SITH IS IT: Hayden Christensen brings Vadar, ‘Star Wars’ full circle

It’s a moment many “Star Wars” fans have waited 22 years to see.
Ever since the helmet of Darth Vader was removed in the closing minutes of 1983’s “Return of the Jedi,” revealing a deformed, scarred man who went from powerful, noble Jedi to evil, power-hungry Lord of the Sith, devotees of the original “Star Wars” trilogy wondered how it was Anakin Skywalker stumbled onto the path to the Dark Side.

Now in 2005, as George Lucas prepares to close his not-as-well-received prequel trilogy, he’s ready to show his hand. Fans are about to learn just what led Anakin down the path to evil and his role as Vader.

At the heart of the new trilogy is Hayden Christensen, who took on the role of the older Anakin in “Attack of the Clones” - young Jake Lloyd assumed the childhood role in “The Phantom Menace” - so for him, like fans of the space opera, the story has come full circle.
During the two-hour, 26-minute final “Star Wars” film “Revenge of the Sith,” Christensen gets to put on the black armor, ominous helmet and breathing machine and become one of the most infamous villains in movie history.

That’s a change from the original trilogy when David Prowse wore the armor but got zero face time since Sebastian Shaw is shown as Vader once he has his helmet removed. In “Sith,” just like Episodes IV through VI, James Earl Jones provides the voice of the dark overlord.

But to let Christensen play Vader in “Sith” Lucas demanded his young star beef up to look as menacing as possible. The 24-year-old Canadian had to add 25 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-1 frame to take on the physical role, which wasn’t easy.

“I had to eat six meals a day,” he said during a call from Italy, where he’s filming “The Decameron,” a period piece that deals with the black plague epidemic. “I was on every protein supplement. It was not fun. Not something I want to repeat. Ever.”

Christensen’s added bulk is obvious during a nightmarish bedroom scene where he appears shirtless. But while he looks a lot tougher, he couldn’t grow taller. While’s he’s not exactly short, he was dwarfed by the 7-foot Vader costume.

In fact, Jay Laga’aia, who plays Captain Typho, laughed and said on the way to shoot scenes, Christensen’s head barely poked out of the top of the Vader costume, causing cast members to laugh and point good-natured jokes his way.

But once he got onto the set, that all changed. Christensen said people looked at him differently once he was inside the Vader costume.

“People took a few steps back,” Christensen recalled. “I mean, they know it’s just me, but (the costume) means something.”

Not only did Lucas, producer Rick McCallum and the rest of the crew have the task of portraying the origin of Vader, they had to convey the character came from good, honorable roots and fell into the Dark Side, albeit willingly.

Part of the storytelling has led to Lucas catching flak - some of it justified, some not - for how he has allowed Anakin to be shown in Episodes I and II. Because he began with Vader’s childhood, Lloyd took on the role and was thoroughly ripped for his performance.

Many fans wanted Anakin to start chopping people down with his lightsaber from the word go when “Menace” began. Instead, they got an overzealous boy who loved pod racing, his mother and the idea of being a Jedi knight.

In “Clones,” Christensen and Natalie Portman, who plays Anakin’s wife Padme Amidala, were called “wooden” and their dialogue was mocked. The on-screen couple shared several uncomfortable, awkward scenes that had them trading mushy sweet talk, all designed to build the emotional bond between the two characters.

While the first two movies certainly had their flaws, what Lucas managed to do was show Anakin essentially has a good heart. And once audiences see “Sith,” they’ll likely understand that what seemed annoying at the time - especially the syrupy love between Anakin and Padme - laid the foundation for the dramatic, dark and violent events that gave way to Vader.

“What’s sort of nice about this is you get this villain at the center of the original trilogy, and you get to humanize him,” Christensen said. “He knows right from wrong, and it sort of changes the way you think about him.”

It actually does. Once the story is told and the final moments of “Sith” fade out, it’s hard not to feel a little bit sad for how Anakin’s life fell apart and how he seemed to have no emotional control over his choices.

Christensen said another aspect of being Anakin in “Sith” is he got to play the character the way he wanted to in “Clones.” While he had to pull back some last time and let the romantic side of Anakin come forth, he was allowed to be pure evil this time around.

“I went to my dark place,” Christensen said. “This is the film I’ve been waiting for. I had to pull back the darkness I wanted to give the character (in “Clones”). But on this one they gave me full rein.”

Included in that was training along with co-star Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi) and Nick Gillard (stunt coordinator/swordmaster) who prepared the two for their death duel on volcanic planet Mustafar. Not only did the two have to have an exciting lightsaber duel, one fans waited 28 years to see since Vader struck down Obi-Wan in “A New Hope,” but they also had to take into account daring moves that would take place over a raging, spitting lake of lava.

Therefore, making sure the sword play was exciting was only half the battle, and constructing sequences where falling into a volcanic bath was entirely possible added a new layer of drama to the duo’s severed relationship.

While Christensen said he got to add a little bit of input to the battle, he stepped back and let Gillard plan the sequences.

“I got to throw in a couple of my moves,” Christensen said.

There also was the scene when Christensen finally got to pull on the black armor and truly accept the role of Vader as fans knew him in “A New Hope” “Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.”

It’s a moment that pulls the two trilogies together. It’s one that feels totally surreal. It’s one that offers supreme satisfaction to all of those who have waited most of their life to see what Christensen got to embody.

And to Christensen - he spent his childhood chasing his little sister around, terrifying her with his Darth Vader voice - it was worth the criticism, grueling training and weight program.

“It was more or less an indescribable feeling,” he said. “Getting to put on the Darth Vader suit was every feeling you can imagine.”

But he also can understand those “Star Wars” fans who may feel a little misty eyed not only because of how Anakin falls but that their beloved story has come to an end.

“There’s sadness because it closes, it completes the connection,” Christensen said. “It meant my “Star Wars” link has come to an end. But it was amazing getting to be the biggest, bad-ass villain of all time.”

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