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Sophie Nelisse says years of training as a gymnast taught her to focus in ways that helped her acting on the set of The Book Thief. (Twentieth Century Fox)

At 13, 'Book Thief' Star Picks The Screen Over The Balance Beam

by NPR Staff
Nov 16, 2013 (All Things Considered)

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Sophie Nelisse stars alongside Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush. She says she didn't know who he was before the film.

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At 13, Sophie Nelisse is already making big career decisions. She started training to be a gymnast at the age of 3 and has long had dreams to represent Canada in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

"If you want to train at a national, international level, you have about [one] week of break per year," Nelisse tells host Arun Rath. "So I was training about six hours per day."

She put that part of her life aside when she was given another opportunity of a lifetime: to play the lead in the film The Book Thief.

"It was acting or gymnastics," she says. "It was a hard choice, but I chose acting."

She stars as Liesel — a young German girl taken in by a couple, played by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, in Nazi Germany. Through the Holocaust and the war, as hatred and death loom around her, her passion for words helps her persevere.

Prior to landing the role, Nelisse had been in one film, and had couple of commercial and TV roles at home in Canada, but had no formal training.

So, landing the role of Liesel was a shock.

"I was just really going for fun, thinking that I'm never going to get the part. When I got the part I screamed and jumped into my brother's arms, I was really happy."

Before getting the role, she didn't know that much about the Holocaust.

"We only start learning about that in school, I think, about next year. I'm in eighth grade."

She watched classic films about the period — from Schindler's List, to The Boy In The Striped Pajamas. She also had a dialect coach for the German accent she has in the film.

Like her character, Nelisse says she shares a love of reading. "I love to read because you kind of escape reality," she says. "When you read you can kind of think whatever you want, you can do whatever you want. You have a liberty that you don't necessarily have on Earth."

Nelisse says that her years of gymnastics training helped her when she was shooting the film. "If you're doing a beam routine and you're in the middle of your back flip ... if you lose concentration, you can fall and injure yourself. You have to know your body really well," she explains.

"So, I think when you're acting, I know where the camera is, I know what's happening around me."

Though the Olympics are no longer on the horizon for Nelisse, she says gymnastics still holds a special place in her heart.

"I follow my friends, sometimes I go see them training," she says. "I'm still really into it."

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