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The Hayden Christensen Comeback Is Upon Us

Savaged for his performance as Anakin Skywalker in the ‘Star Wars’ prequels, the Canadian actor never got a career rehabilitation. Why returning to the role in a new Disney series feels like redemption — and a chance to reevaluate what went wrong the first time.

Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.

There are a lot of things wrong with the Star Wars prequels, but it’s hard not to start with Hayden Christensen. Cast to play Anakin Skywalker, the noble Jedi who eventually becomes the fearsome Darth Vader, the then-relative-unknown Canadian actor was tasked with a weighty responsibility, which was to articulate the transition from good to evil in one of the most iconic movie villains. But pretty early on in 2002’s Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones — the second film in the trilogy, with Jake Lloyd playing Boy Anakin in Episode I — it became obvious quickly that Christensen wasn’t the man for the job. The failure wasn’t his alone — those films are filled with excellent actors, who are almost uniformly terrible thanks to George Lucas’ clunky dialogue and uninspired direction — but because he was given such a plum role, and was so unconvincing in the part, it was natural to point and laugh. This guy was gonna end up being the mighty Darth Vader? Christensen didn’t have the dramatic heft or the edginess. This kid was a hopeless lightweight.

And yet, I found myself feeling happy that Christensen had been announced as part of the cast for the forthcoming Disney+ series Obi-Wan Kenobi, which will take place 10 years after Revenge of the Sith and reunite him with Ewan McGregor. Now, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about this show, which is going to start shooting in March. (For one thing, won’t Christensen just be in the Darth Vader suit the whole time — or, as with The Mandalorian, they’ll just get some stunt double to do most of the work?) But while it’s only anecdotal, I sensed a collective enthusiasm for the news. Don’t get me wrong: Christensen is still legitimately bad in those Star Wars films. But he’s bad in a way that always made me think he was trying his best. He was bad in a way that, if someone could have been there to help him, maybe things might have worked out differently.

After all this time, I’ve held onto a strange sympathy for the guy, perhaps because the way he’s so bad in the Star Wars prequels is almost the exact same way he’s so good in another movie, one of the best of this century. His incredible performance in Shattered Glass is forever linked to his awful, awful performances in the prequels.

What’s funny about the Christensen we’ve been aware of for 20 years now — the callow whippersnapper who embarrassed himself in Star Wars — is that that person in the public’s mind is nowhere close to the person he was growing up. Born in Vancouver, he was a talented athlete. He was appearing in commercials even as a boy, and he took the art of acting very, very seriously. In a 2002 profile in The New York Times Magazine, which was published a few months before Attack of the Clones came out, he definitely gave the impression of someone who thought he was hot shit. “I think I work harder than anybody else my age,” the 20-year-old said. “Not to sound conceited, but I just don’t meet anybody in the industry that I work with who is so devoted to always being in that mind-set of character.”

In that same piece, he made fun of Mark Hamill’s relatively unimpressive post-Star Wars career, confident he wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes. (“I don’t really think there’s a Mark Hamill plague,” he declared. “I think there’s a ‘I-don’t-really-know-what-I’m-doing’ plague.”) Meanwhile, Christensen’s co-star, Natalie Portman, who played Anakin’s love interest Padme, gave off the impression that he was a handful. “Hayden would get mad at me occasionally for not taking something seriously enough,” she told the Times Magazine. “There were scenes where the entire take would be us walking up stairs, and he would be like: ‘You’re swinging your arms too much! You’re not taking it seriously! You’re not walking the way your character would walk!’ I would get all pissed off at him and be like, ‘It’s not your place.’ But he would be right.”

His bratty haughtiness — that perfect-student arrogance — belied a certain nervousness about doing a good job. He was anxious before meeting Lucas, assuming he wasn’t going to get the coveted role. (Essentially, if you were a white male actor of a certain age, you were considered for Anakin, alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, James Van Der Beek, Joshua Jackson and Ryan Phillippe.) But at least according to Robin Gurland, who was the casting agent on the prequels, it was pretty clear that Christensen had to be the guy.

“When Hayden came for his first meeting, I opened the door, and I just suddenly became flushed, because I knew,” she said in a 2002 interview on the official Star Wars site. “I sat him down and looked at him through the camera, and all of a sudden, I could feel goosebumps. I couldn’t get too excited, because it’s just the initial meeting, but by the end of it, I just knew that Anakin had walked in the door. I literally picked up the phone and called George and said, ‘Anakin just walked in.’”

Now, of course, it’s important to consider the source of that quote — this is the kind of PR-y interview meant to get fans excited about an unknown actor taking on a beloved character. Nonetheless, there was at least some reason to think it wasn’t all an aggressive snow job. After all, he’d just gotten good reviews — and a Golden Globe nomination — playing Kevin Kline’s uber-moody, Marilyn Manson-loving son in 2001’s Life as a House. But even then, there were some red flags.

“He was a little broody,” the film’s director, Irwin Winkler, said of first meeting Christensen. “But I took his audition tape home and looked at it over and over again, and he just kept popping out at me. He’s just got this natural charisma, but it’s wrapped in an intriguing package.” Plus, Christensen had signed up for Life as a House after being cast in Attack of the ClonesStar Wars movies take a long time to film — and wanted to play the tormented teen specifically after reading the script’s first scene, which finds his character in his room getting high and masturbating while he’s got a noose around his neck. ”I thought that would be the perfect piece to say, ‘Yep. That’s the kid who’s playing Anakin Skywalker,’” Christensen said at the time.

Unfortunately, that Life as a House scene merely hinted at the problem that awaited Christensen once fans checked him out as Anakin. Before we had the expression, Christensen exerted a try-hard quality that always made Anakin seem like a bit of a putz. When The Man Who Becomes Darth Vader courted Padme in the prequels, it felt creepy, not storybook romantic. When he chafed at Obi-Wan’s tough-love tutelage, he seemed whiny. When his mother is killed, he overdoes the histrionics. And when he’s seduced by the Dark Side, it’s as if the lamest would-be Goth at your high school suddenly got good with a lightsaber.

What was so powerful about Darth Vader — who was voiced by James Earl Jones and performed by the recently departed David Prowse — was the effortlessness of his evil. Darth Vader seemed indisputably cool and menacing — Christensen’s Anakin was just a nerdy twit. Christensen wasn’t simply terrible in the role — he seemed hopelessly awkward, practically amateurish. Who was this guy and why was he ruining Star Wars?

Of course, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith both made tons of money. It’s not like Christensen actually “ruined” the franchise. But his perceived failure in the role only highlighted how impressive it was that, for instance, a young Daniel Radcliffe managed to satisfy millions of Harry Potter fans — or that Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart survived with their dignity intact after the Twilight movies. Living up to such massive audience expectations is hard.

But where those other young stars merely had to prove in subsequent films that they were more than their iconic roles — a significantly daunting task, to be sure — Christensen had an even tougher assignment, which was to assure viewers that he could do better than the bad role that everyone associated him with. Sadly, he failed there, too, appearing in a string of unexceptional studio movies — like Awake, Jumper and Takers — in which he seemed just as uncomfortable as he had been as Anakin. And when he tried to show off his dramatic range — as with his appearance in the indie Factory Girl, about Warhol cohort Edie Sedgwick (Sienna Miller) — his performance as a Dylan-like folk singer felt empty and posturing. Nothing he did worked. Maybe he was as bad as he seemed in those Star Wars movies.

Except I knew he wasn’t. In between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, he was the star of a sharp 2003 character study called Shattered Glass, about disgraced New Republic reporter Stephen Glass. Written and directed by Billy Ray, the film regarded Glass as a wunderkind oddity — this impossibly young kid who had a preternatural ability to find incredible stories full of crazy characters and colorful atmosphere. Christensen cannily played Glass as a ball of smarmy insincerity and fake modesty — he’s so puppy-dog earnest and aggressively ingratiating that there’s almost something inhuman about him. Shattered Glass argued that it was Glass’s nerdy awkwardness that ultimately fooled his editors, who never suspected that he was sinister enough to fabricate entire pieces.

The operatic, cartoonish drama of the Star Wars movies flattened Christensen, but as a hustling-dork nice guy in Shattered Glass, he gave us a real portrait of evil — an unethical opportunist who’d cut any corner and betray any journalistic norm in order to get ahead. Chronicling this small little man’s crumbling into little pieces as his editor Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) eventually unravels all his lies, the movie became a dissection of every entitled individual who thinks the rules don’t apply to them. Shattered Glass can be read as a prelude to other critical biopics, like The Social Network and The Wolf of Wall Street, about angry men who want to rule the world. But none of those subsequent characters were as truly pathetic as Glass is. All the menace and anguish Christensen couldn’t summon as Anakin Skywalker? It’s all here.

While promoting Shattered Glass, Christensen admitted that the Star Wars universe —  which he was still in at the time — had been a bit overwhelming. “It was exhilarating,” he said about being cast. “At the time, I was naïvely fearless. I wasn’t a huge Star Wars fan, and I didn’t know all the movies inside out, so I started to watch them religiously.” But he wasn’t sure what his future held. “I think I could wind up somewhere completely different five years from now, something completely removed from acting — I could be perfectly content studying photography or English literature,” he insisted. “At the same time, I love what I’m doing right now and could see doing this for a very long time.”

But despite the largely glowing reviews for Shattered Glass, it was a tiny movie that not many people saw. It had some positive aftereffects, though. When he did the 2008 teleportation sci-fi drama Jumper, Christensen said that director Doug Liman had cast him primarily because of Shattered Glass. But he also knew his fate, commenting, “I think [Star Wars] is something that will follow me for the rest of my life. There will always be people outside of the hotels waiting with Star Wars pictures. I had a great experience with making those films and I’m very fond of everything that they brought. But I don’t think it’s anything that will ever leave me.”

By the early 2010s, Christensen had largely walked away from Hollywood, buying a farm in Canada and enjoying his time out of the spotlight. In 2015, he talked about it with the L.A. Times, admitting that he didn’t want to just be tied to Star Wars, “go[ing] through life feeling like I was just riding a wave.”

In the meantime, however, something funny happened: The kids who grew up on the Star Wars prequels held onto their fondness for that trilogy into adulthood — and also maintained their enjoyment of Christensen as the doomed hero destined to become Darth Vader. This new generation rose up to defend these movies, so much so that even the stiff acting and cheesy dialogue ended up becoming part of the nostalgic appeal. This was never more apparent than at the 2017 installment of Star Wars Celebration, where Christensen showed up and was warmly received, even poking playful fun at his character’s mopiness. Now in his late 30s, Christensen was more mature, but he hadn’t outgrown a certain awkwardness. Maybe he hadn’t escaped Star Wars — he never transcended the role to develop into a superstar — but it was good to see that the experience hadn’t destroyed him.

His brief appearance in last year’s The Rise of Skywalker, and now his casting in Obi-Wan Kenobi, certainly suggests that Lucasfilm (and the massive Star Wars fan base) still embraces him. (Consider how much harder life has been for Ahmed Best, who played Jar-Jar Binks, the only character more reviled from the prequel trilogy, and contemplated suicide because of the negative response.) The Obi-Wan Kenobi announcement was greeted as a reconciliation — and also something of an acknowledgment that the prequel babies were now part of the core Star Wars audience. The Gen-Xers who despised Christensen were no longer important. (What, like that generation’s beloved Luke wasn’t kind of a whiner, too?) Their nieces, nephews and kids had supplanted them in that galaxy far, far away — and they loved their Hayden.

Back in 2015, Christensen probably couldn’t have imagined this turnaround. Then again… he actually sorta did. “You can’t take years off and not have it affect your career,” he told the L.A. Times about effectively retiring from the business. “But I don’t know — in a weird, sort of destructive way, there was something appealing about that to me. There was something in the back of my head that was like, ‘If this time away is gonna be damaging to my career, then so be it. If I can come back afterward and claw my way back in, then maybe I’ll feel like I earned it.’”

Whether or not he’s “earned” this comeback is debatable. The résumé is still pretty thin, and I’m hardly convinced he’ll be a revelation in Obi-Wan Kenobi. But even modest talents can occasionally do something great, and that’s what Christensen delivered in Shattered Glass. In some ways, the disappointment of what he’s made before or since only adds to that film’s allure. Where did that come from? Much like Stephen Glass, Christensen seems like a bit of an enigma. Maybe that’s why he was so good at playing him. Neither of them are entirely there, and perhaps both of them are afraid of being found out. But Glass was forever stained by his fall from grace. Maybe Christensen’s redemption is just around the corner.