By Cory Ohlendorf
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Our theory on The Roles of Hayden Christensen goes something like this:
An angry, misunderstood boy-on-the-verge-of-manhood seeks respect and attention and has a fantastically affecting crying scene along the way to his eventual enlightenment and/or vindication.
Really, this happens in virtually all his films -- from the Goth teen in "Life as a House" to a cub reporter in "Shattered Glass" to his eventual turn to the dark side in "Star Wars." (And no one cries like Christensen. He's even the cover face on "Crying Men," fine art photographer Sam Taylor-Wood's book, which also features the teary cheeks of Jude Law, Ryan Gosling and Ed Harris.)
We explain this theory to the actor at lunch at the Georgetown Four Seasons, where he's just come from a panel discussion at MIT on quantum teleportation -- the basis for his latest film, "Jumper," out Thursday. The 26-year-old Canadian seems relieved to learn (after inquiring) that we, too, are 26, and that we want to talk about acting rather than physics.
"You're right," he says of our theory. "There is an underlying theme. I like characters that have an interesting growth, when there's change, and they're affected by the elements of the story. I've always believed that conflict is the essence of drama."
But now he's breaking the formula; the trembling man-child character is growing up. In the recent thriller "Awake," Christensen plays a rich businessman who undergoes heart transplant surgery, but begins to suspect the doctors are trying to do him harm. (Critics and moviegoers were not impressed.) In the action movie "Jumper," he plays the ultimate wayfarer, a man who can teleport himself around the globe and becomes a reluctant hero in a secret war.
If you only know Christensen as the young, pre-scary-breathing Darth Vader, here's a little H.C. catch-up class (we're kind of a fan, if you hadn't guessed).
He started acting at 7.
"I did a few commercials. Growing up it was a means to get a day off of school, and more money than you could earn with a paper route, but at the same time I profusely denied it, and -- "
"Yeah, like if someone said they had seen me in a commercial, I'd say, 'What are you talking about? That wasn't me.' I was playing competitive hockey, and the kids I was hanging out with weren't really the theater crowd."
When he was cast as Anakin Skywalker, the flawed Jedi knight, suddenly being Hayden Christensen meant magazine cover shoots, look-alike action figures -- and your face on a bag of chips.
"When it happened, for a while I wouldn't leave the house. I mean, since my face was in every convenience store, that meant everyone would recognize me and that's really odd. So I just sort of hermitized for a little while."
Young, beautiful, rich and famous and you didn't leave the house?
"Well, I'm not talking like I locked myself in a room and wouldn't speak to anyone, but I laid low in Toronto."
In between filming "Star Wars" Episodes II and III, he set out to make "Shattered Glass," about disgraced New Republic writer Stephen Glass, after reading about the scandal in Vanity Fair. It was the first film produced by Forest Park Pictures, the L.A.-based production company Christensen runs with older brother Tove.
Christensen says he doesn't spend much time in Los Angeles. We learn that he, too, has a theory -- on celebrity.
"I think that people's exposure is in your realm of control. It's largely just a function of your choices, and if you don't want to be seen, they don't see you."
"I think I do an okay job of proving my theory. Sure, fame has its affectation, but you can still lead the life you want to lead. I've never had that fame motivation. The less people know about me, the better my work will be, because the more they know about me, then I'm less believable as a character."
Christensen contrasts his experience acting in "Jumper," directed by Doug Liman, with his experiences on the two "Star Wars" directed by George Lucas, movies in which even fans found him a tad, well, wooden.
"Doug . . . really wanted the actors' insight into the story, asking us to script meetings, which was a treat, you know, how collaborative he was. It was really satisfying."
"George came up to me on the set one day during my first 'Star Wars' and said something that I never fully understood until after we were done filming. He said, 'As an actor, you have to think of yourself as a ditch digger.' . . . What he was implying was that on his movie, I needed to think of myself as a ditch digger, because it wasn't the proper arena for actual creative expression. This was his thing. It was all very thought-out in his head, and I needed to show up to make his wants a reality. And so really, what he was saying to me, was: 'Don't let this experience discourage you from what acting can really be about, because that's not what this is.' I just wish I would've figured that out a little sooner."
Christensen recently bought a 19th-century farm south of Toronto, so he can finally move the things he's been storing at Mom and Dad's. We ask if he kept that rat-tail Jedi braid.
"I did! Only because it was my first 'Star Wars,' and I wanted to keep as much as I could. I got a light saber, of course, and then I had to keep my boots. I keep all my characters' shoes, actually."
"Yeah, it's sort of the first bit of my character that I sort of decide on, while I'm figuring them out. Because that's what grounds me and it informs how I walk and how I feel on my feet."
We ask about "Virgin Territory," a period piece based on the 14th-century Italian classic "The Decameron," which Christensen filmed in Florence with Mischa Barton. It's a comedy. With no release date.
Hayden stops mid-slurp from his bowl of steaming chicken noodle.
"You know about that one? Damn. I'm not sure what they're calling it now and it's hard to speak to, because I haven't seen the film in its current state and I haven't heard boo from the people who made it. That stuff always shocks me. How people can be so flippant with money. And that for me was a real departure. It's a comedy, you know, which I've never done."
Oh, we know.