Hayden Christensen: Tall, Darth, and Handsome

When George Lucas plucked Hayden Christensen out of the big nowhere to star as young Darth Vader in his later Star Wars epic, heads were scratched across the galaxy. But Christensen's performance as a troubled teen in Life As A House should reassure doubters that Lucas knew exactly what he was doing.

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Less than two years ago, who had even heard of Hayden Christensen? Sure, he's been acting since he was 13, both here and in his native Canada, but it's not like millions caught him as the kid who got sexually trifled with by his step-mom on the short-lived TV series "Higher Ground" or as a mixed-up teen in the TV flick Trapped in a Purple Haze or in his blink-and-you'll-miss-it part in The Virgin Suicides.

Christensen's days of blissful anonymity are officially history. He's about to be examined through a jewelers loupe in Life as a House, a kind of American BeautymeetsTerms of Endearment, in which he's very persuasive as the rebellious, sexually malleable offspring of a divorced couple, played by Kevin Kline and Kristin Scott Thomas.

To fans around the globe, though, Christensen's appearance in that high-toned potential Oscar draw is merely an appetizer for the feast to come--his debut as Anakin Skywalker, the fledgling Darth Vader in next year's Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, to be followed by the next installment of the Star Wars saga in 2005. Advance word is that director George Lucas has already branded him the real thing, and if he's lucky, the flick could do for him what the first installment of Lucas's space opera did for Harrison Ford.

If he's feeling the undue weight of the Force upon his 20-year-old shoulders, Christensen who aced out hundreds of wannabe Jedis, who reportedly included Ryan Phillippe, Paul Walker and Colin Hanks--scarcely shows it. And it's not like he hasn't had provocation. After all, the gossip press has widely speculated about whether he and his Star Wars costar Natalie Portman were romancing during production. Then there was that recent Rolling Stone magazine profile that may have portrayed him as flippant, especially toward Lucas and The Franchise.

Clad in casual threads topped by a baseball hat that reads "Free," sitting at a sun-dappled table in the outdoor garden at the West Hollywood tea-and-tonic emporium Elixir, Christensen comes off as a shy, serious, soft-spoken type who's taking a wild ride in pretty good stride--at least before it's time to send in the clones, that is. He isn't so hot at introspection, and he draws into himself when the topics become personal. Still, lets cut the guy some slack. When was the last time your world got rocked overnight?

Although Life as a House, from a script by As Good As It Gets Oscar nominee Mark Andrus, will be the public's first real look at Christensen, it was actually filmed after Star Wars. Besides the opportunity to work with Kline, Christensen was attracted by its riskiness. "The script, as written, if done wrong, could play out like one long soap opera," he says. "It seemed it would be exciting and challenging to walk that fine line. I also felt the role was an important one--not just to the story, but to an audience who could relate to him, and feel for him. This was a real actor's role."

It's quite a role, all right, one that involves a near-suicide, serious pill-popping, major parental blowouts, a bout with male prostitution, a provocative stunt in the shower with a neighbor's daughter, hair dyed goth black and lots of eye shadow. "There's a slight hesitation when you're involved with something that has a certain level of risk," he says. "But I could relate to things in the script, like my character's insecurities, and I felt comfortable exploring some of those emotions. His crazy apparel and makeup are just a mask to hide behind. In the end, I got into putting on the eye shadow, the earrings, getting into the character."

How did George Lucas react to his protégé's tackling such a role? "I went to visit him over Christmas vacation while we were filming, and my hair was dyed jet-black," he laughs. "He just kind of looked at me and said, 'You'd better be able to get that out of your hair by the time we reshoot.' It was a close call."

Even though it's like he's got a light saber pointed at his temples when it comes to revealing any Star Wars secrets, Christensen's full of stories about the experience. "It all seems unreal, still," he admits. "Maybe I was even a little too comfortable going in for the audition. I just felt it was too far-fetched that anything would come to fruition, so I took extra joy in getting to meet George Lucas and screen-testing opposite Natalie. I couldn't be happier to get the part, but it wasn't something I considered within the realm of possibility."

Making the film, he says, "was the best summer of my life. I'm part of a movie trilogy that is one of the best of all time, and I feel very special to be a part of it." Even with that irredeemably cheesy title? "I think George has had that tide since day one. We'll see how audiences respond when they see the movie."

And was getting to know Natalie Portman part of what made it so special? Choosing his words with care, he says, "She's a good actress. She was very professional and amazing to work off. It's easy to look at, her and be absorbed by her. It wasn't a hard job for me to look at her with such loving eyes. Other than that, we became friends, and I still speak to her every once in a while."

With Life as a House behind him, Christensen is considering tackling another movie and, possibly, a play in New York or Toronto before the media blitz for Star Wars. At the moment, he says, "I don't get hassled by fans too much, but I imagine it'll become more difficult."

Jeez, ya think? May the Force be with him.

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