starts to eat.] Thank you! It’s just that I’ve been jet-lagged for a week, and today’s the day that my appetite is back. Emily [Watson] and I used to crack each other up because I would go, “Hey, Emily! Guess what? We’re making a World War II movie. You and I are making a World War II movie.” Because we don’t belong in that genre. And then she would go, “All right, chaps! Listen up!” Like she’s with a map, she’d be doing the map thing, pointing, “We’re here, and Jerry’s here.” Because that’s what they always say in every World War II movie. And the Nazis, they always [picks up a piece of paper and folds it] — I’m going to borrow this as a cigarette, they always in World War II movies smoke like this. [Holds “cigarette” in the middle and pretends to puff angrily.] You know what I mean? There’s something kind of insidious about it.
And yet the Nazis in the film aren’t treated as stereotypes. Some of the people joined the Party as a way to survive, but don’t agree with the ideology.
When Matthias Matschke comes in, he plays the Nazi searching the basement, and Brian said, “You and he would have been mates. You would have gone to school together. And now he’s made a decision about the Party, while he thinks you’re hemming and hawing.” So when he’s inspecting the basement, he comes in, he’s checking the height, and that suddenly seemed menacing. And in the moment when he bends down and picks up the paint brush, and he says, “Hans, what are you doing?” It’s him going, “You’re playing the part of a clown. Join the Party, and you’ll get work. Your wife wouldn’t have to wash other people’s underwear.” It wasn’t like this steely, slightly psychopathic Nazi. Which I thought was good. I remember in The Pianist, and I liked that film very much, there was a compassionate Nazi in that as well towards the end — he gives him a coat for warmth. And that was sort of brave. It didn’t make me want to believe in National Socialism, but mind you, the uniforms looked damn good, don’t they? [Laughs.]
The other thing is seeing the swastika — talk about a logo! It does something to you. I think as [The Book Thief] goes on, like when it’s Hitler’s birthday, and there’s many more flags on the street, and Rose is going, “Hans! Get the flag on the window! If we don’t have one, it’ll look like we’re making a statement.” They’re only doing it to just get by. But there’s no words on it. No motto. It’s just a symbol, and everybody’s going, “We yield to your singular, insane vision.” [Hitler] must have been really ga-ga by the end. I love the Bruno Ganz film [Downfall], even if a lot of people complained about humanizing him. I found his fits of rage and frustration terrifying and kind of fascinating, because he was the top guy, and there were key people trying to get rid of him.
This is the understatement of the year, but Hitler had a lot of issues, paranoia just being one of them.
[Laughs.] I like it! That’s a headline: “Hitler Must Have Had a Lot of Issues.” Have you read The Spear of Destiny? Trevor Ravenscroft’s book? Read it. I read it two decades ago, and presumably, they had the spear that pierced Christ’s side, and it’s always in the Teutonic folklore. The Nazis were into a lot of that mysticism. Hitler was into these theories of fire and ice, and I always think that’s just nuts.
Have you ever stolen a book?
I grew up in that generation, Abbie Hoffman, Steal This Book. And that was like university intellectuals, counter-culturalist hippies who all believe property is theft, do you know what I mean? Just take it. Defy the system. I did steal a book. It was a library book. I’ve always loved musical theater, and there was this fabulous book of Cole Porter lyrics which came out in the early seventies, and I borrowed it from the library. And I thought, I need this but I can’t afford to buy it. It would have cost like $25 then, and probably about $95 today. And it was all his lyrics. So yeah, [laughs] I’m the guy who stole Cole Porter’s lyrics from the library. I’m such a maverick!
They might find you and fine you, but you can probably pay it now. So you know they’re doing another Pirates of the Caribbean movie …
As far as I know, [my character] Barbossa’s got quite a substantial presence, but I haven’t read the script yet. In the fourth one, he’s working for the king, so he’s a nicer type of person.
So does that mean you want a chance to show some of the “spat out of hell” Barbossa in this next one?
I’m hoping there’s a gorgeous girl pirate that he gets. [Laughs.] That would be interesting. Everybody would believe that Jack Sparrow would inevitably get the girl, but she likes an older man.