USA TODAY - Director Brian Percival knew it was crucial to find the right actress to play Liesel Meminger, the young heroine of Markus Zusak's best-selling novel, The Book Thief.
But after seeing "thousands" of actresses from around the globe, Percival was stuck as he prepared for the film, out Nov. 15.
"Some were good in different ways but nobody was actually Liesel," he says. "And it was key that we found someone who didn't have to act it so much as just be Liesel."
When he received the audition tape of 12-year-old French Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse, Percival knew he had found the perfect person to play the vibrant girl mired in Nazi Germany.
"It was quite uncanny, this kid. I was taken right away," says Percival. "It was this mixture of naive innocence but at the same time she's actually quite ballsy. You feel that you can get kneed in the groin at any point."
Nélisse (whose 9-year-old sister Isabelle starred in the horror flick Mama) jumped on board with a cast that includes Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. The two play German foster parents who care for Liesel before hiding a young Jewish man (Ben Schnetzer) in their working-class home. Liesel discovers the joy of reading to such an extent that she resorts to stealing ever-scarce books.
"It's a big ask to have someone that age carry such a key role. If Sophie didn't get it right, everyone else would have struggled around her," says Percival, who helmed numerous episodes of PBS's Downton Abbey. "Fortunately, she just nailed it."
Even though she starred in 2011's Monsieur Lazhar, Oscar-nominated for best foreign film, Nélisse says accepting the Book Thief role was daunting.
"There were so many big actors (already cast) I thought they'd say, 'Oh, she's not very good.' " says Nélisse. "But after the first week they found that I was not that bad."
Rush, who won an Oscar for 1996's Shine, was smitten.
"I've had the opportunity in my career to have played opposite some extraordinary actresses and Sophie is just a true, natural original," says Rush. "She's a gifted performer who has an instinctive and highly creative rapport with the lens."
Despite the tough emotional content of the story, in which Sophie comes of age in an intolerant society while dealing with allied bombing attacks, Rush found that Nélisse was a "great ally" in keeping the set buoyant.
"She is an absolutely hilarious clown," says Rush of his co-star, who celebrated her 13th birthday with a cake on a German soundstage that replicated the novel's downtrodden village. "In between takes she would have me rolling on the floor laughing my (butt) off. There were some tough scenes to do, but she would always prick the bubble after and make me laugh."
The celebrations have quietly continued for The Book Thief. The filmmakers are quickly completing the project, whose release date was moved from winter 2014 to Nov. 15 - a key calendar slot for dramas seeking awards buzz. "There is a real air of excitement, we're feeling very buoyant," says Rush.
The Book Thief deals with some heavy subject matter, but ultimately it's an uplifting story about human perseverance.
"There are some devastating aspects of watching a girl going from age 10 to 15 trying to make sense of a world so badly off balance," says Rush. "But in a way it's such a fresh story, there is such rich detailed humanity in the ordinary lives of these people."
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)