Thirteen-year-old Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse is flicking paper airplanes across the windowless conference room of the Ritz-Carlton Miami Beach when Cultist walks in to meet her and British director Brian Percival. Percival, best known as the Emmy-winning director of many episodes of Downton Abbey, and Nélisse are at the end of a month-long tour supporting their new feature film, The Book Thief, opening this Friday. Below his short-cropped salt and pepper hair, Percival smiles warmly as Nélisse states the obvious: "We're making paper airplanes."
A moment later, the original novel's author Markus Zusak, a 38-year-old from Australia born of German parents, walks in. His award-winning book follows 9-year-old Liesel Meminger, a young girl adopted by a German family during a time of anti-Semitism and mass book burnings in a small German village as World War II looms. "It's my parents' stories that I heard growing up," says Zusak. "My mom and dad were so young during this time ... she was so lucky, being that young [and] even my dad, who had the Russians come into his town after the war."
Zusak's story captures irrepressible humanity shining through the grim reality of wartime. By taking a young person's perspective of the war, not only does he stay true to his parents' point of view, but also charges his story, which happens to be narrated by the Grim Reaper, with childlike innocence. "People say war and death are like best friends," says the author, "or where there is war, death isn't far behind."
It was Zusak who first spotted Nélisse, the Canadian actress who portrays Liesel in the film version of his book. He could not help but take notice of her performance in her debut feature role in another very humanistic film, Philippe Falardeau's Monsieur Lazhar. Percival also could not help but be charmed. "I really loved the film," the director says. "I thought she was terrific."
Nélisse, who is now 13, says playing a girl who learns to read during a time of book burnings gave her a not only a new appreciation of books but also a more profound perspective of life. "Not just towards books, but towards everything," she says. "I can kind of enjoy every second, every minute of my life a bit more and take care of my family more."
Percival calls Nélisse "one in a million," with a laugh and a big grin. "The thing about Liesel is she's got this naïve vulnerability about her, ever since right in the beginning of the film, and she's also got an incredibly feisty side. She's strong-willed. When she really believes in something, she'll do it. She stands by her word, and it's really difficult to find a kid that's got both those qualities."
Percival no longer directs episodes for Downton Abbey ("It was a great show to be involved with, and really, really fond memories and lots of good friends still," he says), however, The Book Thief and Downton share stories about women rising to their strengths in oppressive worlds. "I must admit, I like stories that involve strong women," says the director. "I mean, Liesel's a kid, but I don't know why, I just find these stories interesting. I think, with Downton, because it was the beginning of getting the vote in England and everything, and things were beginning to change for the better ... wars change things. Whenever a war's over, people expect change, and that started to happen in Edwardian England, and it happened after the Second World War, too."
As a matter of fact, he says his favorite episode of Downton is the final one from the series' first season. "Where they announce the outbreak of war," he explains. "That ties up a lot of dramatic story lines into one resolve, and I remember we were shooting it and the sun was setting over Highclere Castle, which is the house that we use, and it just felt like that was the end of the British Empire as people knew it then because the First World War changed everything, so it was quite a poignant time."
Poignancy and war is also not far from the heart of The Book Thief. Though told through the eyes of a child, the horrors of war on the human soul are not lost on the young actress who plays the film's protagonist. Nélisse remains blown away at the idea that there was a time when humanity was capable of some of the acts depicted in the film, including turning-in Jews for the sake of the nation and burning books in giant bon fires at rallies where everyone sang "Deutschland über alles." The actress says, "I just could never understand why. How could they believe this? How could they think that that's normal, and that's, like, good?"
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The Book Thief is rated PG-13 and runs 127 minutes. It opens Friday, November 22, at Regal South Beach Stadium 18, 1120 Lincoln Road , Miami Beach, (305) 674-6766.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.