Thomas Horn, 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close' Breakout Star

Horn zigzags around Manhattan in his screen debut. Francois Duhamel / Warner Bros.

Among this year’s list of leading men, perhaps none is quite as unexpected as Thomas Horn. A 14-year-old high-school freshman from Oakland, he had no acting experience when he was cast in the adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s bestselling novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The only time he had spent in front of a camera was dominating Jeopardy! during Kids Week.

But in July 2010 the film’s producer, Scott Rudin, saw his Jeopardy! win and suggested he audition. “I wasn’t sure I should,” Horn says, sitting in a hotel room on a recent afternoon, drinking a cup of tea. “But then I realized I was a bit curious.”

Two months later he met his future costars, Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. Then the director, Stephen Daldry (The Reader), called Horn and offered him the central role: a boy named Oskar whose father (Hanks) is killed on 9/11. One day, Oskar—brilliantly precocious and possibly afflicted with Asperger’s—finds a key in his father’s closet and vows to figure out what it unlocks.

It’s a harrowing journey about love, family, and loss, and Horn doesn’t pretend making the film was easy. “It was a long, long shoot,” he says of the seven-month process. “They were constantly rewriting the script.” The material was intense, even for this brainy, Mandarin-speaking student. In some scenes, he berates his on-screen mother (Bullock) for being an absentee parent. He even tells her he wishes she were the one who died on 9/11. “I felt guilty about it,” Horn says. “But she reassured me there were no hard feelings.”

Bullock and Hanks also gave Horn advice on staying in character. (“You can’t go in for one take and then go out and chat and drink coffee for five minutes,” Horn says he learned.)

With the movie complete, Horn’s not sure what the future holds. He’d like to go to college and study something “useful.” Then he might work on a startup, using technology to help “poor farmers in India or Africa.”

Still, he’d like to act more, so long as a comparable opportunity arises. “This movie is an amazing junction of many factors: great script, great story, great actors, great director. It would be hard to do it otherwise because I’m used to the best now.”