Since her astonishing, fearless screen debut in Lars Von Trier’s 1996 film “Breaking the Waves,” Emily Watson has been a reliable fixture of films, albeit ones usually not as intense. Having worked for Robert Altman (“Gosford Park”), Paul Thomas Anderson (“Punchdrunk Love”) and Steven Spielberg (“War Horse”), she finds herself turning to literature: Markus Zusak’s bestseller “The Book Thief.” Watson plays a grouchy mother, Rosa, living in Germany under Nazi rule. She and her slacker husband (Geoffrey Rush) adopt an orphan, Liesel (Sophie Nelisse).
Did you know about the book beforehand?
No, I didn’t. The screenplay was my introduction.
So what drew you to the script when it showed up?
I saw the title and thought, “Ooh that looks interesting. I won’t put it on the pile on my desk to read next week. I will read it right now.” And I sat down on my sofa and read it and wept and called my agent and asked, “Who do I talk to? What do I do to get involved?”
When you went back to the novel, what was different about your character?
In the book they actually have children of their own who have grown up and left the house. They have a very complex and distant relationship with them. But for our purposes they made then childless, which was great, because I could use that as one of the things that Rosa was really angry and disappointed by in her life. When she finds herself with a child, she is ultimately fulfilling a very deep-seated desire.
What about the backstory for your and Geoffrey Rush’s characters? They’re no longer warm to eachother, but there’s a love there.
My sense of it was that he had great hopes, he was young and artistic, he played the accordion, and it’s all very lovely and sexy. In the book it says [my character] was beautiful once, that she was softly spoken — if you can believe that one. [Ed. Her character in the film is very much not soft spoken.] I think they genuinely love eachother. But nothing has turned out as she wanted it to. She’s washing other people’s dirty clothes to earn money, and she’s the only one who ever does any work. She’s bitter.
She warms up over the film, but not by that much.
She doesn’t change her essential nature. She doesn’t find it possible to say to Liesel, “I love you.” She can’t express that. But her actions speak larger than her words. When the Jewish boy lands on her doorstep, she takes him in. That’s not what you’d necessarily expect from her.
This period is famously a time that most Germans from the period didn’t like to talk about. What kind of research did you do?
What was really great was we were filming in Berlin. Berlin is a very honest city. It wears its history on its sleeve. Everywhere you go there’s a museum or a memorial. We were so honored by the German crew, whose grandparents lived through this period and had to make the kind of choices that these characters made. It was very difficult. I wasn’t sure what the etiquette would be. Can you just ask somebody, “Was your granddad a Nazi?” But after awhile with some of the other actors we began asking them about their family. And they were very generous. One girl had grown up in East Berlin during the Stasi. She grew up believing her parents and grandparents had great integrity and were not Nazis and didn’t betray people to the Stasi. She then found out that wasn’t true. She was absolutely devastated by it.
This film is about a family who aren’t Nazis but can’t do anything about what’s going on, beyond hiding Jews.
Even if you didn’t buy into what was happening, you had to to navigate a very grotesque path through it. If you expressed dissent you were targeted.
When you were starting out in film, you were coming from theater. But you had an unusual first film, the Lars Von Trier film “Breaking the Waves.”
My first film was very unconventional in terms of the process. We did scenes over and over and over. He’d put a handheld camera in the middle of scenes and we just kept working. It felt like an endless rehearsal. It didn’t feel like structured filming process.
That must have made every film after a piece of cake?
[Chuckles] Yeah, I suppose so.
How feel about the film nowadays?
I feel very warm towards it, very emotional about it. My very dear friend Katrin Cartlidge, who died, is in it. It changed my life, really.