On May 11, 2000, Hayden Christensen was just another Canadian, handsome, yes, but unknown to most. By the following day, the 19-year-old had become the most desirable man in Hollywood–and perhaps in several galaxies. That day it was announced that the youthful-looking actor had beaten out 442 candidates, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Heath Ledger and Paul Walker, for a role that would make him an icon in film history: he was chosen to be the young Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker. His face soon began appearing on lists of the 50 hottest bachelors and People magazine’s sexiest men in the world. But being in the public eye had a less glamorous side. The Star Wars prequels were viewed suspiciously, and in 2003 and 2006 Christensen received a blow in the form of two Razzie Awards for Worst Actor. His story is the definition of Hollywood cruelty.
Over a Zoom interview from London, the 41-year-old tells EL PAÍS that he would advise his younger self that “everything comes at the right time and everything happens as it should.” Christensen is back on his journey to a galaxy far, far away. And he’s excited for the round of reunions involved in promoting the new series about Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, which premiered this past Friday on Disney+. Despite being the face of an empire, he now embraces staying in the background.
Nobody would have bet on it in 2005, but both the actor and the franchise’s fans have been highly anticipating his new appearance in George Lucas’s galaxy. “It’s been incredibly heartwarming to experience the support that I have from the fan base. Those films mean a lot to them. I genuinely believe that it’s been their support that has allowed us to come back,” explains Christensen. “There’s a strong sense of nostalgia. Ewan McGregor and I had an incredible time working on the prequels. We became very close, and I love the man like a brother.”
That nostalgia is also part of the plot. The Jedi Master, played by Ewan McGregor, has already retreated to the desert of Tatooine, where he was in the first Star Wars movie (then played by Alec Guinness). He is a broken man who spends his days watching over little Luke Skywalker from afar. The child is growing up with his aunt and uncle, not knowing that his father, formerly known as Anakin Skywalker, is now a Sith Lord and the leader of the Dark Side. “This is about how all of the events of Episode III have affected these two characters,” summarizes Christensen, picking his words so as not to reveal any secrets.
Christensen sees the characters as brothers, although Deborah Chow, the first female director in the saga, always saw a platonic love story. That’s what she wanted to explore in Obi-Wan: reordering the legacy and giving new meaning to the legendary battle of the 1977 film. But inside the Lucasfilm studio, discussions went on for months about whether presenting a new angle on the battle was the right thing to do. Altering the legacy is always a delicate subject for the franchise’s ardent fans, and Christensen knows that better than anyone else. Vader, moreover, did not even appear in the Stephen Daldry movie that began the series. Was there anything left to say about him? The actor never imagined having to deal with this chapter: he was hired to bring Anakin to life, and he only wore the suit for a few minutes of footage. The imposing voice of James Earl Jones did the rest. But the novelty piqued his interest: “It was a real honor to be cast. He’s a complex character wherever you find him in time.”
Christensen had to be aware, moreover, that he was reopening a door that he closed after a partial withdrawal from the public eye, motivated by the attacks and by notorious failures like Jumper and Awake. During this time, the Canadian has taken on Obi-Wan’s introspective mindset, living on a 200-acre farm in Toronto far from the crowds. Still, today, Christensen finally seems to enjoy himself as much as he did on that day in 2000 when he was told he was going to be Darth Vader and he celebrated by dueling his roommate in an invisible light saber battle.
Today, the actor feels like a different person. He sees the great movie villain as a prisoner of power: “I’m in a different place in my life and that influences the character. Vader has an inherent identity struggle and we’re going to see that contrast. I always empathize, which is easy because we saw his descent into the dark side. The audience also feels bad for the character now. He made some bad choices, but it was very circumstantial. This is 10 years after Revenge of the Sith, and he’s imprisoned in his choices.’
Since the prequels were released, there have also been significant technological advances. Actors no longer have to imagine everything around them. Now they work with a massive LED screen, nicknamed The Volume when it was created for The Mandalorian. It takes the place of a green screen, and real backgrounds are projected on it: “Now we can see the stage where we are. You literally step into Star Wars. That immersion helps make everything more credible.” No more actors complaining in interviews about the difficulty of working without external references: Lucasfilm already has three such screens set up, one in Los Angeles, one in Vancouver and one in London.
Vader will continue to hide under his iconic helmet. “Most of my work on this was done in preparation to take on the physicality of the character. We could have just added some padding underneath the suit and filled it out that way, but I really wanted to feel it. I had to change my diet and started working out with a trainer a lot.” He admits that he got emotional when putting on the Vader suit.
In Christensen’s absence, The Clone Wars and Rebels series, created by Dave Filoni, gave Anakin a new backstory. “The animation has made the prequels better,” he says. “I have tried to study everything, although there is a lot of material.”
That path will help him understand Vader’s possible next steps. Because, like everything in Star Wars these days, nothing ever dies. It is more than likely that Christensen will appear in the new series about the padawan Ahsoka. The show was announced by Rosario Dawson in a post on Instagram that she had to delete after a call from Disney. Christensen hopes to break the curse of Darth Vader, which afflicted his predecessors David Prowse and Jake Matthew Lloyd: “I would be thrilled to get to play Anakin and Vader more.”
A new hope
As Anakin Skywalker did when he blurted out “I am your father,” Christensen has dealt with his ghosts. Ewan McGregor has followed the same path of reconciliation, as he told Vanity Fair: “It wasn’t easy when they came out because they weren’t very well received,” he said. But he was eager for the opportunity to return to the Star Wars universe.
The Mandalorian opened a new television hope for Star Wars. But nostalgia continues to be the engine of the Disney industry, especially this series. That sentiment has even rehabilitated the prequels. Obi-Wan tries to close the Skywalker chapter, while paving a path away from the theater, a necessary move due to the need to rethink the distribution strategy. Soon, the series Andor, Ahsoka and The Acolyte will be released, taking viewers on a new journey to the times of Jedi splendor.