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July/August-Star Wars Insider-I was a teenage sith lord. Introducing Anakin Skywalker

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

Canadian actor Hayden Christensen, 19, talks to the Insider about taking over the most important role in the Star Wars saga, the Jedi knight who will become Darth Vader.

HAYDEN CHRISTENSEN IS ANAKIN SKYWALKER. HAYDEN CHRISTENSEN IS DARTH VADER. BUT WHO IS HAYDEN CHRISTENSEN? The question is understandable, since the casting of Anakin Skywalker, perhaps the coolest; most complex archetype in cinema history, was one of the motion picture industry’s most-anticipated and speculated-about decisions in recent memory. Fans wanted to know the answer to one of the Star Wars saga’s oldest questions: what did Darth Vader look like before he put on that famous black helmet? And Hollywood wanted to know which lucky young actor would be cho- sen to star in two likely blockbusters-would it be Leo? One of the Dawson’s Creek kids? Or maybe some guy who’s never acted but was mentioned on the Internet? All along, George Lucas insisted the actor he chose would be an unknown, just like Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher, the stars of his original trilogy, were in 1977. He stayed true to his word, choosing an obscure but charismatic young Canadian actor whose most prominent role to date was as a troubled teen on the Fox Family Channel cable series HIgherGround. Christensen-who will play Anakin in both Episodes II and III-emerged out of over 400 actors from a nationwide, months-long talent search undertaken by Robin Gurland, the casting director who also brought Jake Lloyd (the nine-year-old Anakin in Episode I) to George Lucas’ attention. With Episode II taking place roughly 10 years later one more person was needed to join the pantheon of actors who have portrayed the character, including Lloyd, David Prowse (who wore the Darth Vader costume in the classic trilogy), James Earl Jones (who supplied Vader’s voice), stuntman Bob Anderson (who handled most of Vader’s lightsaber battles), and Sebastian Shaw (the late actor who played the older Anakin in Return of the Jedi. A native of Vancouver (his family later moved to Toronto, where he grew up with a brother and two sisters), Christensen is also an athlete who nearly pursued tennis instead of acting. In addition to Higher Ground, he had a regular role on the Canadian soap Family Passions when he was just 13, appeared in the films In the Mouth of Madness and the recent The Virgin Suicides, and had roles in a number of television movies, including Love and Betrayal: The Mia Farrow Story and the recent Freefall and Lost in a Purple Haze. But clearly, Hayden Christensen’s biggest role is yet to come. And what a role-he gets to portray Anakin Skywalker during both his rise as a Jedi Knight and his fall to the dark side as a Lord of the Sith. He must convey the goodness of Jake Lloyd’s Anakin and the vicious, remorseless evil of Darth Vader, the guy who choked Imperials just for kicks. He gets to swing a lightsaber, summon the Force, and romance Natalie Portman. He is the father of Luke Skywalker, the father of Princess Leia. That’s why the Insider thought it was important to get to know Hayden Christensen beyond the list of movies he’s done or sports he’s played. Like we all wondered when the casting announcement was made in May, who is this guy, anyway? Just days after he won the role of Anakin Skywalker, the actor sat down with us for his first exclusive Insider interview at his agent’s office in Beverly Hills. As soon as he walked in the door, it was easy to see why he stood out among all the Anakin hopefuls. Christensen was warm, easy-going, and laughed a lot-but he was also articulate, serious about his craft, and intense in his commitment to it. Answering every question easily, Christensen gave us plenty of time to get to the bottom of who he is.

CONGRATULATIONS, HAYDEN!
Thanks!

AFTER YOU WERE CAST, LUCASFILM WAITED TO ANNOUNCE YOUR NAME UNTlL ALL THE CONTRACTS WERE SIGNED AND PAPERWORK WAS COMPTETED. WHAT WAS THAT WEEK LIKE, WHEN THE ONLY PEOPLE YOU COULD TELL WERE YOUR FAMILY AND FRIENDS?
It was tough. I didn’t even tell most of my friends. Just my best friend and some of my family members knew. I wasn’t allowed to tell anybody. I was half-convinced that it was this big scheme that they were running, because there was all this anticipation over who was going to get the role. I figured I was sort of like their decoy, that they were going to say that I had it, just to throw everybody off, and I didn’t really have it, and later they were going to announce someone else. That would have been so cruel. I was so relieved when I signed the contract. Mostly, though, I just walked around with a huge grin on my face, and everyone asked, “Why are you so happy?” I would just say, “You’ll find out sooner or later.” It’s been very surreal. It’s the hardest thing, because I love to share.

IT’S PROBABLY JUST THE BEGINNING OF HOLDING BACK ON SHARIHG DETAILS AB0UT EPISODE II.
Yeah, and it’s hard to not tell people, but that’s what we’ve got to do.

WHERE WAS THAT WEEK SPENT-AT HOME IN VANCOUVER?
Yes, I was doing a television show called Higher Ground. We shot there for eight months. We did 20 episodes. I was actually born in Vancouver, and that was my first time back there. So it felt like home, I love it there. I keep my apartment there, but my family lives in Toronto. I love Toronto, too-very low key and friendly vibe.

KIND OF DIFFERENT THAN OUT HERE IN L.A., HUH?
Yeah, I’ve been out in Los Angeles for about a month now, and I thought I would enjoy it more than I am. Los Angeles, or Hollywood, just seems so full of ambition-overcrowded with ambition. It’s overwhelming. I always thought it would be this place where artists could come for a place to create, which it’s not really. It’s much more commerce here than it is art, which took me by surprise.

HOW RECENTLY DID YOU FIND OUT YOU GOT THE PART-TWO WEEKS AGO?
Less than that, actually-about a week and a half.

HAVE YOU GOTTEN RECOGNIZED ON THE STREETS ALREADY?
Yes! It’s chaos already. We went to Mr. Chow’s for dinner with my agent, and I guess someone tipped them off that we were there. There was a swarm of people when we came out. I’d never really experienced that before-you just get inundated with so many questions. I’ve never been through that before, so it was weird.

WERE YOU HOPING TO ATTAIN THAT KIND OF FAME?
It was never something I really thought about. As an actor, you don’t really think of how well you’re doing in terms of your level of fame. It’s rather the quality of your work.

DO YOU KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THE STORY OF EPISODE II YET?
I don’t know anything. I’m as much in the dark as everybody else. It’s really weird, because usually you don’t sign onto a film before you’ve read the script. But this is definitely the one exception.

WHAT MAKES IT THE ONE EXCEPTION IN YOUR MIND?
Because it’s Star Wars! It speaks for itself- come on.

HAS IT BEGUN TO SINK IN AT ALL THAT YOU’RE STEPPING INTO THE CENTRAL CHARACTER OF THE BIGGEST MOVIE SERIES OF ALL TIME? CAN IT EVEN SOUND REAL YET?
No, and I don’t think it ever will. You know, it still feels very surreal. I’m beside myself. It’s like I’m sitting next to myself, seeing myself, and asking, “Are you understanding this?”-”No, are you understanding this?” It’s incredible. I never would have thought this would happen. I’m nervous, I’m excited, I’m overwhelmed. I’m experiencing so many different emotions right now. It’s a lot to deal with. But I’m thrilled with the challenge.

WALK US THROUGH THE AUDITION PROCESS. YOUR FIRST MEETING WAS WITH ROBIN GURLAND, THE CASTING DIRECTOR. DID YOU READ FOR HER AT THAT POINT?
No, the first time was just a general meeting with Robin. I was in Vancouver doing Higher Ground, and I flew out just to meet with her, over at some hotel down the street, actually. We just had a normal conversation. We didn’t talk about Star Wars, just about my experiences with acting and what I was doing. She put that on videotape, and George saw that. Then, about two months later, I met with George over at Skywalker Ranch. And that was nothing but cool. It was my first time there, and it’s very picturesque, and very surreal. You’ve got llamas grazing fields nearby, and it’s beautiful, and then you walk into George’s office and there he is. George Lucas. It was exciting for me. We just sat down and we talked-not about Star Wars. We didn’t even talk about the film industry, really. It was just normal chit-chat.

SIZING EACH OTHER UP?
Well, more him sizing me up, and me trying to, you know, be sized up well.

AT THAT TIME, THE BIG RUMOR CIRCULATING WAS THAT THE TOP CONTENDER FOR ANAKIN WAS LEONARDO DICAPRIO. DID YOU THINK YOU HAD A CHANCE?
I never really felt like it would come to fruition, that I would ever even test for it. It was just more of a field trip for me, going in and meeting George and getting to see the Ranch. When I found out that I was going to test for it, I still never thought it would happen. It was just cool, and that’s it.

HOW MUCH LONGER AFTER YOUR MEETING WITH GEORGE WAS YOUR SCREEN TEST?
I went back about two months later to do the test screen with Natalie, which was great, because I’ve always respected her work.

HAVE YOU SEEN THE PROFESSIONAL?
Oh, yeah-I’m a fan of all her films. I think she’s made some really smart choices in the work that she has done. I’m really excited to be working with her, and Ewan too. He’s great, so that will be fun.

WAS IT EASY READING WITH NATALIE THE FIRST TIME? WHAT WERE YOU READING?
It was great. It was a scene that’s not going to be used in the actual film, but it was still in context to Star Wars.

DID THEY GIVE THAT TO YOU IN ADVANCE?
Yes, I got that a couple of weeks before the test, and I made sure that I knew it like the back of my hand. But it was hard, because I didn’t have a script to help me get a better idea of who this character was. Even though you know he’s Darth Vader and there are all these other films about him, I wasn’t sure where he was in the development, in the progression of Anakin to Darth. So, it was hard going into it. I was sort of in the dark. But when I sat down with George, I got a better sense of what I was supposed to be doing. And when you see George, he’s kind of like a rock star-he has this entourage that just follows him around. But when you’re alone with him and he’s giving you direction, he makes you feel very at ease. He’s very disarming. So then Robin, Natalie, George, and I went to a separate room just to rehearse it a few times. We ran over the lines, and then we went into where we were going to shoot the screen test. Then we rehearsed the scene a couple of times on camera, and then we shot it. And we did reverses and close-ups, until George was happy with what we did.

SO HE SHOT IT LIKE A SHORT FILM?
Yeah! It was so cool-I was content with just the experience. I got to shoot a scene from Star Wars! They gave me an Episode I cap, too, and a nice Star Wars mug. I got a few souvenirs, and I was happy.

BEYOND PRACTICING THE LINES, HOW DID YOU PREPARE FOR THE SCREEN TEST? DID YOU PULL OUT ANY OF THE FOUR OTHER MOVIES?
Oh, yeah, I watched them religiously for a week beforehand. I wanted to make sure I was as prepared as possible. I also remember I picked up a copy of your magazine before I went to go and meet with George. I was like, “They have their own magazine?!” That is so cool.

AMAZING BUT TRUE. WHAT EFFECT DID WATCHING THE STAR WARS FILMS HAVE ON YOUR AUDITION?
Well, George has a very specific way of writing in the Star Wars context. It’s not a normal way of speaking. I wanted to get a feel for that for the most part, familiarize myself more with some of the Star Wars themes, and get an idea of the sensibilities that Jake Lloyd and Sebastian Shaw brought to the character-just to get an idea of what they were bringing to Anakin. I picked up on some of those things.

WHAT DID YOU PICK UP ON?

Well, Jake brought this very innocent, very naive side to the character. And Sebastian brought a very pure intensity to the role.

SO AFTER THE SCREEN TEST, YOU WENT BACK TO VANCOUVER, AND GOT A PHONE CALL, RIGHT?
I was in bed, and my roommate walked into my room and handed me the phone. It was my agent and they sounded really excited, so I knew immediately what was going on. I just walked outside for a minute, and then I called my mom.

HOW ARE YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY REACTING TO YOUR NEW ROLE?
They’re all very happy for me. I think that I’ve surrounded myself with very good people, so nothing’s really changed for me, it’s pretty much the same. But this is just going to be so cool, seeing myself wielding lightsabers and using the Force. Who gets to do that?

I READ THAT YOU WERE GOING TO TRAIN IN THE MARTIAL ARTS STYLE OF BO.
I was going to take some Bo classes just for myself, to familiarize myself with some of the moves. But I was just told not to do that actual- ly, and to take fencing instead, which will give me a better idea. So, I’m going to take some fencing classes before I get to Australia. I go out the beginning of June, and I work with Nick Gillard, who is the stunt coordinator, for about three weeks, everyday, learning the different fight scenes. I’m going to try to do most of my own stunts.

YOU’RE ALREADY AN ATHLETE, RIGHT?
Yes. I come from an athletic family. My father went to university on a football scholarship, and my brother was a runner. He went to the University of Pennsylvania on a running scholarship. And I’ve played competitive tennis and competitive hockey. My original plan was to go to university on a tennis scholarship, but I got side-tracked with acting.

HOW DID YOU GET SIDE-TRACKED?
By doing Higher Ground. But I’ve been acting since I was seven.

SO ACTING WON OUT OVER TENNIS?
Yes. I’ve put my academics on hold for right now. I don’t know what I’m going to do after we finish filming the next Star Wars-go back to school, make another film, both-or go travel. I’m not sure. But this is what I’ve always wanted to do. This has always been my dream.

SO YOU CONSIDER YOURSELF MORE OF AN ACTOR THAN AN ATHLETE?
Definitely. But I wanted to go to university and have that experience.

YOU WENT TO A PERFORMING ARTS HIGH SCHOOL. WAS IT LIKE FAME?
No, it was actually a performing arts program within a mainstream high school. So to go to the high school, I had to audition and be accepted, but I only took one performing arts course, drama. The rest of my courses were with a mainstream high school, math and everything else. But that’s what gave me the acting bug. My teachers there were so inspirational in guiding me through this process. I owe a lot to them.

HOW DID YOU START ACTING AS A CHILD?
I got into the business when I was about seven. My older sister was Junior World Champion on the trampoline, and they wanted her to do a Pringles potato chips commercial. She did it, and then afterward they suggested she get an agent. When she went to go meet with one of these agencies, there was no one home to baby-sit me. I was just along for the ride, and they asked me if I wanted to do a few commercials. I said sure. And that’s how I originally got into it. But I didn’t get the acting bug until I was in high school.

WHAT IS IT ABOUT ACTING THAT YOU LOVE?
It’s the ability to reinvent yourself. There are so many things that I myself would never do, but I have the ability to live vicariously through my characters. They say it’s the shy man’s revenge-which in my case it definitely is.

YOU THINK YOU’RE PRETTY SHY?
I’d say so. But acting definitely brings it out of me.

YOU DON’T SEEM SHY.
Yeah, interviews are different.

HAD YOU DONE A LOT INTERVIEWS BEFORE ALL THIS?
No. I started to get introduced to the whole idea during Higher Ground, so that prepared me a little bit.

GETTING THE ROLE ON HIGHER GROUND MUST HAVE FELT LIKE YOUR BIG BREAK AT THE TIME.
I never really wanted to do television. I always wanted to make films. I’ve always had a love for film, and the reason why I developed such an interest in acting was because at the time that was the only way I could be involved in films. I couldn’t direct, I couldn’t produce, I couldn’t do any of the other creative stuff like that, and that’s why I got into it.

AND HOW YOU’VE MADE A FIVE-YEAR COMMITMENT TO YOUR NEXT TWO FILMS.
And I couldn’t be happier-what a film to commit to!

YOU RECENLTY APPEARED IN THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, DIRECTED BY SOFIA COPPOLA.
Well, if you look hard, you’ll see me in the background running by. I have a few lines, but I’m not one of the leads.

YOU KNOW SOFIA COPPOLA IS in EPISODE I AS ONE OF THE QUEEN’S HANDMAIDENS.
No way! Are you kidding me? I had no idea. That’s pretty cool.

YOU’VE PLAYED WOODY ALLEN’S SON IN A TV-MOVIE, AND A CREEPY KID ON A BIKE IN JOHN CARPENTER’S IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS. DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE PRE-STAR WARS ROLE?
All my favorite work so far has been on stage. I’ve done a couple professional productions. I did Hamlet. That would probably be my favorite part-Hamlet.

FROM HAMLET TO VADER.
[Pretending to be weighing two sides of a scale] Hmm, Hamlet, Vader. Hamlet, Vader.

AREN’T YOU A MUSICIAN TOO?
I play the piano and some other instruments.

WHAT KIND OF PIANO DO YOU PLAY?
Jazz, Blues-I can’t read a note of it, but I’ve been playing since I was about seven.

WHAT KIND OF MUSIC DO YOU LISTEN TO?
I listen to everything-OutKast, Ben Harper. I don’t really listen to country, but I listen to most everything else.

WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU HANG OUT WITH YOUR FRIENDS ?
I don’t know. Go shoot stick, just normal stuff. Find something to do. Usually we just sit around contemplating what we want to do.

WHAT DO YOU READ?
I read a lot of magazines. Colors, Details, there’s a slew of them that I have at home. Star Wars Insider! [Laughs]

WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE MOVIES?
The Princess Bride is probably at the top of the list. Living in Oblivion. And Without Limits, I like that movie a lot. It’s with Billy Crudup-it’s the Steve Prefontaine story. They made two of them, and it’s the good one.

OTHER THAN HIGHER GROUND, WHAT DO YOU WATCH ON TV?
Well, to be honest, I’ve never seen an episode of Higher Ground on TV-I don’t have cable. But I love The Simpsons.

WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE CANADIAN STAR? DO YOU HAVE ANY?
The Canadians are breaking out now-we’re taking over. Who was it that I justfound out was Canadian? Macy Gray is Canadian, I just got her CD. I’ll say Macy Gray.

BRYAN ADAMS-PRO OR CON?
Con. Celine Dion-con. We apologize for them.

DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE STAR WARS MOVIE? YOU’VE WATCHED THEM QUITE A BIT LATELY.
I’d have to say the first one, because it was so ahead of its time. It was so revolutionary in terms of filmmaking-all of his films are, but I’d say the first one was my favorite.

DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE STAR WARS CHARACTER?
Vader! [Laughs]

ANYONE BESIDES VADER?
Yoda. I love Yoda.

I JUST FIGURED I’D GET IN AS MANY QUESTIONS AS I COULD BEFORE YOU GOT TOO BUSY.
Nah, I’ve got time. This is Star Wars-this is me!

THIS IS YOU. ISN’T THAT AWESOME?
It’s weird. It’s almost too much to deal with.

IS IT WEIRD THINKING THAT STAR WARS BEGAN BEFORE YOU WERE EVEN BORN?
Well, Star Wars has always been a part of my life, though. I grew up on it, so it seems weird in that sense. Star Wars was, of course, before my time, but everyone’s seen it and everyone loves it. The fans are just so devoted. We were big into Star Wars and all the paraphernalia. My brother had every figure, every starship. He’s 27, and he’s fanatical about Star Wars. When Shadows of the Empire came out on Nintendo 64, we used to lock ourselves in my bedroom and relay the controller back and forth until we became Jedi Knights. If I played it too much, I remember, it used to visit me in my dreams. I used to have dreams that I was in the Star Wars game. It just had such an impact.

WHAT WERE YOUR SHADOWS OF THE EMPIRE DREAMS LIKE?
Everything was very bexy, and very digitalized. That game was great.

WHAT DID YOU LIKE BEST ABOUT STAR WARS WHEN YOU WERE A KID?
Just the-you know-everything! It was just so different from everything else that I’d seen, and it affected so many other people that I knew. Some of my friends are fanatical about Star Wars. When Episode I came out, my entire high school vacated, just to go to the first showing of it. We all rushed to the theaters to see the noon showing of Star Wars. We also bought tickets for the theatrical trailers-we paid seven bucks, and then we left when the movie started.

WHAT DID YOU THINK OF EPISODE I WHEN YOU FIRST SAW IT?
I thought it was great. I loved it. It was such a cool film. You know, I was always curious what Darth Vader was going to look like under the mask.

AND NOW, YOU KNOW HE LOOKS LIKE YOU.
Yeah-whoa.

OF ALL THE ACTORS WHO HAVE PORTRAYED ANAKIN, YOU’RE GETTING HIM AT PERHAPS THE MOST INTERESTING POINT OF HIS LIFE.
It’s going to be a pretty cool development. You know, aside from the fact that it’s Star Wars, and it has this cultural following, and it’s a huge event, I’m thrilled to be working on it mostly because it has all these mythic qualities and religious parallels. As an actor it’s going to be very challenging. I’m looking forward to it.

HOW DOES THIS CHARACTER COMPARE TO OTHERS YOU’VE PLAYED?
It’s a complete 180 degrees from what I was doing before. So I’m excited. Plus, I’ve never worked on a film of this scale. That’s exciting, too.

WHAT IS YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH SPECIAL EFFECTS?
Zero to none. Most of the work I’ve done has been in low budget films. Higher Ground didn’t have a very big budget.

HAVE YOU EVER PLAYED A BAD GUY BEFORE?
My character on Higher Ground was a bad kid. He was a troubled, drug-abusing, messed-up, sexually abused punk. He’s not a bad kid though. He’s just messed up. He’s confused. I don’t think anyone at that age is innately bad, there’s just some confusion. But if you watch the show, there’s definitely a progression, and a development to some understanding of what was happening in his life that was making him make these mistakes.

ACCORDING TO STAR WARS LORE, AT SOME POINT DARTH VADER HUNTS DOWN AND SLAUGHTERS ALL THE JEDI.
Yeah. It’s going to be weird making that transition from pretty much the pinnacle of good- which Jake embodies-to the most powerful man in the universe, the darkest, evilest Darth.

WHEN I WATCH THE MOVIES, IT’S HARD TO RECONCILE LITTLE JAKE LLOYD WITH DARTH VADER. IT SEEMS LIKE A WHOLE DIFFERENT PERSON TO ME. ARE YOU NERVOUS ABOUT BRIDGING THAT GAP?
Of course I’m nervous. I think something would be wrong if I wasn’t nervous. But I’ve got two films to make that transition, and George is going to outline it. It will be a challenging task, but it will be a fun collaboration between myself and George.

CLEARLY HE SAW SOMETHING IN YOU THAT GAVE HIM CONFIDENCE. WHAT DO YOU THINK IT IS ABOUT YOU AS AN ACTOR OR A PERSON THAT HELPED HIM SEE THE POTENTIAL. FOR BOTH THOSE SIDES?
I don’t know-if I were to say anything, it would be boasting.

DO YOU KNOW IF YOU’LL BE PUTTING ON THE HELMET?
I don’t know-but I know it would be pretty cool though! It was funny, because the costume designer, Trisha Biggar, called me up yesterday. She described to me what I was going to be wearing. She said, “You’re going to be in your basic Jedi outfit, with your belt to hold your lightsaber.” It just sounds weird to hear that-your lightsaber. It’s the coolest thing.

WHAT ARE YOU MOST LOOKING FORWARD TO ABOUT THIS SUMMER?
There are so many aspects that I’m so thrilled to be involved with. I’ve never been outside of North America, so this will be my first chance to see some of the other parts of the world-and it’s going to be pretty cool to do it on the Lucas Tour Bus!

AND I’M SURE IT ALMOST GOES WITH OUT SAYING YOU’RE EXCITED TO HAVE YOUR OWN ACTION FIGURE?
Yeah-it’s cool, having little kids playing with little figurines of my character, or the character that I’m going to portray. He’s not just my character. It will be really weird, because Star Wars is everywhere. You know, you see Jake’s face everywhere. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to that. I could be drinking myself out of a Pepsi can. So we’ll see-I’ll just take it as it comes.

HOW MUCH OF YOUR JOB AS AN ACTOR WILL BE EMULATING THE MANNERISMS OF THE PRIOR ANAKINS-JAXE LLOYD, SEBASTIAN SHAW, DAVID PROWSE, AND JAMES EARL JONES?
Well, of course, there has to be some consistency. But the movies are at such different times in Anakin’s life that I think I’ll have room to play and create. I’m going to try to bring some of the sensibility that Jake brought to the role, and some of the feeling that Sebastian brought to it. But for the most part, I’m going to create my own Anakin-so be prepared.