Every so often, a young girl braves a lead role in a serious movie and displays an emotional depth uncanny for her age. We saw that last year with Quvenzhané Wallis, the nine-year-old star of Beasts of the Southern Wild, who became the youngest performer ever nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. This year’s sensation is Sophie Nélisse, a 13-year-old Québécoise. In the title role of The Book Thief, she plays Liesel, a traumatized girl sent to live with foster parents (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) in Nazi Germany. Based on Markus Zusak’s 2005 novel, which has sold eight million copies, this is a gentle Holocaust drama with echoes of Anne Frank—the foster parents hide a young Jewish man in the cellar, who becomes Liesel’s soulmate.
Though supported by a pair of Oscar-pedigree actors in Rush and Watson, Nélisse carries the movie on her small shoulders. She’s in virtually every scene of this two-hour period piece, which requires her to speak in a German accent and mature from a meek, illiterate child of 11 to a courageous 16-year-old who steals books to feed a nascent passion for literature. Rising to the challenge like a precocious Meryl Streep, Nélisse conveys effortless poise. With large blue eyes that summon depths of gravitas, she has a luminous presence that outshines her co-stars.
But acting was not her first passion. From the age of four, Nélisse studied gymnastics, and began acting in commercials only to finance her training. When The Book Thief came up, she says, “I didn’t want to do the audition, because I was training 35 hours a week. I wanted to go to the next Olympics. Now my goal is the Oscars. I’m not saying I would go now, but when I’m a big actress.”
Nélisse is holding court in a Toronto hotel room flanked by Rush, her Australian co-star, and Emmy-winning British director Brian Percival (Downton Abbey), who makes his feature debut with The Book Thief. Bubbly and talkative, she easily holds her own, with barely a trace of a French accent. She’s already accustomed to acclaim. For her searing performance in Monsieur Lazhar (2011)—Philippe Falardeau’s Oscar-nominated drama about a school traumatized by a teacher’s classroom suicide—Nélisse won both a Genie and a Jutra award. “Mister Lazhar, it changed my life,” she says, with a flourish of mock theatricality.
Before casting her in The Book Thief, the filmmakers had looked at some 1,000 prospects from around the world. When they saw Sophie’s homemade audition tape, says Percival, “there was just something special about it. She had this vulnerability, but also this real feistiness.” And Monsieur Lazhar proved she could navigate tough material. “Her emotional honesty and unadorned rapport with the lens is a prodigious gift,” says Rush. “The bonus was finding out how playful she is. Between takes, she’s a very sparky mate. Then suddenly, when the lens is active, we’re in this other zone, with a refugee child.”
Asked if it was a difficult role, Nélisse shrugs. “It’s in a period I never experienced. So I watched a bunch of movies—Schindler’s List, The Pianist, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Reader—to try to figure out what happened, then try to figure out what my character would have done or felt.” Aging five years, she adds, was the fun part. “I could get all these hairstyles and all this clothing and high heels. I always wanted to be 16.”
Nélisse’s father is a Montreal acoustic engineer, her mother a teacher—who quit her job to work as her daughter’s guardian on set. “I could pay a stranger, but I don’t want that,” says Nélisse, who already shows a distaste for celebrity: “All my friends are like, ‘It must be so nice to have a big crowd around you taking pictures.’ But I just like the acting part. I don’t like the famous part.” Still, at last week’s Hollywood Film Awards, which kick off the pre-Oscar primaries, she picked up an award as a rising talent and was thrilled to rub shoulders with the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Johnny Depp and Sandra Bullock. Becoming the next Meryl Streep would, of course, be awesome. But as Nélisse fiddles with her iPhone camera, she proudly explains that she’s been making videos—and what she really wants to do is direct.