July 2003 By Philip Berk
Hayden Christensen shot to instant stardom when he landed the coveted role of Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.
Even though his smoldering good looks obviously impressed George Lucas, it was his emotionally jarring performances as bad boy Scott Barringer in the Fox Family series Higher Ground that convinced the director he could handle the darker aspects of his Darth Vader-in-the-making character.
Instead of sitting around and waiting for Attack of the Clones to make him a star, he chose to play a glue-sniffing, pill-popping, disaffected teenager in Life as a House.
That role won him rave reviews in contrast to the negative notices he later got for Attack of the Clones.
At his press conference for Life as a House, I asked him, Why that choice?
“I was eager to do a film before Star Wars came out. It’s so easy to be typecast. I want to diversify and do things that are as far from me as possible and hopefully eliminate some of the potential risks of playing Anakin, even though” he jokes, “it’s not such a bad thing being known as Darth Vader.”
But apparently it was less fun being Hayden Christensen.
Why the reluctance to talk about himself? I wanted to know.
“I’m only twenty,” he protested “When you’re sixteen to when you’re twenty, you’re just dealing with your insecurities, trying to find your own voice.”
In the movie he played a kid who didn’t get along with his dad.
How was his relationship with his father?
“My relationship with my father growing up was centered around athletics. I was pretty heavily involved in sports; so any relationship I have with my father was closely related to sport.”
Was he a rebellious kid?
“No I was always a good kid. I did well in school, graduated with honors. My parents were always very proud of me. I never really went through the rebellion thing.”
Was he closer to his mother?
“I have a very close relationship with both my parents. I had a good upbringing.”
And his siblings?
“I have two sisters and an older brother.”
Does he have a girl friend?
“I’m still very young. Not quite in a steady relationship with a girl; so maybe that’s next.”
What do his parents do?
“My parents run a communications business. My mom’s a writer, and my dad’s a software developer.”
At the Toronto Film Festival he was besieged by young girls.
Was he prepared for that?
“I don’t know if it’s something you can prepare for. That kind of loss of anonymity, I think, you have to be pretty deranged to want, but it comes with the territory.”
Some actors court it?
“But not me. I believe the less the audience knows about you the more they’re able to believe in your performance, which was one of the reasons George (Lucas) picked me for this part. The challenge of playing this role was that so much of my character was pre-defined by everybody else. The movie is pubic domain. The audience knows more about the film than I do. They know him as Darth Vader the inherently dark, evil warlord. Playing him as a good person left room for my interpretation.”
Two years later, again he was at a junket, this time promoting Shattered Glass, in which he played Stephen Glass, the New Republic journalist who was discredited for fabricating facts, quotes and entire stories he had written.
Hayden was extremely proud of the film and his performance, but not thrilled when I point out that his face was on the cover of Interview and other magazines.
Has he changed his mind about becoming a teenager heart throb? I asked him.
“I’m not really interested in how I’m perceived. What gets me excited is the work I do, not how other people are going to react to me.”
And again, when asked about a girl friend, he insisted,“I’m only twenty-two. I’ve had a couple of serious girlfriends. I grew up with a wonderful mom and two sisters whom I adore. Growing up we butted heads a lot, but I get better and better figuring out what it takes to keep a woman happy.”
So who takes care of his fan mail?
“I do, and I try to be as respectful and courteous as possible. But I don’t think of celebrity as being part of my profession. I prefer to focus on the work and grow as an actor.”
What can we expect in the last episode?
“This one’s three years after the last one. My character’s a little more battle-worn. He’s been fighting in the clone wars. Like some of the other characters, he’s letting his ambitions get the better of him. His relationship with Obe Wan Kenobi goes through some trying times. There’s an incredible sabre fight at the end of the film that’ll knock your socks off.”
How much weight did he gain to play Anakin?
“I had to put on a fair amount of size for the last Star Wars. I gained about fifteen pounds. You can’t play Darth Vader as a skinny little twerp.”
Part II had not been well received.
How do you guys handle the negative reviews?
“We focus on the positives, and there are so many of them. I can’t tell you the kick I get out of kids under ten who come up to me. They can’t distinguish between Anakin and the actor playing Anakin.”
With the passage of another two years, Hayden is now in Los Angeles for the final Star Wars episode, Revenge of the Sith junket. He’s in good spirits knowing that he has the most important role in the film, which he carries with great aplomb.
A month earlier he had accepted ShoWest’s New Star of the Year award, which former recipient Heath Ledger disparaged as “the popcorn people’s award.”
Hayden was far more gracious, and in his acceptance speech he thanked George Lucas for the opportunities he had afforded him.
So where does he see his career at this point? I ask him.
“The Star Wars films I was privileged to be part of have been such a huge part of the last five years of my life, pretty all consuming. But now I’m excited to have more time to go off and play other roles. Of course I’m going to miss it absolutely. It’s had such an impact on my life. I have such an affection for the people involved; thankfully those relationships will continue. But I’ll never play Anakin again, and I’ll never get dressed up in his costume or put the light sabre on again.”
Nor have to work against a blue screen again? I venture.
“Working in a digital film with live action is a completely different way of working and of approaching character. I enjoyed the challenge, but I don’t think it’s conducive to your doing your best work.”
So what is?
“The film I’m doing now in Italy, The Decameron, where there is no blue screen. The environments are tangible. You look for that as an actor. It offers a stimulus you can respond to, which a film like Star Wars deprives you of.”
Were there other frustrations?
“When you’re cast in a role like Anakin, coming in, you knew you won’t be allowed to give your interpretation of the character. You’re an extension of George Lucas’s imagination. He had it so preconceived that he would give me line readings, something you really don’t want. And it was even more difficult with Episode II, because George insisted I play Anakin with a sort of petulance and whiny quality, even though I knew he’d become much darker in III. But that’s what these films are. They’re not actor driven films. And that’s why I’m looking forward to putting it behind me and going on to do other films that are about the work.”
The Mark Hamill syndrome, (After he played Luke Skywalker his career ended.) does it worry him?
“All I can do is focus on the work and do things that excite me and hopefully excite people that go out and see the movies. If I can accomplish that, then hopefully I can avoid that syndrome, but I don’t give it much thought. The only time it comes up is when people in the press ask about it.”
So the force is with him right now?
“If George wills it,” he jokes, “but I’m planning to keep working, and I have a few projects I’m planning to do.”
Was there a reason he worked so seldom in the past four years?
“It is true I’ve only done two other films besides Star Wars, but I did a play in London. However because the Star Wars commitment has been so huge, I’ve had to pass on some films. But for the most part I’ve been just living. I’ve traveled a lot, seen the world, and that’s how I hone my craft. You look to your life experiences and apply it to your work. Actors who stay in Hollywood have a very insular experience. They’re not exposed to a lot of things that can make you a better actor. Maybe I haven’t made a lot of films but I’ve been doing my job, and I have no regrets about the past.”
Does he have any long term goals?
“The ultimate goal I guess is happiness. Acting makes me happy. So if I can play characters that are challenging, I’ll be happy. I have an interest in writing and much further down the road I’d like to try my hand at directing. And maybe five years from now, I’d like to go to school, take a little bit of time off, and go to a university for a semester or two which is something I’ve never done.”
Living in Toronto, doesn’t that limit his opportunities?
“I live there because that’s where I’m from, and that’s where my family is, and family’s very important to me. But I sort of divide my time between Los Angeles, Toronto, and London where I’ve been spending more and or time.”
“After doing reshoots for Star Wars and the play This Is Our Youth there, a total of four months, I had made some really good friends and just developed an affinity for the city. It suits me well, and I’d like to make it more of a home in the future.”
Will he buy a home there?
“I’m looking for a house. I rent a place in Brighton, which is about an hour south of London.”
The Decameron is still in production in Italy.
Why Boccaccio at this time, I wonder.
It doesn’t exactly sound like Glass shattering?
“I read the script. It was just such a fun read, different from anything I’ve done in the past. I hadn’t read the book before hand, but I’m trying to get through it now. It’s such a feast of a book, but I have to admit our Decameron is very loosely based on it — it captures the essence of what Boccaccio was conveying, but we’re taking a lot of liberties creatively with it.”
The original celebrates the guilt-free joy of sex as opposed to the hypocrisy of the Church.
What was his religious upbringing like, and what guidelines did his parents give him?
“I wasn’t raised within any sort of organized religion. I wasn’t raised Catholic or anything like that. But my parents are spiritual, they believe in some higher power, and they taught us good morals.”
What did they teach him about sex?
“I was a late bloomer, but we were taught that sexuality is an extension of caring for someone; so for me promiscuity doesn’t have a strong place in my life.”
Does he have a girl friend?
“I don’t have a girlfriend right now. I just got out of a relationship.
“With a girl,” he adds.
What qualities does he look for in a partner?
“The same qualities that I find important in all people. Decency, honesty. I like a girl with self respect, with an intellect. Obviously someone with a pretty face. All that good stuff is nice. But for the most part I look for decency and honesty and whatever makes someone a good person.”.
Did he get to keep any of the props from Revenge of the Sith?
“I have a light sabre, a few kick-knacks from my costume, and I got to keep my boots. I have a certain affection for my characters’ shoes for some reason. I always try to keep their shoes.”
Where does he keep the light sabre?
“In my closet at home in Toronto.”
Is he still reluctant to talk about his personal life?
“I still believe that the less people know about you the more they’re able to believe you as the character you portray.”
And walking the red carpet, does he mind doing that?
“It’s a bit of a circus, and all the flashbulbs can sometimes be blinding, but it’s fun and it’s nice to be able to share that with your family. My mom gets a real kick out of it, as does my grandma. They’ll probably accompany me to the premieres in Cannes, London, Berlin and Rome.”
What sparked his interest in acting?
“It was by accident. My sister was an actress for a little period of time. I ended up being recruited by her agent. It was never something I wanted to do. I wasn’t a kid looking for the spotlight. If anything I shied away from it. I remember doing commercials when I was very young, and when they came on television and my friends would ask me if it was me, I’d be like, ‘No, no, no, that’s just someone who looks like me.’ It wasn’t until I got to high school and I started taking a theatre class that I got serious about it. I had a teacher, like a lot of people, who inspired me and made me feel it was a worthwhile profession and that I could possibly do it; so I went to a performing arts high school and in the summer I studied at the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York.”
For the record, he admits to being a daydreamer, but he doesn’t have any fashion sense, despite the endorsements.