11/05/2013 01:07 pm ET

Geoffrey Rush On 'The Book Thief,' Chasing His EGOT, And His Desire To Do A Screwball Comedy


For a while, Geoffrey Rush kept a book in which he wrote down the name of every script that he'd considered.

Had he continued the practice, this would have been quite a large book at this point in the Oscar-winning actor's career. It would surely be interesting reading, too, considering that Rush is more known for his more "artistic" movies, even though he certainly hasn't shied away from more mainstream, blockbuster fare. (The last "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie alone made over $1 billion worldwide.) No one, though, really thinks of Rush as a guy who stars in blockbusters -- he's more known as a guy from Oscar-winning films like "The King's Speech" (which many don't realize actually was a huge blockbuster).

Rush is now starring in the "The Book Thief," based on the immensely popular book of the same name. He plays Hans, a German man living in Germany during World War II, who has refused to join the Nazi party. Along with his wife (Emily Watson), he adopts a young illiterate girl named Liesel (Sophie Nélisse). Their new daughter eventually teaches herself to read with the help of Hans and a young Jewish man named Max (Ben Schnetzer), who is hiding from the Nazis in Hans' basement.

We discussed the film when I met with a very welcoming Rush at his Midtown Manhattan hotel room.

Nazis always make good movie villains.
Yeah. Well, yeah, that's an interesting thought, because if we have a film heritage about this particular point in history, we've always seen it from a British or American -- particularly -- perception of the war. The Brits were always, it was their war and they were protecting themselves from the Nazis.

It's an interesting point you make, because we usually don't see World War II through the lens of a German citizen.
No ... so that was, I suppose, one of our key things because of the source material of the novel and the screenplay. If there's anything really invaluable and fresh about it, it's a domestic perspective or it's from the microcosm of a small southern Bavarian township, a community there, a 10-year-old girl's journey into young womanhood, that's the perspective that we're seeing this big picture through.

You're a good accordion player in this movie. Or was that movie magic?
Well, I'm there and I'm pressing the buttons. And I said, you know, I don't want this to be handle-doubled or faked up. But I said, "These are like Hans' little monologues." He's not a particularly articulate or verbose character except when he needs to be ... so the accordion, for me, was the choice of when he played it to help abate [Liesel's] initial grief when she arrives. I think Hans has a really sweet and natural emotional intelligence.

So that really was you playing?
I learnt to play, but I don't think I would play quite so sweetly or tunefully.

I have a suggestion, because you're only a Grammy away from the EGOT...
[Laughs] Oh, yeah, yeah. Well, my piano tutor, when we were learning, he shot one of our early rehearsals on his iPhone. And he filmed me playing and I said to him, "Can you just say to a musician friend of yours that Geoffrey's not a hundred percent convinced that his accordion playing is strong enough to be in the film. Does he need hand-doubling or whatever?" And they absolutely saw the rehearsal footage and said, "Wow! He's learned all this in four weeks? This is brilliant."

See? There you go!
Yeah. Ha.

I'll look forward to that next holiday season, "Geoffrey Rush Plays The Tunes."
Well, he said, "You can be the support act when we go on a national tour of Germany."

I feel like you have the best of both worlds with your roles. You look like you're having the time of your life in the "Pirates" movies.
Yeah. When we get back on the boats next November or something, that will be 12 years after the first shoot. And it's a big creative family, and it's very enjoyable to go back. And I'm lucky, because throughout that franchise, they keep shifting the character. I get to work with the king and change sides and lose a leg -- and all of that. So I never felt as though I've had to just pump out the same set of characteristics.

I feel you've been really careful with the more blockbuster-type movies, not doing too many, but maybe I'm reading too much into it.
Well, no. I like the repertoire to have balance. I mean, that always happened in my theatrical life -- particularly when I was in company work, which I've done a number of times ... And I'd always liked bouncing around between -- you know, just recently, I did "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," because I love musical theater. That's one of those roles that's sort of written for a character actor, not so much a musical theater phenomenon. And before that, I did Lady Bracknell in "The Importance of Being Earnest," and yeah, I quite like mixing it up.

Has anyone offered you a big budget movie, that at the time you thought, "Well, that one's kind of dumb," but then it came out and you thought, "Well, that turned out much better than I thought; wish I would have done that one"?
For a while there, I kept a little book just for interest of scripts that had been sent to me that I hadn't responded to or didn't feel as though I was right for. There are so many reasons when a script gives you a bit of a calling and when it doesn't. And I honestly can say, there's probably less than a handful of films in that book that I wish I had had the chance to do it. But generally, I've been very pleased.

Is there an example?
Not so much in how the movie turned out, just that I would like to have had the chance to play that role. In fact, I think I can honestly say there isn't one that got away that would have altered the course of my life forever. You know what I mean?

When we spoke around the time "The King's Speech" came out, you joked that you and Colin Firth should do a buddy cop movie because of the rapport between you two. When's that coming?
I wouldn't mind something along the lines of a screwball comedy, because I think screwball comedies were always anchored in very high stakes as farces. I mean, the characters aren't aware they're being funny, but you need a comedic undercurrent to play into the temperature.

Obviously, "The King's Speech" isn't a screwball comedy, but there's a little bit of that in there and the stakes are high.
The stakes are high. And that was something that came from the lucky chance we had of reading all the diaries that Lionel Logue had written. And he kind of hinted that there was always a lot of -- not humor -- but there was a sort of sardonic wit and playfulness sometimes in George VI as he gained more confidence with his speaking and stuff. He'd say things like, "So, Logue, what's going on? Are we at war or not?" And it was that that we thought: that sort of natural sort of comedy.

You know what people don't realize about that movie? It wasn't an art house movie that just happened to win an Oscar. That movie made a ton of money.
Yeah, yeah. Half of "Pirates." [Laughs] I know.

I think it's nice proof that that kind of a movie can still do extremely well.
Well, on paper, people would say, "Oh, it's Oscar bait." And I used to say, "When I read it, I thought it was a very interesting story." Two middle aged guys sitting in a room. Some of our scenes were 12 pages and one of them stammers. That is not box office gold -- unless you're into "My Dinner with Andre," you know what I mean?

Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.



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