Until recently, 19-year old Canadian actor Hayden Christensen was hardly a household name. But come next summer, expect the young actor’s image to be pasted on every major magazine cover in the world. He is, after all, the new Anakin Skywalker in Episode II and Episode III of the huge Star Wars franchise, who eventually becomes Darth Vader.
But before Christensen heads off to a galaxy near you, he will appear as the more down-to-earth rebel without a cause in the very human comedy/drama Life as a House. In a very candid discussion with Paul Fischer, it was a very grounded Mr Christensen who talked abundantly about Star Wars, working in Australia, the prospects of fame and celebrity, and playing an angry young teenager in his first starring role.
When one first sees Hayden Christensen on screen in the new Irwin Winkler-directed dramedy Life as a House, the actor, playing a troubled teen in that movie, has blue-bleached hair and an assortment of jewellery that immediately defines the angst of this character. In person, young Hayden is well kempt, confident and polite, dealing with the new pressures of fame and media attention. The confident young actor is clearly miles apart from this character and his celebrated role of Anakin Skywalker, but the actor has learned to deal with the spotlight and the kind of success he has reluctantly found himself a part of. “I think you can give it the credence it deserves, which isn’t too much,” the actor quietly explains. “I think that if you don’t take it too seriously and just take it as it comes, keep your ambitions where they were before, and then you’ll be alright.” Those ‘ambitions’ Christensen speaks of, he elaborates, “Were merely succeeding as an actor and just wanted to make good films.”
Before he graces our screens next year in Episode II, Christensen will first pop up opposite Oscar-winner Kevin Kline in Life as a House. The film revolves around George Monroe (Kline) is a middle-aged architect who is confronted with life-changing news and seizes the opportunity to begin living on his own terms. In the process of changing himself, those he was previously alienated from, including his ex-wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) and troubled teenage son (Christensen), begin gravitating back to him, only to find their own lives affected in the most unexpected ways. For Christensen, darkening his hair and wearing jewellery, afforded him the chance to play a character so unlike him, including on a physical level, he explains. “One of the things I find about acting is that the less the audience knows about the actor, the more they’re able to believe in him in the role. I think that’s one of the reasons I was selected to play Anakin, was because of that. So if I was going to do a film BEFORE Star Wars, I wanted to be as unrecognisable as possible.” For much of Life as a House, we see a brooding, intensely angry young man, and the actor says that it was easier to play the character than he was expecting. “It’s always easier, I suppose, to play someone who has some grave dysfunction; it’s a crutch that you can work on.” Christensen shot Life as a House having completed most of his work on Episode II.
Contrasting these two very different experiences, Christensen recalls having had such fond memories of his experience on Star Wars “that I was concerned about doing something so different. But it was a challenge to play more of a character”, he explains. Episode II was a very different experience, he explains, given the blue screen he had to work with for much of the shoot. “It’s actually not too dissimilar from theatre in that you have to create your own stimuli which demand a lot more of your imagination.” Unlike Life as a House “where I was working as a real actor and it was something I needed.” In Life as a House, the house in question symbolises the growth of Christensen’s character’s love for the father he never really knew. Hayden says that the house “is a nice metaphor for the movie. George [Kline] is forced to re-evaluate everything in his life and ENCOURAGE change in his life, and through that, creates this domino effect around everyone around him, including ME. So through my own rehabilitation, we tear down the old shack, mainly our old selves, and build our NEW selves and this new house. So I think cinematically it works.” Asked about his OWN relationship within his family, given his recent ascent to stardom, Christensen says that it remains “a good and healthy one. I’m friends with my parents, so I never really rebelled, or went through any of those feelings. That’s why I loved doing this movie, so that I could rebel vicariously through this character.” He admits, however, that this movie “does make us all appreciate the value of family or those we love.”
Born in Vancouver but raised in Toronto, Canada, Christensen became involved with Canadian television productions at a young age and carried his skills over to American TV movies and series in the late ’90s. Though he would appear briefly in 1999’s The Virgin Suicides for director Sofia Coppola — a family friend of Lucas’ — it was Christensen’s work in the Fox Family Channel’s drama series Higher Ground which convinced Lucas to give the actor a reading. Christensen went from being an unknown TV actor to quite possibly the next big thing.
On hearing that he had been cast in Episode II, the actor admits that he “couldn’t define for myself what I was feeling when I found out that I got the part. It was a week of just sheer bliss and I got to work.” Work included spending several months in Sydney where he shot all of the interiors. Despite being far from home, Christensen loved his Aussie experience. “I really loved it, even though there were times I wished it were a little bit closer,” he says. “I stayed on Bondi Beach in this magnificent apartment building on the south shore.” He didn’t catch up on his surfing while he Sydney, “but I did do some serious boogie boarding”, he adds laughingly.
Christensen is heading back to London “for what they call re-shoots, but I don’t really know”. Asked how tired he is of answering Star Wars questions, Christensen matter-of-factly responds that he “is more accustomed to it than anything else. I mean, everything’s pretty new to me at this point, so I’m just learning as I go along. Talking about Star Wars is why I’m here; if I hadn’t done Star Wars I don’t think I would have been cast in Life as a House, so I’m just happy to share as much as I can.”
As for the coolest thing about being the Anakin? “Wearing the big cape was pretty empowering. The sabre of course, was pretty cool too.” Audiences will get to see just HOW cool, when Episode II blasts into theatres next year.