Hayden Christensen can’t seem to get away from the dark side.
The 22-year-old Canadian actor made a splash two years ago as the rebellious teenage son of Kevin Kline in “Life as a House” and then last year when he starred as Anakin Skywalker, the man who will become Darth Vader, in “Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones.”
Now he’s playing a real-life con artist in the independent feature “Shattered Glass,” which opens in limited release today. The drama, written and directed by Billy Ray, is based on Buzz Bissinger’s 1998 Vanity Fair article about Stephen Glass, a 25-year-old wunderkind staff writer for the venerable Washington, D.C.,-based magazine New Republic. Glass’ career was all a ruse. Through a series of offbeat strange events, it was discovered that Glass, much like the New York Times’ Jayson Blair, had fabricated quotes, characters and events in countless number of stories.
“There had to be something pathological about what he was doing and to the extent to which he did it,” says Christensen, who comes across over a recent lunch as an amalgam of boyish shyness and an old soul. “You can almost excuse one of his smaller lies. But I think it was kind of a breeding ground. The lies get bigger and bigger and more colorful to the extent to which he let it persist. And after his story came under question, he didn’t back off and almost went on the attack.
“I think it is sort of indicative of that state of mind,” the tall, lanky actor explains. “The mind can not differentiate between a real memory and a creative memory. If you tell yourself something enough times you can believe yourself.”
Before Glass was found out, any time his mentor, the late editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria), would question an error in his stories, the bespectacled young writer would become flamboyantly apologetic and often insist on turning in his resignation.
Glass, Christensen says, knew the system, having once been in charge of fact-checking at the magazine. “He knew all the holes in the system,” Christensen says. “He would consciously insert mistakes in his own articles just so the fact checker would pick up on the error. He’d said, ‘I’m so sorry. I should go hand in my resignation.’ And they would brush over the broad strokes of the articles.
“Billy Ray likes to say it is a fact-checking process, it’s not a thought-checking process. They are focusing on the minute details of the article, not the broad strokes, which they kind of assume are correct.”
Using his star power
First-time director Ray was impressed that, coming off the mega-blockbuster “Star Wars” -- the actor just completed shooting the third installment in the “Star Wars” saga, which will be released in 2005 -- Christensen “wanted to take that star power and throw it into this part.” Christensen and his older brother, Tove, are also producers on the film.
“It’s not a hunk that he’s playing,” Ray says. “It’s not a leading man. He is playing this very flawed character. That told me he wanted to be an actor and not just a movie star.”
Christensen, who never met or talked to Glass, kept a couple of pictures of the writer with him at all time. “He was wearing blue shirt and tie,” he says. “I kind of made that a uniform for me.”
Ray told him he didn’t want him to mimic Glass. “I said to him, ‘You are not doing an impression of somebody,’ ” Ray says. “You are playing a character, and characters make choices. Walking around saying ‘Are you mad at me?’ all the time -- that is enough to hook a character right there.”
“It was freeing to get to find my own Stephen Glass,” Christensen says. All the ‘I’m sorrys’ and ‘Are you mad at me?’ really informed me about who I was playing.”
Still, he says, portraying someone who lies constantly was exhausting. “As an actor, you do a lot of times feel like a bit of a fake. You go home from work after a day of filming and go, ‘Did they buy that? Did they believe what I was trying to represent?’ All of those insecurities start getting out of control by the end of the film, especially when I was playing this part where I had to go in and more or less lie through my teeth every day.”
Looking for new roles
Christensen says he’s drawn to flawed characters because they are the most fun to play. “My initial attraction to acting was and still remains getting to re-create myself,” he explains. “It’s difficult to find really interesting roles in big films. They have a fairly typical structure and your hero-type character. It’s all formulaic.”
He says he doesn’t read his reviews, which were favorable for “Life as a House” -- he received Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations -- and pretty scathing for “Star Wars II” -- for which he received a Razzie nomination for worst performance by a supporting actor.
“I take them both with a grain of salt,” he says. “I think you are going to live a much healthier existence as an actor if you don’t take either to heart, the good and the bad. I feel like I can separate myself from the work I am doing and how it’s being perceived.”
Breaking into a big smile, Christensen adds, “but it’s not fun [to get bad reviews].... don’t get me wrong.”
“Star Wars” director-producer George Lucas notes that “Hayden has an intensity about him that is great for the role of the young Darth Vader. As a person, Hayden is very sweet and sensitive, but in his work he has the ability to tap into dark values.”
Christensen admits doing a “Star Wars” movie isn’t always ideal for an actor. “Often times you are acting to characters that aren’t there. You have to look at it as a serious exercise in leaps of your imagination. We are sort of a live-action kind of counterpart to an otherwise entirely digital film. The digital elements are so involved that the actual filming process is almost focused on that.”
Still, he quickly adds, “it was a lot of fun to make at the same time. You live in a fantasy land for a few months. You live in your imagination.”