THE BOOK THIEF
The Search for Liesel
Although the filmmakers had discussed some casting ideas for the roles of Hans and Rosa, they decided to first focus on finding their Liesel. The casting process began in the UK, and soon spread across Europe, the United States and Australia. Says Rosenfelt: "Liesel is a difficult character to cast. We were looking for so many qualities: she had to be accessible, real, curious, spirited, innocent and intelligent."
Percival continues: "We needed somebody who one moment you want to put your arms around and try to protect from the difficult world she's living in, but at the same time you can expect a kick in the groin for doing it. A really ballsy kid but at the same time really vulnerable. We had to find somebody who could convey Liesel's incredible spirit. It's that spirit that makes her endure and even flourish."
All in all it was a pretty tall order for a child actor, who, in addition, would have to be able to age on screen from 11 to 17.
The filmmakers saw almost a thousand candidates for the role. Zusak himself had a casting idea that proved impressively on target. He had attended a showing of a Canadian motion picture Monsieur Lazhar, which was nominated for an Academy Award for foreign language film, and its young star won a Genie Award for Best Supporting Actress. That acclaimed actress was Sophie Nelisse, whose indelible performance earned her many new fans, including the author of The Book Thief.
"Sophie's work in the film was amazing," says Zusak, "and as I walked out the cinema I thought she'd be great as Liesel. That was the first and only time I've assumed the mantle of a casting director, and I contacted the filmmakers and said, 'I've seen this girl...' -- but of course they had already planned to meet her!"
While Sophie had yet to formally do a screen test, Rosenfelt remembers that, "I think in our hearts we all knew she was Liesel as soon as we watched her tape."
A potential obstacle to Sophie taking on the role presented itself via another of her passions. A gifted athlete as well as thespian, she had started doing gymnastics at age three. By age six she wastraining 16 hours a week, and at 12, she was putting in as much as 30 hours a week. Sophie had achieved national prominence and had her eye on the Rio Olympics, when she got the call from her agent to test forTHE BOOK THIEF.
At first, Sophie was reluctant to pursue the role because her heart was set on competing in Rio, but when an injury threatened to shatter her Olympics dream she read the script, fell in love with the character, and was excited about meeting the filmmakers in Los Angeles.
Putting her boundless energy and focus into preparing for the screen test, Sophie says, "I screamed like crazy when my agent called to say I was going to play Liesel. I was so happy because I like the story so much. Even though it is set during wartime, the darkness is made bright by the nice things people do for each other. Liesel survives the challenges because of her will, and because she learns to read she has control over her life and how she thinks. The story makes you see things in a different way."
Having spent so many years training in competitive gymnastics, Sophie immediately understood Liesel's commitment and dedication to learning how to read: "Reading is Liesel's life. When she's with her books she manages to forget all the difficulties in her life. Reading allows Liesel's imagination to blossom and helps her lead a better life."
From the moment Sophie tested, she won the admiration of hearts of her new family of filmmakers. "I've never come across a child with that much raw talent, instinct and an awareness of everyone's emotions around her. I find it amazing that a 13 year old can actually know that much," says Percival. Adds Rosenfelt: "What I responded to in Sophie's performance, and where Brian took her, is that it's just so credible and real. When Sophie, as Liesel, cried on set, we all cried. It is a very powerful performance. Sophie works extremely hard at her craft and she really impressed us all."
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