Young newcomer in ‘Extremely Loud …’ surrounded by Oscar bling
BY DENNIS KING
NEW YORK – Oscars and Oscar nominations abound among the cast and crew of “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” but the dramatic impetus for the searing post-9/11 drama rests on the slight shoulders of a 13-year-old whose only previous acting experience was as a grasshopper in a fifth-grade play.
Directed by three-time Oscar nominee Stephan Daldry (“Billy Elliot,” “The Hours,” “The Reader”), adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel by Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”) and photographed by two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Chris Menges (“The Mission,” “The Killing Fields”), the film stars Tom Hanks (Oscars for “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump”), Sandra Bullock (Oscar for “The Blind Side”), Viola Davis (Oscar nomination for “Doubt”) and the Swedish acting eminence Max von Sydow (Oscar nomination for “Pelle the Conqueror”).
And in the midst of all that Academy Award bling stands Thomas Horn, a precocious and thoroughly unpretentious Oakland, Calif., teen – now at 14 a high school freshman – who’d never acted on screen and whose only brush with celebrity had been a dominating appearance on TV’s “Jeopardy! Kids’ Week,” where he won $31,800 and a family vacation in Alaska.
In “Extremely Loud …” the articulate and young-looking Horn defied the odds and earned the highly coveted and dramatically daunting role of Oskar Schell, a brilliantly eccentric New York City boy whose beloved father (Hanks) perishes in the Twin Towers on Sept. 11. In the excruciating aftermath, Oskar finds a puzzling key among his father’s possessions and sets off on a spirit quest to unlock the mystery of the key and to cling to a tenuous connection with his dead father.
During a press conference presented by Warner Bros. at the Regency Hotel, Horn sat poised and patient amid his co-stars and fielded a barrage of questions like a seasoned old pro.
Daldry noted the precise importance of casting just the right young actor in this crucial and demanding role.
“I think we were all aware that the film rests on the shoulders of whoever plays Oskar,” the director said. “We did auditions all over North America and indeed even in Europe, and we were lucky to find Thomas. I was aware that the film couldn’t go ahead unless we found the right kid.
“Thomas is very unlike the character in the story, and that’s part of his brilliance that he can portray that,” Daldry said. “There’s no loss in Thomas’ life, his parents are wonderful and supportive human beings. And to go on that emotional journey to find out what’s special about (Oskar) was fantastic. Thomas is the brightest, most determined, most courageous actor you could possibly hope to work with and has a huge emotional life. That’s astonishing.”
Max von Sydow, who plays Oskar’s mute neighbor and wise sidekick on his journey around New York, also said he was impressed by Horn’s innate maturity.
“My first thought after I read the script was, I hope they have a good boy for this,” the revered actor said. “Because it is his movie. It is his story. And I came over to do some tests and met Thomas and was very impressed by what he showed. It’s been a great pleasure to work with him, and it’s remarkable what he did.”
Young Horn grinned and shrugged modestly at the compliments and offered a matter-of-fact assessment of his first acting experience.
“Here’s what I think,” he said, forthrightly. “I think I had a really great experience so far in film acting. I understand that not all experiences, in fact most experiences for most actors from what I’ve heard, aren’t like this. Which I can definitely understand because I’m working with the best of the best here, and I can’t always expect that.”
Was he ever intimidated by all the star power around him?
“No, everyone was really nice to me,” Horn said. “And everybody really made me feel at home, on set and in rehearsals. Stephen (Daldry) was sensitive and great and would always give me tips, whatever I could do better. He would always give me suggestions if I was doing something wrong.
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