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The Book Thief – Emily Watson interview

The Book Thief

Interview by Rob Carnevale

EMILY Watson talks about the challenges of playing Rosa Hubermann in The Book Thief and why she found it fascinating to offer some insight into an ordinary German family during the Second World War as well as actually shooting the film in Berlin.

She also reflects on some of her career choices, including playing Janet Leach in Appropriate Adult, and why she feels her roles have been getting more interesting and complex the older she gets.

Q. It’s interesting that The Book Thief was shot in Berlin… Did it help?
Emily Watson: It was really interesting shooting there actually, for lots of reasons. We shot in Babelsberg Film Studios, which in itself has an incredible history. It’s the oldest film studios and it’s been there for over 100 years and it’s lived under Nazi occupation and was under Nazi control and then it was under the Stasi. They’ve had a lot of interference, so there’s a real interesting history there. So, it was great to be there. And to be in Berlin was amazing because… particularly with this book, and not just because it’s set during the Second World War, but due to the nature of the subject matter and the dichotomy of it being one of the most civilised cities on Earth with incredible culture… one of the greatest orchestras and museums and a central government of the worst atrocity mankind has ever committed. So, what went wrong?

And in a way what went wrong were the kind of decisions that people made while sitting around their kitchen table, like the Hubermanns. They were the building blocks of that… a whole nation loses its moral compass because people weren’t as brave as they were. It’s a very honest city. It’s baring witness to exactly what happened in a very accurate way and it’s going to punish itself forever and will never ever forget what it did. And we were also surrounded by a German cast and crew, so everybody had stories. I didn’t feel I could ask but everybody’s grandparents, at least, in some way related to those events. Whether they’d been a part of it or not you didn’t know…

Q. Was there an interest in the project from outside? Did anyone object to seeing the Nazi swastika on the film set?
Emily Watson: There were interesting things… the scene where they shot the book burning was filmed in a small town near the Polish border and driving that way you were very aware of… God, all the things that happened here. It’s a medieval town that’s still intact and seeing all the Swastika flags was – when they filmed the children’s choir singing prohibited material. If you try and look it up on the Internet, you can’t find it but somebody might be alerted to your search – it’s that sort of level of badness. So, they had to get special permission to use it in the film. It’s one of my favourite sequences in the film, actually [Liesel], because you see her, for the first time, enjoying the experience of being with other children and feeling part of something and getting the feel-good factor from being in a choir and singing and doing what all those Germans did – which was being a part of something passionate. It’s a little bit like it’s a fete or a fayre with a bonfire night. But then you see her listening to the burgmeister, and you see the penny drop and she realises what’s going on.

Q. How long did it take you to master the accent?
Emily Watson: We were out there for two or three weeks before we started filming and I worked with a dialect coach every day. I always think the dialects will be really difficult and I’m never sure whether I’ll get them but actually there’s always rules and if you follow the rules you’ll get there. Suddenly, it will click and you’ll go: “Oh yeah, I’ve got it now.” But I tend to stay in it. I keep talking like that on-set. But also we were with a German crew and cast, who were all speaking English with German accents, so I was in very helpful company.

Q. How did you first respond to the script when you read it and its emphasis on language and words?
Emily Watson: I remember at a read-through just really thinking this is a love letter to the power of storytelling. I felt I really connected with it because it was saying that you have to keep telling stories and you have to keep believing in literature and books because it’s what makes us human and it’s what makes us civilised. If you don’t have that, then the consequences are catastrophic.

The Book Thief

Q. Did you have an interest in the Second World War?
Emily Watson: Yeah, my grandfather fought in both wars and my grandmother saw people lost in both sides of the family. So, I had a strong sense of it growing up. But it was interesting to tell the story from the point of view of a very ordinary German family. There’s actually a Jewish institute that celebrates the fact there are 24,000 individuals who are known to have aided Jewish people during that period – 24,000 people who put themselves in very grave danger. In a way, for Rosa [my character] it was her awakening and how she came alive… when she starts to possibly know what it might mean to enjoy yourself.

Q. Rosa is feisty at the beginning. How did you enjoy charting her transformation?
Emily Watson: It was really interesting to work her out. First of all, I was really attracted to the idea of playing someone really horrible and unattractive and unpleasant and foul mouthed, just because it’s really good fun as an actor. But then when you start to work somebody out you realise that nobody sets out to be unpleasant. They have a reason for it. In a way, she was like many, many, many people in Europe and in Germany very disappointed and very bitter. She was washing other people’s dirty clothes by hand to put bread on the table. They’re fighting poverty and nothing in her life is as she imagined it would be. She married this wonderful, romantic, poetic figure – a musician and a painter – sits around and doesn’t do anything. So, she’s angry and closed off and stressed all of the time because of that. So, it’s perfect material for national socialism because they come along and say: “Here’s somebody to blame, come with us, we’ll make it all better.” And yet she’s with this guy who’s obviously none of those things and very awake and you think there must be more to this than meets the eye… and then when a Jewish boy falls though their door and it starts to crack open and it reveals what she used to be. She gets more back to being a decent person and a very brave person.

Q. You say no one starts out to be unpleasant. But do you believe in the existence of pure evil?
Emily Watson: It’s a really hard question because there is a point beyond which you lose your humanity. For the most part, for ordinary Germans, it wasn’t a question of them being evil; they were just saving their own skins, or they were not speaking up through fear. I’m sure for the majority of people that’s what it was and it accumulated. But there were people who were directing it who got to a place of depravity in serving their ideals and that’s very difficult to fathom. I have sort of come across that before in another way when I did that piece about Fred and Rose West [Appropriate Adult]. You kind of look down a hole and the more you try and understand, the less you understand in a way.

Q. How did that role affect you?
Emily Watson: In a way I approached it as an innocent [Emily played Janet Leach]. It was much harder for Dominic [West] and Monica [Dolan] because they read a lot of the book and a lot of those books shouldn’t be called books really. So, they took in a lot of awful stuff. But even so I found it dreadful because, as an actor, you have to employ your imagination, that’s your job, and it was about imagining the fate of these people. I couldn’t get away fast enough in the end.

Q. The reaction from people watching it was great. But as an actress, and a bit like Michael Fassbender’s role in 12 Years A Slave, is it true that you almost don’t want the recognition for playing such an awful person?
Emily Watson: In a way, for me, that was different because the character that I played was, in some senses, a bit of a hero because unwittingly and in her own dogged fashion, she unearthed… accidentally she became close to him and he was the only person she would confide in and she unearthed a whole depth about that crime that led to the discovery of victims that would never have happened without her. And she was terribly damaged by that. She wasn’t just an innocent, she became involved in a way that was very questionable… not that she did anything criminal, but she got too close to him. So, in a way I felt good for her that her story was being told.

Q. You seem to quite like these heavy pieces… Oranges & Sunshine is another one that must have stayed with you?
Emily Watson: Yeah. That’s different again. I think it’s that they’re really complicated and interesting parts of life. When I was sent the Appropriate Adult script, before I read it I said: “Really, Fred and Rose West? No way!” But once I read it, I realised that it was a piece that could actually change the tone of the conversation in a way because it had become such a preserve of the tabloid press, in the least nice sense of the word, and this was an intelligent attempt at least to reveal something about it that was seeing some understanding. In a way, as you get older, I’ve had some interesting roles in my time but the complexity increases the older you get, which is great. It’s a good challenge – not always fun though.

The Book Thief

Q. How did you view Rosa’s decision making from the point of view of being a parent yourself?
Emily Watson: I did keep asking myself the question: “Would I endanger my children, who are five and eight, to save the life of a complete stranger?” [Pauses] I don’t know if I would. I hope I would. I hope I would. But God it would be hard. It would be a really tough call. So, you do imagine yourself in those situations and that’s how to kind of discover the humanity of it, by going there, and that’s how you make the interesting discoveries. One of your esteemed colleagues reminded me the other day of something that Churchill said in the war when he was asked if he would cut the budget to the arts to feed the war effort. He said: “No, then what would we be fighting for?” It’s what makes us civilised and that’s what’s so interesting about Berlin because it’s a very civilised place and yet it was not.

Q. Did you enjoy the Oscar experience [she was nominated for Hilary & Jackie and Breaking The Waves]?
Emily Watson: Yeah, I kind of did. It was like being in a room full of movie stars [laughs]… that was pretty thrilling. I got to meet some really, really amazing people. And when you’re nominated you’re right at the centre of it all and it’s quite exciting. But also I know that a lot of it is politics and money. You don’t get in that position if you haven’t done your due column inches and they’ve spent ‘x’ amount of millions on this and that.

Q. How do you view the loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman?
Emily Watson: I worked with him a few times. I worked with him on Red Dragon and Synecdoche, New York, and we had a few scenes together. I wasn’t close with him and I don’t know him that well but I feel really devastated in a way that I think probably hundreds of actors that worked with him do because he was so good. He was so really what everyone aspires to be as an actor – a really true actor who was doing absolutely that thing of revealing humanity. Every time he worked he did something surprising and amazing and revealing. He didn’t do any of the bullshit. He wasn’t a celebrity. He wasn’t playing that game. He was just doing great, great work and it’s devastating. The manner of his passing is truly tragic.

Q. How did you find shooting some of the more emotional scenes in The Book Thief?
Emily Watson: Well, it’s very poignant, the subject matter, and some of the time we were playing very strong emotional scenes and you get emotional doing those anyway because it’s your job to do that. But I found the end scene… first of all, I’d been back in London anyway and then we had to shoot that scene because they destroyed the set [in order to capture it]… but just walking out onto that destroyed set, I found that so shocking and upsetting – that sense of lives gone, everything gone. I remember thinking: “If this was your street…” And then we watched Sophie [who plays Liesel] rehearse her scene and Geoffrey [Rush] and I had to walk away because we couldn’t watch it.

Q. When you finish a film, do you feel a sense of relief or sadness?
Emily Watson: It’s kind of both really. Often, it’s a relief to walk away because you’ve told the story and that’s it and you’ve quite often been through lots of it very thoroughly and it’s quite exhausting and it’s time to go. But also in a way, it’s also kind of your work family in a way and usually you’re in some far flung corner of the globe, you’ve had an amazing time with all of those people and then 80 or 90% of them you will never see again. And that’s always really sad but it’s the nature of the beast.

Read our review of The Book Thief

Read our interview with director Brian Percival