Films

Jedi James Dean

A Canadian is poised for stardom, not just because of Star Wars

Brian D. Johnson October 29 2001
Films

Jedi James Dean

A Canadian is poised for stardom, not just because of Star Wars

Brian D. Johnson October 29 2001

Jedi James Dean

Films

A Canadian is poised for stardom, not just because of Star Wars

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

As a teenager growing up in Toronto, Hayden Christensen figured he had a good shot at getting into an American university on a tennis scholarship. But instead of wielding a racquet, he ended up unleashing his backhand with a light sabre on the set of Star Wars. You probably haven’t heard of Hayden Christensen. Not yet. This clean-cut 20-year-old Canadian is Hollywood’s hot new discovery. Last year, in casting the next two features in the Star Wars franchise, director George Lucas picked the unknown actor from hundreds of young hopefuls to play Anakin Skywalker—the Jedi warrior who grows up to be Darth Vader. And when Entertainment Weekly devoted an issue to an “It List” of Hollywood’s 100 most creative talents, Christensen’s face was the one that graced the cover.

Of course, rocketing to fame as a Jedi action figure doesn’t guarantee an enduring career—just ask Mark Hamill, who fizzled after playing the adult Anakin’s son, Luke, in the original Star Wars. But critics are already comparing Christensen to James Dean. And long before his face starts appearing on lunch boxes with next summer’s release of Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones, he has proven his talent as a serious actor. In Life as a House, which opens this week, Christensen delivers a knockout performance as a troubled teen with a divorced father (Kevin Kline) who’s dying of cancer. It’s a drama about building a new house in the ruins of a broken home. It’s also a three-hankie weepie, and Christensen is its emotional detonator.

“He’s astonishing,” Kline told me recently. “He’s the genuine article, and there’s nothing flash in the pan about him. I think he’s going to be the flavour of the millennium.” Kline is droll and soft-spoken, a classically trained actor not prone to showbiz superlatives. But he seems truly im-

pressed. “You’re only as good as the people you’re playing opposite,” he says, “and Hayden just drew my best work out of me. It wasn’t one of those cases where you’re looking for that magical take from a young kid. Every take, even off camera, he gave me amazing stuff.”

Last month, Hayden and his family watched Life as a House receive a standing

ovation at its world premiere during the Toronto International Film Festival. The next day, sitting on a hotel balcony high above his home town, he comes across as polite, well-spoken and circumspect. Wide blue eyes betray a wary vulnerability, but occasionally burn with movie-star intensity. There’s a scar from a hockey puck above one eye, a faint trace of Canadian branding. With a lean, six foot, one-inch frame, Christensen looks like an athlete, and as he discusses his impending stardom you can imagine him conducting postgame interviews with the diplomatic poise of a Gretzky. Asked about fame, he shrugs. “It’s not something I ever sought after. Anonymity is not something you can willingly give up. It has to be taken from you. There’s something wrong with you if you’re happy to let that part of you go.”

The third of four children, Hayden was born in Vancouver, and moved to the Toronto suburb of Thornhill with his family when he was 6. His parents run their own communications company. Hayden first bumped into show business when he was 7. He was tagging along with his older sister, Hejsa, then junior world champion trampolinist at the age of 13. She was meeting with an agent after being cast in a commercial. The agent also signed up Hayden. Studying drama in high school, he developed a passion for acting. But he was more serious about sports—he played triple-A hockey and competitive tennis.

At 18, however, he landed a regular role in Higher Ground, a Fox series shot in Vancouver, as a teen who turns to drugs after being seduced by his stepmother. Schedule conflicts forced him to back out of two group auditions in Los Angeles for Star Wars. But then Lucas invited him to his Skywalker Ranch. “It was like meeting a rock star,” recalls Christensen. “He has this huge entourage that follows him around.” After a screen test with Natalie Portman, Christensen won the role, beating out Tom Hanks’ son, Colin.

Shooting Star Wars two summers back was “thrilling,” Christensen recalls.

“Every morning I’d get to dress up in these Jedi robes and have my light sabre hang from my belt, and it’s a very surreal feeling.” Then, to play Sam, the drugaddicted Goth in Life as a House, he had to change gears rapidly. He shed 25 lb., dropping his weight to 140. Director Irwin Winkler wanted him to appear less imposing than Kline. Christensen also had to find his way into a character much darker than the young Darth Vader. “I never went through the angst rebellion thing,” he says. “And the whole Goth thing I just could not understand—the concept of putting on blue eye shadow and wearing earrings.”

Over the course of the movie, as his character reconciles with his father and helps him build his dream home on a California cliff, Christensen gets to shed the mask and strip his emotions bare. Winkler’s direction, and the script by Mark Andrus (As Good as It Gets), are contrived. But that makes the truth of the performances even more remarkable. Kline, Christensen—and Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays his mother—all counteract the movie’s sentimental undertow with sharp, detailed acting.

Meanwhile, Christensen, who still lives with his parents, waits for his life to change. After Star Wars hits next summer, it won’t be the same. Last week I asked if he’s had second thoughts about stardom in the sobering light of Sept 11. “If anything,” he said, “it makes me more confident that I’m doing the right thing. It makes films like Life as a House more pertinent. One of its recurring themes is that it sometimes takes something bad to happen to force something good.” Spoken like a true Jedi.