Rush in no hurry to retire
GEOFFREY Rush reckons 2013 was “pretty remarkable” and “quite rich” as far as his acting career goes. First, he wrapped his run of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre. That, he says, “was a bit of a dream come true to play a classic comedy role, an unashamed show queen”.
Then he went off to Germany to shoot a movie, The Book Thief, at Berlin’s historic Studio Babelsberg.
“This is where the greats used to work, like Fritz Lang and the young Billy Wilder,” Rush says. “You drive there in the morning and you fi nd yourself on Marlene- Dietrich- Allee or Quentin- Tarantino- Strasse, because he did Inglourious Basterds there.”
Then there was his “big exhibition”, The Extraordinary Shapes of Geoffrey Rush, which was on show for almost fi ve months at the Arts Centre Melbourne.
At fi rst, Rush was worried it might be seen as a full stop on his career. Or worse, a huge selfindulgence ( at one stage he told the curators it should be called “Me, Me, Me”).
“I didn’t want it to be a eulogy or a vanity project,” Rush says.
“It was more my sentence in a bigger story of Australian theatre, from how it’s changed when I started in the early 1970s to now.”
While Rush’s sights are now on 2014 – he’ll begin this year by shooting mythical adventure Gods of Egypt in Australia with director Alex Proyas and co- star Gerard Butler – audiences will only see the fruits of Rush’s 2013 trip to Berlin this week.
Based on Australian author Markus Zusak’s best- selling novel, The Book Thief follows an everyday German couple, Hans and Rosa ( played by Rush and English actor Emily Watson), who open their home to a young girl during World War II and hide a Jewish refugee under their stairs.
It was the ordinariness of Hans that appealed to Rush, who took on the role as a challenge after a string of “characters who are fairly boisterous, fairly flamboyant whether it’s pirates or anything else out of my crazy repertoire,” he says.
“Hans was a chance for me to look at a seemingly very ordinary man, this working- class housepainter in a small, southern German town who, as the script develops, reveals deeper strengths and capabilities, or anxieties and fears because of the rise of the Nazi ideology. It was chosen in a very self- challenging way, to see how minimalist I could be.”
While The King’s Speech touched on the war, The Book Thief marks Rush’s fi rst real World War II movie. But he says it’s different from what we’ve come to expect of the genre.
“The gift of Markus’s novel was that it gave a different angle, because it has an empathy for ordinary German people on the street being corroded by this system. We as the Allies, the English- speaking world, we tend to remember those World War II movies that were completely from our point of view: the enemy were always rather faceless Nazis who smoked their cigarettes holding them upside down in their hand.”
The thief of the title is played by Sophie Nelisse, who turned 13 during the shoot. Rush had seen the young Canadian in the arthouse hit Monsieur Lazhar and thought she was “dazzling”. He was even more impressed when Nelisse came to him at the beginning of The Book Thief shoot with the idea that she might go a bit “method” and try stealing a book.
Rush and Nelisse’s mother tipped off the local Berlin book store before she carried out her plan.
Though 49 years separate the pair, Rush kept Nelisse laughing between takes with magic tricks and annoying questions.
“She was training very seriously to be a gymnast; her goal was to go to the 2016 Olympics in Brazil,” Rush explains. “I don’t have a sporting bone in my body, but I would say to her, ‘ Did you do all that stuff where you fl ip over the bar and you’re not allowed to wobble?’ She’d roll her eyes.
“I’d say, ‘ Do you also do that stuff where you dance on the mat in some shockingly loud leotard with cheesy music and excessive eye make- up on?’ Then she’d really roll her eyes.”
Part of the post- war baby boomer generation, Rush connects with The Book Thief’s musings on the power of words.
From Quills to Shakespeare in Love and The King’s Speech, words have certainly played a big part in his fi lm career.
“Some actors are terribly good with a gun; they make an entire career playing cops or criminals or cowboys or whatever. When I read a script I do get drawn to men of ideas,” the 62- year- old admits with a laugh. “Even if it’s as perverse as the Marquis de Sade.”
THE BOOK THIEF Now showing at the State and Village cinemas