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Filmmakers discovered Thomas Horn on 'Jeopardy!'

9:05 PM, Dec 23, 2011   |    comments
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Susan Wloszczyna, USA TODAY

No doubt there are those Thomases who can't help but be Toms. The always-affable Tom Hanks, for instance.

Then there are those who defy diminution. Such is the case with first-time film actor Thomas Horn. The 14-year-old Jeopardy! whiz kid holds his own against the Oscar-winning likes of Hanks and Sandra Bullock, who play his parents in the 9/11-centered drama Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, opening Christmas Day.

In 2010, producer Scott Rudin was among those TV viewers impressed by Horn's display of steely nerves and card-shark cool after he wagered $12,000 in Final Jeopardy and won $38,100 with the answer: "What is a census?" That led to an audition for the role of Oskar Schell, a brainy but socially isolated lad left adrift after his father dies in the World Trade Center attacks.

Avid reader likes privacy

The movie is heavy-duty, and so is its star. This still-sprouting, beacon-bright ninth-grader, who hails from the San Francisco area, doesn't suffer fools nor foolish inquiries gladly.

Jokingly asked if he is going to answer questions in the form of a question, Jeopardy!-style, Horn simply rolls his eyes, slightly grimaces and remains silent. He also would rather keep some personal info under wraps. Though he confirms he has a younger brother, he refuses to divulge his name. "Next question," Horn says, before explaining the obvious: "I'm kind of a private person in a way."

Also an impressive one. This son of an oncologist mother and an ophthalmologist father speaks three languages. Besides English, he is fluent in Croatian, thanks to his mother's side of the family.

And he is studying Mandarin. "I just thought it would be a great, useful language to learn because it's the most widely spoken first language."

A bookworm who is a history and geography buff, Horn is currently reading, of all things, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. "I thought it would be interesting. It's one of those 19th-century books that people still find relevant today." Told there are a number of well-done movie versions of the story, he says, "I never knew."

'Exceptional' screen debut

Unlike some showbiz youngsters, acting was never a goal for Horn. His only other experience was as a grasshopper in a fifth-grade stage performance of James and the GiantPeach. But his time as an insect did nothing to prepare him for being in almost every scene - and narrating a good portion of the action off-screen - of a major Hollywood production.

As an 11-year-old loner who feels let down by his mother and lost without his father, Horn must run the gamut of emotions from extreme joy to incredible grief. He also must be somewhat irritating since his character exhibits signs of Asperger's syndrome, a type of autism. But with the help of dialogue and acting coaches, as well as supportive co-stars who had his back, Horn delivers what director Stephen Daldry calls "one of the greatest screen performances by a young actor in the history of cinema - he is exceptional."

Horn returns the compliment. He says of the British filmmaker behind such acclaimed titles as Billy Elliot (which also features an exceptional boy) and The Hours: "He really let me have my creative take on things, even though, as a first-time actor, I don't really deserve it. Whenever he thought I could use a suggestion, he would give one. But in a really kind way and without hurting my feelings. I'm kind of a sensitive, thin-skinned person, so it's a great achievement."

Castmates note his focus

Both Hanks and Bullock looked out for their on-screen son and got a kick out of watching him fully embrace the task at hand.

"He started off with a degree of comfort and never changed," says Hanks. "He was constant as the speed of light. If only we could steal his ability to focus the way he does. His concentration was rather off the scale sometimes. Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur didn't work as hard as Thomas Horn."

Bullock did feel compelled to provide some etiquette pointers now and then, especially given Horn's habit of stomping when he walks. "He would blow by us women," she says. "Coming out of a stairwell, he would just blow by and push the door open. I told him, 'OK, with ladies, you need to stop, open the door and stay.' You could just feel him going, 'Oh, this is such a nuisance.' "

Horn is up for doing more films and has read some scripts. Still, college definitely looms. As for a major, he says, "probably something practical, like computer science and math." Though he is too young to remember the events of 9/11, Horn understands why some moviegoers might have mixed feelings about revisiting the tragic day.

Yet the theme of the film, he says, is ultimately a positive one: "Grief, no matter where it comes from, can only be resolved by connecting to other people."


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