If you were browsing Twitter last week, you may have come across a tweet storm from Esquire writer Tyler Coates, regarding a shoddily made poster for an upcoming film titled Little Italy. It stars Emma Roberts as a woman working for her family’s pizza restaurant, when she falls in love with the son of their rivals. Wikipedia informs me that the story is a modern day Romeo and Juliet, although it’s safe to say nobody buys that line. Playing the love interest is Hayden Christensen, a point that Coates and many other tweeters found somewhere between bizarre and depressing. To quote Coates, ‘I have thought many times, “WHERE is Hayden Christensen?” I always expected the answer to be bleak, and here we are.’
Hayden Christensen was only 19 when he was cast as Anakin Skywalker, the future Darth Vader, in the Star Wars prequels. By that point in time, The Phantom Menace had already lowered many viewers’ expectations of what to expect in the remaining two films, but as with everything related to the most influential franchise in cinema, fans took it all very seriously. Christensen had done some minor roles in films like The Virgin Suicides and TV work in his native Canada. He’d won immense praise and a Golden Globe nomination in 2001 for Life as a House. He was one to watch.
And then we saw Attack of the Clones.
Talking about anything Star Wars related, especially as a professional pop culture writer, is its own treacherous mine-field of extremes. Those movies weren’t just hated: They were credited with ‘destroying a generation of childhoods’. More than once, we heard the crude claim that George Lucas had ‘raped’ the franchise with his prequels, which veer between laughably incompetent and thrillingly ambitious. Lucas had ideas, millions of them, and the technology was almost there for him to make them a reality. One of the major problems with this was that he had no guiding hand to tell him what not to do, and he had no interest in the humans who populated his computer world. Some actors fare better than others in the prequels, but even universally acclaimed Oscar nominees can only work with so much. Liam Neeson retains much of his dignity, Ewan McGregor is fine beyond his attempt to recreate Alec Guinness’s accent, Natalie Portman looks lost, Samuel L. Jackson gets by on sheer personality, and Christopher Lee is a god among men so of course he pulls it off. The two who struggled the most with Lucas’s inability, or lack of desire, to direct his actors were Christensen and Jake Lloyd.
The Anakins had and dialogue, a severely rushed character arc, and the unbearable weight of fan expectations on their shoulders. Darth Vader was iconic because he was so simple in his might and motivation. The borders of his character are broadly defined but in the vein of old-school action-adventure movies that Lucas was drawing inspiration from, it made sense. It was Shakespeare by way of Flash Gordon. Giving him an origin story in which you see him as a floppy haired kid, then sullen teenager with a braid, was always going to be an impossible task, even if the writing was up to scratch. For Christensen and Lloyd, their job was like being told to climb Everest without any oxygen or guides while a bunch of people shouted in their ears about their fitness.
Christensen is not good in the prequels, but he’s not the worst actor ever, as some have described him. There are moments where he’s nailing the awkwardness of being an adolescent Jedi whose impulsiveness cannot be quashed, but he’s saddled with dialogue so excruciating that you wonder if you’re watching the SNL parody of the franchise. The sand conversation is exactly the kind of thing a guy trying to impress an older, more sophisticated and experienced woman with, and could have worked if Padme had laughed it off or the moment had been played as the silly failure it is. Lucas just never seems to acknowledge that issue and plays the moment completely seriously.
A lot of the complaints about the franchise that Christensen had to deal with were unrelated to his work, but as the public face of the prequels, he had to feel the weight of that disappointment for millions. Fans didn’t really want to see a Vader whose lot in life was the result of petulance, even though it’s pretty in line with how the films deal with issues of toxic masculinity (frankly, isn’t the notion of an easily manipulated young man with anger issues and a sense of entitlement becoming an imperial power and pawn for greater evil kind of the most relevant idea ever?) They wanted a badass: They got a brat, and that wasn’t a bad thing, but the execution was sorely lacking. With a screenplay that added those shades and a director who wanted to talk to actual humans, Christensen could have defined Vader in his own way. Instead, he was stuck with the brunt of the blame and became the butt of the joke.
Christensen did good work in-between and after the prequels. In Shattered Glass, he plays disgraced former journalist Stephen Glass with a keen eye and a youthful arrogance that comes across as just charming enough so that his colleagues never realize how big his lies are. Factory Girl gave him a task possibly more thankless than playing Darth Vader: Playing Bob Dylan, or at least a fictionalized version of him. The writing for this composite and legally ill-defined character is weak, but Christensen makes you understand why the self-destructive Edie Sedgwick would latch onto him.
Between 2010 and 2014, Christensen didn’t appear in any films. He told the L.A. Times that the sudden worldwide attention the prequels brought upon him was too much to bear, and that he wanted to keep a power profile in the future. Who could blame him? It seemed like every review or profile following Revenge of the Sith had to bring up the films’ failings or the supposed curse that had befallen his career. Christensen is aware that taking time off as he did impacts one’s career negatively, but ‘in a weird, sort of destructive way there was something appealing about that to me.’ If you destroy all those expectations, then working from the ground up without those millions of eyes on you is undoubtedly enticing.
The films he’s appeared in over the past decade have been smaller and cheaper, but the industry has also massively changed in the interim period. Franchises are dominant, there are more viewing options and platforms than ever, and being a star is less important than whether or not you can sign a 9 film contract and work for scale. Of course, since Christensen’s semi-retirement, Star Wars has returned with a vengeance, and now Lucas is out of the picture. You can’t help but wonder how Christensen would have fared if Rian Johnson had been at the helm of his films. The jokes would have been real jokes and having a director utterly unconcerned with mythologizing the material would have seriously benefitted the Anakin of the past.
Christensen seems at peace with his Star Wars period. He doesn’t do conventions or talk about it very often. He did appear at the Star Wars Celebration last April and was greeted with rapturous applause from many fans. Everyone, including franchise co-stars like Harrison Ford, seems to have acknowledged that Lucas never gave them the best material to work with. According to Vanity Fair, his autograph sessions at the event were so popular that extra slots had to be added. One attendee asked him to sign her jar of sand, which he gamely did. Perhaps the curse has been lifted, or perhaps we all just collectively understood how Christensen had been given the short end of the stick with his impossible task. Whatever the case, time heals all wounds and curses can be lifted.
(Header photograph courtesy of Getty Images)