The movie is about a middle-aged German couple (Rush and British actress Emily Watson) who agree to raise a young orphan girl, who becomes obsessed with reading in a time when the Nazis banned or burned most of the books in her village.
Asked what it was like to again play Watson's screen husband after the two teamed up for 2004's "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers," Rush told United Press International in New York recently, "We brought an old marriage into a new marriage."
Rush went on to explain how he, Watson and Canadian actress Sophie Nelisse transformed into the kindly Hans, overworked Rosa and vibrant Liesel on the movie's set.
"Almost by default -- it could have been the luck of the draw with the first assistant director's scheduling -- that we did all of the kitchen scenes first because Berlin was freezing and snowed out. So we couldn't go out and do some of the back-lot stuff, so we were in the studio where they built the kitchen and the bedroom, the interiors, which I found very useful because it gave us a chance to talk with the art director and the production designer about the layout of the house," Rush noted.
"Emily would say this would be her work station for the laundry and running the household. I'd shift a chair, so I could be near the radio. Where'd I sit at the table?" he recalled about how he and his co-stars worked out the dynamics in the house. "And then what was the impact like of a stranger, a new girl, a grief-stricken girl coming into that environment and we then shot all of those sequences that were in the kitchen, so we put pieces of the jigsaw together for the whole film. The little chain we had was from her introduction to me playing the accordion for her the first time to Rosa finding out we'd lost the burgermeister laundry franchise to the point where I come back from the war, so we had that nice little string of events and I got to know Sophie and Liesel kind of incrementally at the same rate and I think it played out well for us."
"I seem to remember there was a lot of Geoffrey sitting in a chair and me storming about doing everything, which sort of defined the relationship," Watson added. "You sitting there rolling cigarettes that you never smoked and playing the accordion and passing comment, and me just really angry that he was sitting there and I was washing other people's clothes, washing other people's dirty linens and that space really defined that. I was to-ing and doing and fro-ing and to-ing and fro-ing and doing and he sat still in that room and that was kind of the nature of their relationship."
So, how did Rush learn to play the accordion and has he kept up his practice since the film wrapped?
"I had a tutor. I love a task. It takes your mind off of acting, in a way," said the Oscar-winning actor.
"On the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' films, I loved the fact that I've got two or three big sword fight routines that will take a couple of months or some pretty good discipline to learn them. The script [for 'The Book Thief'] was fairly specific about when Hans would play the accordion and I liked that because he is not a particularly verbose character. He lives in his own kind of little bubble world. But the accordion moments for me were like my monologues because they always served to some degree the dramatic function of communicating with [Liesel] or empathizing with her," he said. "He's not a gifted grief therapist, but he thinks maybe a tune of understanding of going, 'Hey, I know that tune as well and it's OK to feel sad because it's beautiful, but good morning and welcome to the house.' And so forth. I hoped to convince all of my fellow actors that I was a gifted -- well, not gifted because Hans is a bit of a golden amateur... As long as I convinced people there was some, well, no trickery involved. It was me there, but I didn't want people to hear properly the sound I was making."
Directed by Brian Percival, the big-screen adaptation of Markus Zusak's novel "The Book Thief" is in theaters now.