Hayden Christensen: Darth Victory
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… a promising young actor was cast in one of the most coveted roles in Hollywood. The actor was then-unknown Hayden Christensen and the part was future Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker. Christensen beat out well-known actors for the lead role in Star Wars: Episode II–Attack of the Clones and at the time it seemed like that might make him a star. In this cover story from the June 2002 issue of Movieline magazine, Christensen talks about what it was liked to be plucked from obscurity by George Lucas.
Jaws dropped inside and outside of Hollywood back in 2000, when, after months of deliberation, it was announced that 19-year-old near-unknown Hayden Christensen had just landed the part of the young, romantic, pre-evil version of the most feared specter to ever hit screens, Darth Vader, in the second prequel of Star Wars. Outside the Industry, nobody had a clue who this kid was. There were plenty of people in Hollywood who’d heard of Christensen–he was one of the many boys in Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides–but they couldn’t comprehend how an actor with so few credits to his name could have won such a crucial role. Christensen was the hot subject at showbiz cocktail parties. Many felt it was Leonardo DiCaprio’s role, though it was never clear if DiCaprio actually wanted it (after being thrown by the huge success of Titanic, why would he throw himself from the frying pan into the fire?). Some thought Heath Ledger, Paul Walker, Joshua Jackson, Jonathan Jackson, Tobey Maguire, Chris Klein or Ryan Phillippe–all actors who already had a massive teen following–were worthy of the role.
A number of people recognized the intelligence of casting a fresh face–it was not such a bad idea to have audiences wonder about who Hayden was, when they had wondered so long what the young Vader might be like. But one could argue that Hayden Christensen became as much a marked man as a made man when Lucas announced that he had gotten the part. Overnight, Christensen’s face, credits and talent became the target of scrutiny by the press. The shock waves subsided temporarily while Christensen was off for months in Australia shooting Episode II opposite Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor and Samuel L. Jackson. But tremors erupted all over again when the press sniffed out a purportedly hot off-the-set romance between Christensen and Portman, and Star Wars fans as well as moviegoers in general grew even more curious about him.
Finally, in the fall of 2001, more than a year after he won the role of Anakin Skywalker, Christensen was able to show a bit of the substance behind the massive speculation. Starring as the emotionally conflicted teenage son of a terminally ill architect played by Kevin Kline in the little drama Life as a House, Christensen revealed himself to be soulful, edgy and, above all, capable. When awards season swept in, he received a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe nomination, and the National Board of Review and this magazine both gave him their male “Breakthrough of the Year” awards.
When Hayden Christensen, now 21, arrives to meet me for lunch, he appears to be someone for whom anonymity might not be private enough. He looks suspiciously like a person who wishes he could just vanish. He ambles onto the outdoor terrace of this comfortable, downscale and off-the-beaten-track restaurant with his jacket collar turned up to the edge of his chin and a baseball cap yanked down almost to brow level.
“It’s funny,” he tells me as we sit down together. “I have a friend in from out of town meeting with different agencies, just trying to get his career on track. I had to stop myself from giving advice because my experiences so far are not really an accurate portrayal of what a typical actor goes through when he first comes to Los Angeles. Usually, there’s a progression and development within the Industry, you know?”
Here’s what Christensen’s warp-speed ascension looked like. He grew up in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and was interested in acting by the time he was 13. His older brother Tove had appeared in writer-director Robert Towne’s 1998 film Without Limits before going into producing, and his sister, now a Canadian martial arts champion, had done some acting as well. Christensen got a few commercials, then played a boy named Skip on the TV series “Family Passions.” Next came tiny parts in the films Street Law and John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness and a handful of TV movies, including Love and Betrayal: The Mia Farrow Story. His mini break came when he costarred opposite Josh Hartnett and Kirsten Dunst in The Virgin Suicides, which led to the network movie Trapped in a Purple Haze (which starred his friend Jonathan Jackson) and the series “Higher Ground.” And, then, without much further ado, he was suddenly Anakin Skywalker.
Lucasfilm casting director Robin Gurland insists she and the big boss cast their net far and wide when they set out to find their Anakin. As many as 400 candidates were being looked at. “One of the great joys of working with George Lucas is that he allows you to do your job,” says Gurland. “Leonardo DiCaprio was not discounted, but neither was any appropriate actor in America, England, Canada or Australia.” Christensen’s managerial team set up an audition for him with Lucas and company in Los Angeles, and he met Gurland for half an hour, during which their conversation was videotaped. Lucas was not present.
“Hayden opened the door, walked in and, all of a sudden, I thought, ‘Now this could be interesting,'” says Gurland. “He hadn’t had all that much experience aside from ‘Higher Ground,’ but when I peeked at him through the camera, I thought, ‘Oh, this is looking very good.’ I knew I wanted to screen test him with Natalie Portman, which is something we wound up doing with only four actors. When Hayden left that first meeting, I called George at the ranch and said, ‘Anakin just left the room.'”
About a month later, Christensen got word that director George Lucas had seen the tape and was interested in meeting him. But Christensen would have to pay for his own airfare from Canada to San Francisco and even his own cab fare from the airport to Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, California. “My family is supportive of everything I do,” says Christensen, “but they were hesitant because I was asked to pay for my trip. To me, it seemed worth it just to meet George. So, I flew out there, met him and sat there in silence for the first 45 seconds while he looked down at my resume, then back up at me, then back down at the resume. He said nothing, either. Then he started asking questions about my work. Nothing about Star Wars, though.
“At this stage of the auditioning process,” continues Christensen, “if you’re going to be the one, the meeting usually ends with something like, ‘I really like you and think you could be right for this.’ At the end of this meeting, though, it was like, ‘Thanks for coming. Nice to meet ya. Take care.’ The casting director was like, ‘Thanks for coming. The car’s waiting for you outside.'”
Was he crushed? “No,” says Christensen.“I generally go home after auditions with my tail between my legs, but this time, I thought, At least I can go home and brag about my experience with George Lucas.”
Robin Gurland laughs at hearing how Christensen experienced their interaction. “I thought I was giving Hayden really strong signals,” she says. “I was totally spun around by him. He’s a stunning actor with so much going on inside. What set him apart was just that he has–and this is such an overused phrase–‘it,’ that certain something that means you can’t take your eyes off him no matter who he’s doing a scene with.”
After the meeting, the Skywalker camp informed the Christensen camp that Lucas liked the actor, but wasn’t convinced he could look and act convincingly mature enough to also tackle Episode III (due in theaters in 2005), in which Darth Vader is supposed to be 30 years old. Although a date and location for a screen test were set up for him and Portman, Christensen pretty much felt he was just along for the ride.
“Up until three weeks before the test, everyone was saying the part was going to Leonardo DiCaprio,” says Christensen, “and that they were just doing the tests to convince the public they were actually looking at other people. The impression I was under was that the role was always meant for Leonardo. But they told me George liked me because I had talked to him on some kind of real level, that I didn’t treat him like the almighty George Lucas. When you get to the level of success George has gotten to, it’s hard not to have people laugh at a joke when it’s not funny. I wasn’t doing that.”
When Lucas did a screen test of Christensen and Portman, he had them read scenes that hinted at the passionate quality of the relationship between Anakin and Padmé. An insider who saw the test said, “Watching it, you could feel the electricity between Hayden and Natalie. That didn’t happen with the other guys who tested.” For his part, Christensen says he found Portman professional. “She was very much, ‘Hi, nice to meet you, let’s go to work,'” he says. “She was mostly off making calls on her cell phone.
“The whole time, I never really thought it was going to happen for me,” Christensen continues. “I was just so enthralled I’d gotten that far. Natalie told me that Ryan Phillippe had also tested, and I remember the day I got almost definitive word that Ryan was the one George Lucas had chosen.”
Christensen should well remember that particular day, because the following day, his management team called him in Toronto and roused him from sleep with the news that he’d snagged the role.
“Whenever you’re casting, you’re first and foremost looking for a good actor,” says George Lucas, “somebody who is very talented and has a certain quality about them. Then you go to the next level where you’re looking for somebody who fits the character. And in this particular case I was looking for somebody who was very boyish, funny, sexy, personable and young, but someone who had an edge to them. I had to cast with the third film in mind–when Anakin is much more like Darth Vader.”