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The Cast & Characters
At the center of Oskar Schell's search for a lock that will accept his father's key is the man who always compelled Oskar to puzzle out his problems and face his prodigious qualms: his father, Thomas. As a screen character, Thomas Schell was a challenge because he is seen entirely through Oskar's eyes, to the extent that much about his history and inner life remain mysterious -- except for the parts that have made an impression on Oskar and especially Oskar's memories of their very best times together, which remain indelibly immediate to him.

To embody the essence of a father as captured in time by his young son, Stephen Daldry thought early on of Tom Hanks. "We thought that in terms of Oskar's memories of Thomas as the perfect dad...well, who else could that be but Tom Hanks?” recalls Daldry. "Tom took that responsibility to heart and created a real bond with Thomas Horn that was evident to everybody on the set. They were absolutely charming together, which was great for me as a filmmaker, because they created this dynamic relationship and all I had to do was shoot it. It was an act of real dedication by an extraordinary actor and collaborator.”

Hanks says he gave a lot of consideration to the kind of father Thomas was to Oskar prior to his death. He also kept in mind that Thomas was himself a child of immigrants who took up the trade of jewelry as his only clear opportunity to support his family, even though he dreamed of being a scientist. "I think Thomas was someone who felt the real task in his life was to make sure that his very bright son became a well-rounded, content human being who might make the world a better place,” Hanks says. "Since Thomas himself grew up without a father, fathering Oskar was the most important thing to him. I think he loved inventing wild stories for Oskar, like the one he makes up about New York's lost Sixth Borough, but he also very clearly designed these stories to get Oskar out in the world and help him feel safe there.”

In part, Hanks drew on his own experiences as a father. "The emotional part of it for me was going back and remembering what it's like to have an 11-year-old kid who is bubbling over with life,” he says.

While Hanks believes Thomas was well aware that Oskar often showed signs of behavior akin to Asperger's Syndrome, he also says Thomas readily accepted and even related to many of his son's oddities and phobias, which made the two of them even closer. "I think Thomas wasn't bothered at all by his son's behaviors,” he says. "Instead, he looked for ways to build bridges over Oskar's turbulence, over his constant questions, his flights of fancy and his fears. Yet because of that, when he's gone, it magnifies the incredible loss for Oskar even more.”

Unlike Oskar's father, his mother, Linda, has always found it tough to reach her son, and that only seems to increase by a factor of 10 when her husband is no longer there to bridge the gap. Yet, much as she seems lost in her own private realm of grief, Linda is connecting to Oskar in ways of which he is not even aware.

Daldry felt there was an organic empathy in Sandra Bullock that would allow the role to work. "Sandra is a first-rate actress who really took her role to heart,” he says. "She looked after Thomas very well and formed a strong relationship with him that translated to the screen. She was able to bring a gravitas that was entirely appropriate but also a real charm.”

For Bullock, the intriguing part was playing a mother who has to work at bonding with her son and forging her own route back into his world after his father's death. "I think when Thomas was alive, Linda was always okay with just stepping back and letting Oskar and his father be a great team together,” she observes. "But now that Oskar has lost his playmate and the one person who grounded him and who he felt was his intellectual equal, she isn't sure she can be any of those things to her son. And she's in the process of grieving too, so she doesn't have much energy to fight for that connection she so desperately wants with him. She has to struggle to find the solution.”

Given the subjective, first-person viewpoint of the film, Bullock also had to play her character the way Oskar perceives her – which was especially difficult because Oskar does not see the full picture of his mother. "I had to come to grips with the idea that the audience is seeing Linda on the screen entirely through Oskar's point of view – and his view of her is not always very favorable,” she explains. "In some scenes, she can seem to be the opposite of nurturing, yet later, it becomes clear what is really going on with her. Still, I had to be okay with her looking at times like she wasn't being a good mother to a child who is really in need. Part of it is that what Oskar sees is her grief, which is ugly and imperfect, but also very real. But what Oskar doesn't know is that she is also very worried about him and that causes her to really try to think like he does.”

To explore Linda Schell's experience more deeply, Bullock listened to recordings of phone calls and voice-mail messages left by those trapped in the World Trade Center for their families. "That was very hard for me,” she says. "But what floored me was to hear people giving comfort to those they were leaving behind. You really understand that the pain of hearing that is something that could never go away.”

The most daunting role to cast was Oskar himself, who like many bright children is full of contradictions. He is at once a naïve, hurt, hypersensitive child overwhelmed by sensory stimuli and afraid of loud noises, ringing telephones, bridges, elevators, public transportation and tall buildings. Yet at the same time, Oskar is a bold explorer, ready to crisscross New York neighborhoods and knock on the doors of strangers, looking for one lone lock in a city of millions.

The filmmakers set out in search for a kid with an authentically uncommon intelligence, yet one who also had natural acting ability, and ultimately discovered Thomas Horn, a 13 year-old "Kids Jeopardy!” contestant who speaks four languages. "Thomas is a super smart, funny, engaged child with the dedication and tenacity of someone much, much older,” comments Daldry. "He loved learning the methodology of acting. And he really responded to the math of figuring out, ‘Oh, I see, if I do this, that happens.' It didn't take long before everyone in the crew began to feel that we weren't dealing with a child actor. He was just our leading man and he proved to be extraordinary.”

Horn admits he did not know what to expect at first. "When I found out I got the role it was earth-shaking, because I'd never done anything like this before,” he relates. "But it was also something new and different and exciting.”

He was immediately able to relate to Oskar's way of trying to make the world manageable through facts and figures. "I think Oskar is a very logical person who likes to think things through, only now he's in inner conflict because things around him aren't making sense,” Horn says. "That's why he hopes finding the lock will make sense of his father's key.”

Despite having never set foot on a movie set before, Horn says he never felt intimidated. "I had the greatest director to work with in Stephen Daldry. I mean, he's the first director I've ever worked with, but I can't imagine a better one,” he says. "He always told me if I was doing something right, and he always told me very gently how I might improve. He encouraged me and I never felt bad about myself because he helped make me feel confident.”

Hanks especially enjoyed the chance to work so closely

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