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Holiday preview: Thomas Horn

He’s 14 and a former ”Jeopardy!” champ. Now he’s scored the lead role in a film starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. Fame could be extremely close

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For a child who wins Jeopardy!, the rewards are great. Fame, a cash prize, and, of course, the approval of Alex Trebek. Yet for Thomas Horn, there was a bonus: landing the lead role in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, an as-yet-unrated adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel directed by Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours) and costarring no less than Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. Just three months after winning $31,800 during Jeopardy! Kids Week in the summer of 2010, the Oakland-area native got a call from producer and Jeopardy! fan Scott Rudin. He wanted Horn to audition to play Oskar Schell, a precocious boy who embarks on an odyssey through Manhattan investigating a mysterious key left by his late father (Hanks), a victim of the Sept. 11 attacks.

”I was really surprised when I got the call,” says Horn, 14, an avid reader (Harry Potter and Stephen King are faves) who had zero prior interest in acting. ”How many people get a call like that? Why would you say no?” Could he relate to Oskar’s loss? No, he says, ”and that was really difficult. I just tried my best to channel his suffering.”

But Daldry says his young star rocked the challenge. ”We knew Thomas was going to be bright and incredibly watchable, and he was,” says the director. ”What we didn’t know is that he had an amazing emotional range. The only other actor I’ve seen who can access emotion the way he does is Meryl Streep.” Horn, a thoughtful, matter-of-fact ninth grader who admits he’s ”uncomfortable” with his growing celebrity, says he’s interested in doing more movies…or in creating software that improves the quality of life in developing countries. But for now, he wants to focus on schoolwork. ”My life really hasn’t changed,” Horn says. ”It still might. But not yet.”