Why Sophie Nelisse Gave Up Her Olympic Dream For ‘Book Thief’

Canadian actress had hoped to compete as a gymnast in Rio.

Markus Zusak’s beloved young-adult novel “The Book Thief” comes to life on the big-screen this weekend with director Brian Percival’s adaptation, starring Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson and newcomer Sophie Nélisse.

Set in World War II-era Germany, “The Book Thief” tells the story of 11-year-old Liesel (Nélisse), who’s been left in the care of foster parents Hans (Rush) and Rosa (Watson). The youngster finds solace in stealing books, and with the help of her new father, learns how to read them. Her love of words only grows when a Jewish man takes refuge in the family’s basement and the two spend hours reading together.

Seeing as the character of Liesel is the emotional backbone of Zusak’s tale, casting just the right girl was Percival’s ultimate task — one he aced with 13-year-old Nélisse, who portrays Liesel from the age of 11 to 17.

“She was quite a find,” Percival said. “I mean, we did look over three continents and many, many countries, and we’ve probably seen about a thousand kids, and she was the one that stood out. There was something when her self-tape arrived, there was something about her that was different. She has the ability to be vulnerable and really pull at your heartstrings, but at the same time, really feisty and so full of spirit and energy. There are not many kids that have got both at the same time. They tend to be one or the other, but she’s got it all.”

And to think Nélisse almost didn’t audition! At the time, the Canadian actress was in rigorous training, a hopeful for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

“I was doing gymnastics about 35 hours a week. My dream since I was four was to go to the Olympics,” Nélisse explained. “So when they offered me to audition, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to audition. I was like, I don’t know. Even if I get the part, I don’t know if I’m going to take it.”

So Nélisse auditioned “just for fun” and — surprise! — landed the role.

“When I got the part, it felt like I had to take the movie because I loved the script so much and loved my character, and I just wanted to send the message to other people,” she said. “So I took the part and gave up gymnastics.”

“The Book Thief” is in theaters now.