HAyden Christensen has a confession to make. “I have a seven-year-old daughter; I didn’t show him Star Wars,” the actor says, as if he’s just confessed a shameful secret. “I know! I know! I feel like I’m dragging my feet a bit at this point because all of her friends have seen the movies. And, of course, she’s aware of my involvement in them.
Christensen’s hesitation is perhaps to be expected. When he took on the roles of Anakin Skywalker and the later incarnation of Skywalker, Darth Vader, in the Star Wars prequels Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005), fans of the franchise had spent a quarter of a century to form an idea about the characters. And many of them couldn’t bear to see Darth Vader portrayed as a petulant, whiny kid. Even though George Lucas had directed and co-written the films, Christensen became a lightning rod for their resentment. “Poor Hayden. Its performance is excellent. They just don’t like the character,” Lucas said when Revenge of the Sith was released. “I think it just comes down to the kind of ownership people feel towards these characters,” Christensen suggests today. “It’s almost like public domain. These characters truly belong to everyone.
This does not mean that he accepts criticism. “I guess the impression I got from George Lucas was that if they didn’t like them then they didn’t ‘get it’ – and that was good enough for me.” It clearly didn’t scare him away from playing Darth Vader, considering he’s set to reprise the role in two TV miniseries, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ahshoka. “It seemed like a really exciting opportunity,” he says. “It was a no-brainer. In a heartbeat. When I got the call, I was instantly thrilled… I was so excited to be able to come back after all these years. He really isn’t afraid to exposing yourself to another onslaught of toxicity? “Nooooo, never! Do you think that’s a possibility? he asks deadpan. “I mean, it’s all on the table, but you know, that doesn’t factor into those kinds of decisions for me.”
Christensen, 41, was born in Vancouver, four years after the release of the first Star Wars movie, and grew up in suburban Toronto. It was “a pretty normal childhood”, with his attention dominated by sport – mainly tennis and hockey, both at competitive levels. He was the second youngest of four children and remembers his older brother having a great reverence for Star Wars – sheets and toys strewn around the house, all declared off limits to younger siblings. It was his older sister, herself a child actress, who inadvertently made him play. While accompanying her to an agent meeting, seven-year-old Christensen was spotted by a talent scout and began doing commercials, like his sister.
His original plan was to go to college on a tennis scholarship, but that soon changed. “I was maybe 16 and I was like, ‘Hey, I want to be an actor.’ And that was kind of it for me, I had tunnel vision, and I left high school early to pursue my acting ambitions.
His parents “didn’t really care about it at the time,” Christensen recalls. “My father especially.” But his work on the TV series Higher Ground, in which he played a teenager who was molested by his stepmother, brought him to notice, and he was called to Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch to audition for Star Wars.
“I was a big fan of George Lucas,” says Christensen. “Even outside of his Star Wars work.” When he was a teenager, his parents bought him The Creative Impulse, a book about Lucas and his cultural influence. “I was just in love with the whole thing. I was just excited to go and meet George Lucas. I think it probably worked in my favor, at the time, because I didn’t really take it too seriously.
In May 2000, Christensen was cast as Anakin Skywalker, allegedly beating out Leonardo DiCaprio for the role and making him one of Hollywood’s hottest young properties. He embraced the Star Wars fandom as much as he could, but sometimes it was overbearing. “We were shooting a scene in Spain and somehow the local newspaper knew where we were going to be and they printed it,” he says. “When we got to the set, there were thousands of people there and they had to bring in the military guard to hold them back.”
It was especially difficult for Christensen, who, unlike her co-stars Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor, hadn’t experienced anything like the attention that comes with Star Wars. “It was a lot of things to adapt to,” he says. “Usually people have a more gradual ascent in this world and mine was very steep. But I was able to distance myself or detach myself from that experience because I knew it was about that thing that I was now part of it. I didn’t really think it was something that belonged to me. Seeing his face plastered on everything from crispy packets to drink cans took a toll. “For a while, I was avoiding to go to the convenience store just because it was a bit overwhelming. But the action figures, it was cool, I loved it. He still has a nice collection in store.
Being called a teen heartthrob didn’t help either. “I never really connected to that identity,” he says. “I always wanted to be seen as a serious actor. I guess I found that a bit overwhelming too. But my focus has always been work and everything else is a bit peripheral for me.
A common perception of the prequel trilogy is that the actors were simply doing their best with the limited and clunky dialogue. As Harrison Ford infamously shouted at George Lucas on the set of one of the movies, “You can type that shit, but you sure can’t say it!” Christensen isn’t sure that’s fair. “George Lucas creates such a unique world where everything is so specific, from how these characters look to how they talk, and I feel like sometimes people lose sight of that and they expect that they speak the way we speak – and that’s not what we were looking for.
He still has a lot of respect for Lucas. “He was really like a mentor to me and he was so kind to his time. I became very close to his family and my family became close to his family. Lucas’ son, he says, is like a brother to him.
Christensen’s early work after Star Wars was promising. The Guardian said it brought “chilling condemnation” to the role of disgraced journalist Stephen Glass in the 2003 film Shattered Glass. And while his 2008 sci-fi movie Jumper didn’t get well-reviewed, it went on to gross over $225 million at the box office. But the past decade has been surprisingly quiet, as Christensen moved away from Hollywood to spend more time on his 200-acre farm north of Toronto. “I’ve always liked to play,” he says. “I’ve always loved the process of making a film too. I just had other interests and other things that I wanted to explore too.
“It wasn’t like a conscious decision,” he adds, “but I really enjoyed my time on my farm, and it became a hard place to leave.” It had an impact on his career, but “it was something I was aware of and ok with”.
It gave him more time with his daughter, Briar Rose (his mother is Christensen’s ex-wife, Rachel Bilson, his co-star in Jumper), as well as a chance to pursue his interests in architecture and construction vehicles by building barns and renovating old farmhouses. “All kids are kind of into their Tonka toys,” he says. “I just took it to the next level and got, you know, a full-size excavator and a bulldozer.” Still, Christensen found it difficult to leave Star Wars in 2005 – he didn’t want it to end. It wasn’t until a few years ago that he felt comfortable attending Star Wars fan conventions. “It just wasn’t something that interested me,” he says. “It’s not something I ever thought I wanted to do. It just wasn’t where I was in my life. But now I love connecting with those fans who are expressing how much those movies mean to them, and especially that character. And seeing young children dressed as Anakin and connecting with them. For me, that has a lot of value, and I hope it’s mutual.
Now, when Christensen looks back on his Star Wars movies, he has nothing but fond memories. “I was less than a year out of high school, and I found myself on this big movie production with George Lucas and Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman and all these incredibly talented people…really, I couldn’t have dreamed better. I’m so grateful to have been able to be a part of it.”
With his return as Vader – the defining character of his career – comes the chance to reshape his legacy and, like Vader himself, to embrace redemption. “I think it’s a very powerful concept,” he says. “And one that really resonates with Star Wars storytelling as well.”
Obi Wan Kenobi starts on Disney+ May 27