"Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones" is a special effects extravaganza with a budget soaring well past $100 million. There's state-of-the-art computer imagery and computer-generated characters, including the much ballyhooed fully digital Yoda.

But all of that shadow magic would be wasted if it wasn't believeable that the fresh-faced Anakin Skywalker would someday evolve into the evil Darth Vader, the menacing presence in "Star Wars" and its sequels.

So how did actor Hayden Christensen handle the pressure?

By not thinking about it.

"I was pretty aware of that when I started to break down my part," he says of the pressure to carry the story. "But it just really wasn't conducive to doing my best work. I try not to project my thoughts there - just focus on how I was going to play the character and not so much the repercussions of if it was done wrong because that just brings you down."

Christensen is a soft-spoken young man, with almost fragile good looks that are quite striking in person. He has a quietly magnetic personality that draws you in, although he has trouble making eye contact as he speaks. He seems a galaxy away from the headstrong Jedi apprentice he plays in "Clones" - making it clear how it challenges him to act.

The Toronto resident has starred in "Life as a House," "The Virgin Suicides," "Strike" and "In the Mouth of Madness," and was recently seen in London's West End revival of Kenneth Lonergan's "This is Our Youth." He won the coveted role of the young Jedi apprentice who loses himself to the dark side over hundreds of other hopefuls.

"Hayden has a real nice brooding quality," says director and "Star Wars" creator George Lucas. "He can play Darth Vader. I was not only casting this picture, but I was casting the next picture. So I needed someone I knew could take him to the next level and I'm sure Hayden can do that."

The role was all the more exciting for Christensen, 21, because he's been a "Star Wars" fan since seeing the original trilogy on video at age 7. "I thought they were great. I was completely lost in the fantastical world George had created."

He bought himself a T-shirt of Boba Fett: "He was a bounty hunter and when you're a kid, that's cool."

And when Christensen was to appear at a recent "Star Wars" convention, he had some fun by showing up incognito. "I thought I was being pretty sneaky, so I put a storm trooper helmet on so I could go out to the convention and see what it was like. It was chaos. It was madness," he says. "I'm glad I went."

He appears to revel in the "Star Wars" world, joking about hoping to take on Jedi Master Mace Windu (played by Samuel L. Jackson) in the next film, although he doesn't know what will happen in that last installment.

"George (Lucas) doesn't really tell me what he has planned for the next one, other than sometimes he intimates that maybe I'll get to wear the dark helmet and full Darth Vader garb - which would be very exciting," Christensen laughs.

He says he isn't worried about being typecast with this sci-fi role. "There's a risk in playing any character if it's not done right. And of course there's obviously a larger risk in playing a character presented in such a major platform," Christensen says. "But if you're not willing to take those risks then what's the point of acting?"

One of his acting challenges was playing the drug abusing son of Kevin Kline in the drama "Life as a House," a role which won him Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations and provided an exciting experience for the young actor. "To get that kind of response was heartwarming and to be nominated in the same categories as actors I respected my entire life - Ben Kingsley is still one of my favorite actors - was pretty special for me."

"I hope to play characters that are a little inverted and different than the last one I played to constantly re-create yourself," he says. "For me it's about finding a character that you feel is completely removed from what you know of yourself. It's this enormous mountain you have to climb and you don't even have the proper shoes to start with."

Playing Anakin fits right in with what Christensen wants to accomplish as an actor. "I like to think of myself as a good guy. But playing characters with some darker sensibilities, you try to go within yourself to discover what it is that you have that you can draw those comparisons. Part of playing Anakin was trying to figure out my own demons," he says, adding the character's duality as he struggles over his Jedi honor and love for Padme Amadala (Natalie Portman) was a pleasure to play.

"He is very much consumed by very contrasting and conflicting emotions, so playing it was a challenge and exciting at the same time because you were never committing to one feeling," Christensen says.

"And I hope that's the reaction you get, that feeling that you can identify with the passion they have for each other," he says, pausing and laughing. "But I hope there is that skepticism in terms that you want Padme to get as far away from this guy as possible because you know where he's going."

e-mail: truberto@buffnews.com

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