Hayden Christensen has a confession to make. “I have a seven-year old-daughter; I haven’t shown her Star Wars, ”the actor says, as though he has just admitted a shameful secret. “I know! I know! I feel like I’m probably dragging my feet a little 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 hesitancy is perhaps to be expected. When he took on the roles of Anakin Skywalker and Skywalker’s later incarnation, Darth Vader, in the Star Wars prequels Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005), fans of the franchise had a quarter of a century in which to form their ideas about the characters. And many of them couldn’t stomach seeing Darth Vader portrayed as a petulant, whiny brat. Even though George Lucas had directed and co-written the movies, Christensen became the lightning rod for their resentment. “Poor Hayden. His performance is great. They just don’t like the character, ”Lucas said when Revenge of the Sith came out. “I think it just goes back to the sort of ownership that people feel towards these characters,” Christensen suggests today. “It’s almost like the public domain. These characters really do belong to everybody. ”
That doesn’t mean he accepts the criticisms. “I guess the impression that I got from George Lucas was that if they don’t like them, then they don’t ‘get’ it – and that was good enough for me.” It clearly hasn’t frightened him off playing Darth Vader, given that he’s about to reprise the role in two TV miniseries, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ahshoka. “It just seemed like a really exciting opportunity,” he says. “It was a no-brainer. In a heartbeat. When I got the call, I was instantly elated… I was just so excited to get to come back after all these years. ” He’s really not afraid of exposing himself to another onslaught of toxicity? “Noooooo, 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 get factored into these types of decisions for me.”
Christensen, 41, was born in Vancouver, four years after the first Star Wars movie was released, and grew up in the suburbs of 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 – bedsheets and toys scattered around the house, all declared off limits to younger siblings. It was his older sister, a child actor herself, who inadvertently got him into acting. While accompanying her to an agent meeting, the seven-year-old Christensen was spotted by a talent scout and started doing adverts, like his sister.
His original plan was to go to university on a tennis scholarship, but that soon changed. “I was maybe 16 or so and I thought, ‘Hey, I want to be an actor.’ And that was kind of it for me. I had tunnel vision. And I left high school prematurely to pursue my acting ambitions. ”
His parents “weren’t so keen on it at the time”, Christensen remembers. “My father especially.” But his work on the TV series Higher Ground, in which he played a teenager who had been molested by his stepmother, got him noticed, and he was summoned to Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch to audition for Star Wars.
“I was a big admirer of George Lucas’s,” says Christensen. “Even outside of his work on Star Wars.” When he was a teenager his parents had bought him The Creative Impulse, a book about Lucas and his cultural influence. “I was just in love with it all. I was just excited to get to go and meet George Lucas. I think that was probably working in my favor, at the time, because I wasn’t really taking it too seriously. ”
In May 2000, Christensen was cast as Anakin Skywalker, allegedly beating Leonardo DiCaprio to the role and making him one of Hollywood’s hottest young properties. He embraced the Star Wars fandom as much as he could, but at times it was overbearing. “We were filming a scene in Spain and somehow the local newspaper knew the location that we were going to be at and they printed it,” he says. “When we got to set there were thousands of people there and they had to bring in the military guard to keep them back.”
It was especially tough on Christensen, who, unlike his co-stars Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor, hadn’t experienced anything like the attention that comes with Star Wars. “It was a lot to adjust to,” he says. “Usually people have a more gradual ascent into that world and mine was very abrupt. But I was able to distance or detach from that experience because I knew it was about this thing that I was now a part of. I didn’t really think of it as being something that was mine. ” Seeing his face plastered on everything from crisp packets to drinks cans took its toll. “For a period I would avoid going to the convenience store just because it was a little overwhelming. But the action figures, that was cool, I got a kick out of that. ” He still has a nice collection in storage.
Being branded a teen heart-throb didn’t help either. “I never really connected with that identity,” he says. “I always wanted to be regarded as a serious actor. I guess I found that to also be a little overwhelming. But my focus has always been the work and everything else is kind of peripheral for me. ”
A common perception of the prequel trilogy is that the actors were simply doing the best they could with the limited, clunky dialogue. As Harrison Ford infamously shouted across to George Lucas while on the set of one of the films: “You can type this 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 the way these characters look and the way that they talk, and I feel like sometimes people lose sight of that and they expect them to speak the same way that we speak – and that’s not what we were going for. ”
He still has a lot of respect for Lucas. “He was very much like a mentor to me and he was so gracious with his time. I became very close with his family, and my family became close with his family. ” Lucas’s son, he says, is like a brother to him.
Christensen’s early work after Star Wars showed promise. The Guardian said he brought a “frightening conviction” to the part of disgraced journalist Stephen Glass in the 2003 film Shattered Glass. And though his 2008 sci-fi movie Jumper wasn’t well reviewed, it took more than $ 225m at the box office. But the past decade or so has been surprisingly quiet, as Christensen drifted away from Hollywood to spend more time on his 200-acre farm north of Toronto. “I’ve always loved acting,” he says. “I’ve always loved the film-making process, too. I’ve just had other interests and other things that I wanted to explore as well.
“It wasn’t like a conscious decision,” he adds, “but I found myself really enjoying my time at my farm, and it became a tough place to want to leave.” It had an impact on his career, but “that was something that I was aware of and OK with”.
It has given him more time with his daughter, Briar Rose (her 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 the kids are sort of into their Tonka Toys,” he says. “I just took it to the next level and got like, you know, a full-size excavator, and a bulldozer.” Despite everything, Christensen found leaving Star Wars back in 2005 difficult – 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 wasn’t something that I ever thought I wanted to do. It just wasn’t where I was at in my life. But now I love getting to connect with these fans who express how much these films mean to them, and specifically this character. And getting to see young kids dressed up as Anakin and make a connection with them. For me, it has a lot of value, and I hope it’s mutual. ”
Now, when Christensen looks back on his Star Wars movies, he has only 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 it up any better. I’m so grateful that I got to be a part of that. ”
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 that’s a very powerful concept,” he says. “And one that really resonates within the Star Wars storytelling as well.”
Obi-Wan Kenobi starts on Disney + on 27 May