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."
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Sophie Nelisse is only 13 years old, but she's already faced big career decisions. She started training to be a gymnast at the age of 3 and has long had her eyes set on representing her native Canada at the 2016 Olympics. Then she had the opportunity of a lifetime - another opportunity of a lifetime - the lead in the film version of the beloved novel, "The Book Thief."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BOOK THIEF")
SOPHIE NELISSE: (as Liesel) My name is Liesel Meminger. I don't have a family or even a place to call home. I never understood the meaning of the word hope, but I'm about to meet the people who would change all that.
RATH: Liesel is taken in by a couple in Nazi Germany. Through the Holocaust and the war, as hatred and death loom around her, her passion for words helps her persevere. Sophie Nelisse had very little acting experience and no formal training, so landing the role was a shock.
NELISSE: When I went to audition, I had no idea I was going to even get a call back. I was just really going for fun. So when I got the part, I screamed, and I jumped into my brother's arms. I was really happy. And it was just a mixture of emotions because I was happy, I really wanted to start shooting, but then I was a bit stressed. I was a bit sad to leave my family for four months. I had a lot of schoolwork to catch up on.
RATH: And the other thing that I know about is you're very serious about gymnastics at basically the Olympic level, which means practicing for that is pretty much a full-time job, right?
NELISSE: Mm-hmm. If you want to train on kind of national, international level, you have about a week of break per year. So I was training about six hours per day. And, I mean, obviously, if I miss four months, I could never go to the Olympics. So it was kind of acting or gymnastics. It was a hard choice, but I chose acting. But I still love gymnastics. I follow my friends. Sometimes I go and see them training. I still really enjoy it.
RATH: Are there aspects of that that find their way into your acting, you know, how you use your body or, you know, how you move?
NELISSE: I think it has helped in many different ways. For example, I mean, if you're doing a beam routine and then you're in the middle of your backflip and there's, like, 6 years old girl that runs through the beam, if you lose concentration, you can fall and, you know, injure yourself. You have to know your body really well. So I think when you're acting, you know, I know where the camera is, I'm aware of what's happening around me or I know exactly where my mark is so I don't have to, like, look down.
RATH: Interesting. So in the film, you play Liesel, a German girl who is orphaned. You have this beautiful onscreen relationship with Geoffrey Rush who plays your adoptive father.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BOOK THIEF")
GEOFFREY RUSH: (as Hans) Let's make this our secret. We read it like a book in the basement.
NELISSE: (as Liesel) Thank you, Papa.
RATH: It feels like there's a real father-daughter love there on screen. What was it like working with him?
NELISSE: I actually didn't know who he was when I started to work with him. I've just heard that apparently he's a great actor. So I was completely honored to play with him, as well as Emily Watson. And he was just really like my father, just always there for me. And I never feel like I'm going in to work. I'd feel like I'm going to watch a clown all day. You know, he's going to be going around and starts (unintelligible) things. And then when they say action, he'll do the scene perfectly. And when they say cut, he'll do a magic trick.
RATH: You know, your character in the film lives through some, you know, the most awful events of the 20th century. I'm wondering what it was like for you, both being relatively young and not having done so much acting, to acting in a film about the Holocaust?
NELISSE: When I saw that it was on the Holocaust, really something that really interested me because I didn't know a lot about that, so I knew that I had to do some research. So I watched a lot of movies. I watched "Schindler's List," "The Reader," "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," "Life is Beautiful" and "The Pianist." And just walking through Berlin is really interesting because there's like all these walls and posters telling you stories about history. And seeing the Berlin Wall or some bomb shelters is really interesting. And you can learn so much just walking through the city.
RATH: But you didn't know much about the Holocaust before working on this project.
NELISSE: No, because I think - we only start learning about that in school, I think, about next year. I'm in eighth grade, so I'd say ninth grade, maybe.
RATH: Given that the film did deal with an awful lot of disturbing events, were there any scenes that were difficult for you, you know, especially as a new actor, to have to wrestle with?
NELISSE: I think it was - the hardest scenes were like the ones where I had to cry. And at the end of the day, that's - I think the hardest scenes are the one that you're the most proud of.
RATH: Your character in the film has a real passion for reading that transforms her life. How do you feel about reading?
NELISSE: I really - I love reading, just not really on an iPad or not on something else. I love the books, just being able to turn the pages. And I love to read because you kind of escape reality. And you're really - you have a liberty that you don't necessarily have kind of on Earth.
RATH: Sophie Nelisse is the star of "The Book Thief," which is in theaters now. Sophie, pleasure speaking with you. Best of luck.
NELISSE: Thank you so much. It was nice meeting you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.