GQ-May 2005-The Empires New Clothes

After five years as a dutiful ‘Star Wars’ soldier, Hayden Christensen grabs Darth Vader’s black mask and finally storms the Republic. But will this stoic Toronto be able to recover from life in deep space? RJ Smith finds out while Christensen hits the motocross trail and channels the rugged elegance of Steve McQueen.

George Lucas, the bearded visionary who invented the saga of the Skywalker family, once called Hayden Christensen the best young actor he’s directed since Harrison Forn played Han Solo in the original Star Wars, in 1977. This is a wonderful compliment for any actor to receive from a legendary filmmaker, unless of course, the legendary filmmaker is George Lucas. In the end, the Star Wars series will consist of six global blockbusters, a combined gross of more than $3 billion, and countless product tie-ins-but it has not spawned many distinguished careers. Between the creaky mythology, the talent-dwarfing special effects, and Lucas’s famously wooden scripts, it’s hard for an actor -any actor- to do much more than grab hold of the Force and hang for dear life. In The Whole Equation, his highly touted history of Hollywood, film critic David Thomson puts it thusly: “I have nothing to say about Star Wars.” Nada: a nothing as large as any Death Star. What Mr.Cranky-pants dislikes about the franchise is its bigness, the scale and hype that makes everything else movies are supposed to be about - Storytelling, character, and artful acting - seem irrelevant. Thomson see it as a black hole sucking the art of movies into its core and then spitting it out in some other dimension, compressed into a Darth Vader action figure.

This spring Lucas’s colossal franchise rests heavily on the capable Canadian shoulders of the 24-year-old Christensen, whose Anakin Skywalker is at the cold heart of the sixth and final film in the series, Star Wars: Episode lll - Revenge of the Sith. And while there’s no denying that Star Wars has made Christensen a hugely visible presence - catapulting him from after-school television to a worldwide audience - its bigness has also kept us from knowing exactly how good an actor he really is. George Lucas’s Movies are lengthy, grueling commitments that keep an actor from engaging in much else until they are completed; and Christensen has devoted the better part of the past five years to Star Wars’ final chapters - Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.

The current installment is the most turbulent Star Wars yet; in fact, it will likely receive a PG-13 rating. The movie shows young Anakin Skywalker allying himself with the Sith, an evil order of red-faced miscreants, as he crosses over to the dark side. It is a chronicle of Anakin’s twisted manhood, which he begins as a force for good until - cue the fanfare - he slips on that shiny black helmet and becomes the world’s most enduring villain. As such, this might just be the Star Wars for grown-ups and anybody who has never bought a Wookie Cookie.

Christensen says he loves the stories, though the double-gauge biblical symbolism and myth referencing of the films distinctly underwhelm its lead actor. “Oh yeah, that’s what he talks about, the whole mythology about it. It’s really interesting,” he offers politely. “Really obvious, but interesting.”

It takes some prodding, but Christensen admits: “I’m ready for the next leap in my life. You have to understand, when you put that helmet on, it’s very hot and claustrophobic. Throughout the entire time I’ve been filming, the only thing I have going through my head is Darth Vader’s evil-empire theme.” He hums the ominous tune and smiles a bit sheepishly.

For Christensen, the best antidote for claustrophobia is fleeing town with his brother and some friends to the dirth-bike trails a couple of hours east of L.A. His crew has started a birthday tradition that begins with kidnapping: They’ll seize the birthday boy, throw him in a car, and cruise out of town for a weekend, heading down to Baja, for example, to rent some bikes and rip across the entire peninsula, through desert places where there’s nothing but scorpions, scrub, and the odd little taco stand. Christensen has little tolerance for actorly introspection. He is a man of action, a spirited rider, and a fearless snowboarder whose talents and personality emerge when he’s winding up for a slap shot, pounding a crosscourt backhand, or whipping a lightsaber through the thin atmosphere in a galaxy far, far away.

It’s Sunday in the San Fernando Valley, and Hayden Christensen sips a bottomless cup of coffee at a nonironic greasy-spoon diner. The Naugahyde booths are filled with porn-industry workers and Latino families dressed for church. Christensen is wearing a worn-down Toronto Maple Leafs hat and looks proudly Canadian, right down to his unlaced leather boots. More than win Oscars or rule the world, what he would really like to do is be the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs. In high school, he was good at putting the puck in the net, and he was also a top junior tennis player; his Star Wars costar Ewan McGregor was duly impressed with the natural athleticism Christensen brought to the on-set swordsmanship. “He’s quite extraordinary with his moves and spins. And he puts 110 percent into it. I think he was a baton girl in a past life.”

Christensen describes his family as intensely competitive. His brother holds Canadian long-distance-running records, and his sister was a junior world trampoline champion before she took up aerial skiing. As a teenager, Christensen had a brush with the greatest competitor of them all, John McEnroe. The actor was serving as a ball boy at one of his matches during a tournament in Toronto. When McEnroe hit the ball into the net, Christensen overzealously charged to retrieve it while McNasty vented his frustration by smashing the ball. His narrow miss of the kid’s dome aired on Canadian television that night, marking Christensen’s accidental small-screen debut.

The third of four children, Christensen got into acting by way of familial competitiveness. His elder sister had scored a spot in a Pringles commercial. The 7-year-old Christensen tagged along as she interviewed talent agents, and he ended up being scouted himself. He calls acting “this so-called craft where you pretend to be other people. And when you are 15 or 16 years old and trying to figure out who you are, well, it was something that really caught me interest.”

In 2000, Christensen assumed the role of a troubled teenager who is molested by his stepmother in the Fox Family Channel series Higher Ground, which lasted just long enough to put him on Lucas’s radar. He flew out to L.A. to audition and bested a field of 400 or so others that is said to have included Leonardo DiCaprio and Ryan Phillippe for the part of Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode ll - Attack of the Clones. But the actor’s first big part came playing a death-tripping Goth kid in the 2001 tearjerker Life as a House. Though the movie’s script is pure Mrs. Butterworth’s, and though he is made to say stuff like “What’s in my pants is none of your fucking business!” and act out autoerotic asphyxiation, such is his skill that Christensen becomes a surprisingly appealing character. He earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance.

Then, rather than lounge around poolside waiting for his agent to deliver the right role, he went out and created his own, becoming a driving force behind Shattered Glass, a biopic about disgraced New Republic reporter Stephen Glass. It was a gutsy move, going from the mall-packing movie even that was Attack of the Clones to the title role in a small-budget indie; from the broad, CGI-assisted strokes of Anakin Skywalker to the creepy depths of Glass, whose professional abuses Christensen smartly undercut by playing him as a fumbling, all-too-likable manipulator. The role convinced Christensen that there was life beyond the Skywalker Ranch - even if it fell to him to go find it.

But nothing comes easy. Once the Star Wars saga is complete, Christensen’s real challenge begins: trying to escape the Mark Hamill syndrome - that is, attempting to leave Star Wars’ gravitational pull and build a conventional movie career. “I haven’t been dealing with that dilemma thus far,” he says. “I’m not really concerned about it, either, though maybe I should be, given how many times I’m asked about it.”

He shouldn’t be overly worried. Soon he’ll be working on The Decameron with The OC’s Mischa Barton and starring in Barry Levinson’s Sixty-six, which will close out the director’s Baltimore cycle. He also has assembled a crew of people he trusts to run his production company, Forest Park Pictures, not simply the vanity confection many young stars attach their names to but an actual creative enterprise that’s currently developing an actual TV series he can’t actually talk about. “There’s a bittersweet sense of relief,” Christensen says of finally putting the monumental mixed blessing of Star Wars behind him. “But very much one of relief. Star Wats has been a huge commitment for me. It will definitely free up a lot of time.”

(Hayden & photographer, Mario Testino)
Returning to shoot for GQ after more than a decade, acclaimed photographer Mario Testino left London for Los Angeles to spend two days taking pictures of cover subject Hayden Christensen, the star of this month’s Star Wars: Episode lll - Revenge of the Sith. When asked which qualities make for an Excellent subject, Testino replied, “Looks, self-confidence, patience, and sociability.” And what about Christensen, whom the Peruvian Testino shot on location in Malibu? “He’s got more than those four.”

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