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Personal stories taught 'Extremely Loud' child actor about 9/11 tragedy

It's not easy to be a 13-year-old virtually carrying an entire film, particularly one bound for Oscar consideration. But imagine doing that in what is essentially your first acting experience ever.

That was "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" star Thomas Horn's story: As the now 14-year-old told Jenna Bush Hager on TODAY Wednesday, he'd only appeared in a school play and, famously, on "Jeopardy!" kids' week before being cast in the role of Oskar Schell, a young, socially fearful boy whose father (played by Tom Hanks) dies at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2011.

"I would go into this little room the director had built for me off-set and I would think about how the character would feel," said Horn, a native of Oakland, Calif. "I would maybe do this for 15, 20, 30 minutes. Eventually I felt the character had entered my body and that I had left."

Hanks says Horn was a natural: "He's not a young man who has to be tricked into performing. He's very, very focused on the intentions he needs to communicate in each scene."

Still, Horn -- who has since won a Critics Choice Award for his performance -- was only 3 when the attacks took place, and needed to learn a bit more about the events to make the role believable. He met with families who lost loved ones on 9/11, and said, "It really made a big impact on me.... In a way that's what made 9/11 real for me.... I don't remember the day, I don't really hear about it that much in my normal life, but meeting those people made me realize on an emotional level the tragedy so many have gone through."

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