13-Year-Old 'Book Thief' Star Sophie Nelisse Brings Down House at Academy Screening (Video)

The Canadian actress, a sleeper contender in this year's best actress Oscar race, earned laughs for remarks about her co-stars and impressed many with her discussion about the importance of movies about the Holocaust.
John Shearer/Invision/AP
Geoffrey Rush, Sophie Nelisse

I periodically moderate Q&As with people who worked on Oscar contenders following the official screenings of their film at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. On Nov. 3, I moderated one such conversation that was particularly enjoyable for me and, I sensed, a roomful of Academy members.

After a well-received screening of 20th Century Fox's The Book Thief, an adaptation of Markus Zusak's 2006 novel of the same title that was released nationwide on Friday, I sat down with the film's director Brian Percival, supporting actor Geoffrey Rush and lead actress Sophie Nelisse, who is just 13. Nelisse, a Canadian who previously appeared in just one other film -- Monsieur Lazhar (2011), which received an Oscar nom for best foreign language film -- was chosen over 1,000 other girls for the part of Liesel, an illiterate youngster who is adopted by an open-minded German family during World War II and learns to read and understand the complexities of the world.

FILM REVIEW: The Book Thief

The actress gives a remarkably poised and mature performance in the film that might not just set her on the path to stardom but could also earn her serious consideration for a best actress Oscar nomination. She certainly didn't hurt her case during the Academy Q&A, highlights of which you can watch at the bottom of this post.

The precocious youngster had this journalist, her collaborators and the gathered Oscar voters in stitches as she described her unfamiliarity with Oscar/Emmy/Tony-winner Rush prior to arriving on set ("I had no idea who he was. … I'd heard that apparently he was a good actor."); her misunderstanding about who her other co-star would be ("I have to say, the first day I thought I was shooting with Emma Watson," the Harry Potter star, instead of two-time Oscar nominee Emily Watson); and more.

But, when the focus of the conversation shifted to the social significance of the film, Nelisse turned more serious: "We don't learn about the Holocaust in my school," she said, "so when I did the movie I had to do a lot of research," such as watching movies (Schindler's List, Life Is Beautiful, The Pianist, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Reader) and visiting historical sites throughout Berlin, where the film was shot.

She continued, "Kids my age -- our generation -- don't know enough about what happened [during World War II]. Some people think it's annoying that we keep on making these [Holocaust] movies, but I don't think so because all of the [concentration] camp survivors are gonna die at some point -- they're not gonna be alive soon -- and I just hope that in 100 years people remember what happened, first of all to not let it happen again and sort of for a way to remember the people that died and to remember the people that fought for them. So I just think it's really important that we keep on making these movies."

Nelisse is fantastic in The Book Thief -- "She's carrying 97 percent of this film," Rush said at the Q&A -- and she certainly endeared herself to many at the Academy Q&A, all of which begs the question: Could she somehow emerge from one of the most competitive best actress Oscar races in history (the field could conceivably be filled entirely by past winners) and score a nomination? The odds do not appear to be in her favor, but people who have bet against performances in Holocaust movies, including me, have been burned in the past, so I would never say never. If she does indeed beat the odds, she would become the third-youngest best actress Oscar nominee in history, behind only Quvenzhane Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) and Keisha Castle-Hughes for Whale Rider (2003).

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg