I want to share my thoughts with you on the acting in the prequel trilogy, in particular that of Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen in their roles as Anakin Skywalker. This is a controversial issue and the media have been, and still are, full with statements that start with ‘wooden acting’ and end with ‘horrible dialogue’ or in reverse order. Some blame it on the actors, some blame it squarely on the director. Many, friendlier, voices can be heard saying that the acting in the Original Trilogy was similar and that this is simply ‘Star Wars’. I want to shed a different light on this, focussing on the portrayal of Anakin.
What is good acting?
On the one hand it is very hard to say what good acting is, as there are about as many schools of thought as there are actors and contexts which require acting. The typical Hollywood film acting, for example, would look terribly out of place in a British theatre and the typical acting that goes on in Italian operas would look preposterous in a Bollywood movie. TV series require a different type of acting and even within TV series you expect hugely different things in sitcoms, soaps or horror-thrillers.
On the other hand, however, it is very easy to say what good acting is: anything that fits the character and makes them credible is good acting. If you see a Superman on the large screen that is believably Superman in every aspect then it is totally immaterial whether the acting is stiff and wooden or the dialogue is bonkers. But there is one serious drawback about this ‘easy definition’ and that is that it presupposes you know the character and you know what ‘fits’ and is ‘genuine’ and ‘believable’ for that character.
The very difficult task of Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen was to portray a character that a significant portion of the audience thought they knew. As a result the audience had very specific ideas as to what was ‘credible’ and ‘fitting’ for that character.
Can a Director prescribe the acting of an actor?
Before I come to the question of why the portrayal of Anakin was received the way it was, I want to turn to the matter of a director’s influence on the actual acting. I believe this to be rather limited, definitely much more limited than most people think. Where director and producers have a great influence on the acting in the movie is in the casting and the cutting and editing process. An actor like Martin Freeman is rather well-known for his capacity of giving a director very different interpretations in different takes of the same scene allowing a great variety of choice in the cutting and editing process. Most actors are, mildly put, very recognizable and some are so stuck on a single part that even when they play wildly different parts they nevertheless give nearly identical performances. For me personally Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves come to mind in this category.
By choosing the actors the director and producer evidently set the ‘acting tone’ of a film. What has always been a key feature of Star Wars episodes, including the upcoming one, is the choice of relatively unknown leads. This is a deliberate choice and there are many good reasons for it. As far as storytelling goes one huge advantage is that new and fresh faces do not shape a character in the same way as old familiar faces do. If Obi-Wan in the Prequels would have been played by Tom Hanks then we would have had fairly specific expectations, if he had been played by Keanu Reeves we would have basically had an Obi Neo Kenobi. Just like Mark Hamil, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher brought something new and fresh to the Original Trilogy, similarly did Jake Lloyd, Hayden Christensen, Nathalie Portman and Ewan McGregor.
George Lucas is renowned for his comment ‘faster and more intense’ towards Original Trilogy actors regarding their acting. The fact that this is basically all we know about it already shows that most likely he did not have that much influence. He is not an ‘acting-focussed’ director but a much more visually oriented story-teller. The performances of nearly all the actors in the Prequel trilogy is not that untypical for how they acted in other, later, films as well. I think Lucas gave them space to shape the portrayal of their characters themselves to a significant extent. To understand however what that means we need to turn to two issues:
- what was the context within which the character of Anakin was supposed to live and
- who was Anakin Skywalker?
What is The Empire?
The key question, in my mind, regarding how you judge the acting in the prequel trilogy is: Who is Anakin Skywalker? I think the huge disagreements among fans about whether or not Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen did a good job or not boils down to the simple question of who you believe Anakin Skywalker really was.
A completely parallel story can be told about the ‘look’ of the Prequel Trilogy when compared to that of the Original Trilogy. The often vilified ‘clean and smooth’ look of the Republic of the Prequels, the sleek, elegant and classy design of Naboo architecture and technology contrasts strongly with the worn and ‘used’ look of the Original Trilogy. The Republic also appears as a diverse and very heterogeneous entity in which politics has a role to play while diversity, heterogeneity and ‘politics’ were virtually banned from the Imperial Era. That was no coincidence of course but it is a key visual ingredient to the narrative of the Prequels. The wornness and dirt of the Original Trilogy becomes all the more meaningful when we learn that in the era prior to the Imperial times the Galaxy was a very different place. The Nazi symbolism of the Empire becomes all the more potent with its star-destroyer crews of exclusively human, technocratic and white males, when we see that the Galactic Republic was multi-ethnic, multi-species and multi-cultural. The problem for a significant number of fans however is this, when the Empire is thus contrasted with the Republic then one messages rings out very clearly: The Empire is NOT cool!
Although from the very first moment of A New Hope it was clear that The Empire were the ‘Bad Guys’ throughout the Original Trilogy it does radiate an odd attraction. The Empire appears well-organised, efficient, capable of great technological feats, fanatically managed by dedicated staff and in a certain sense a very ‘cool’ brand. Many fans loved, and still love The Empire. So how could such a splendid organisation be brought to the brink of collapse by woodland teddybears, i.e. Ewoks? How could a garrison of the finest Imperial Troops lose against such furry primitives? Well the answer lies in the fact that the attractive image of the Empire is spin … it is exactly what the Empire wants you to believe but isn’t capable of delivering!
Anyone who has any experience with large organisations knows that a totalitarian entity like the Empire is anything but efficient, well-organised and managed by dedicated staff. The ‘finest troops’ of the Emperor on Endor’s moon were fighting because they were told to do so, the Ewoks on the other hands were fighting for their very survival. An abysmally equipped and organised army fighting for their own turf against a high-tech army of people for whom it is a job … even in today’s world we see enough examples of how such conflicts end. Return of the Jedi is no fantasy.
The Prequel Trilogy presses this point home even deeper. The Empire is not that magnificent, progress oriented and efficient mechanism. Instead the Empire is the outside face of stagnation and decay. The people of Naboo design Starfighters with an eye towards beauty and functionality and also to express the roundedness and soft shapes of their planet. Imperial engineers however design star fighters for practicality and meeting the bureaucratic demands of the Imperial fleet in a context where imperially controlled resources and slave-labour make efficiency not all too relevant. Yet the ‘abundance’ is not used to create beauty of design but wasted. How many pretty automobiles did the Sovjet Union design?
Let us not fool ourselves, the used and worn look of the Galaxy in the Original Trilogy is exactly because the Empire wastes talent, resources and does not care for creativity or beauty. In Revenge of the Sith we clearly see that the Jedi Starfighters are almost fully developed into TIE-fighters. Imperial engineering adds very little to that in the three decades after. The dark times of the Empire are a period of stagnation, decay and a lack of civilization. Obi Wan even tells us as much in the first 20 minutes of A New Hope. Anyone who had at least some idea of the underlying message of the Original Trilogy should have expected a Republic bathing in splendour, creativity, artistic design and diversity showing just how uncool and soul-destroying the Empire really is. And that was exactly what we got.
Who is Anakin Skywalker?
Now we finally come to the question that this blog was supposed to be about. Who was Anakin Skywalker and has his portrayal by Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen been in line with that? The expectation of many entering the theatres to see The Phantom Menace was that they would see a ‘bad-ass’ younger version of Darth Vader before his turn to the Dark Side. Only viewers of The Clone Wars were offered such a spectacle, but The Prequel Trilogy did not focus on that part. That choice makes sense to me. Why show people what they already know and expect on the basis of the Original Trilogy? The purpose of the Prequel Trilogy was to show you something you could not have guessed correctly on the basis of the OT!
The Anakin Skywalker in TPM is a young boy stuck in a terrible situation. His fierce reaction to Padme’s remark about his slave-status was an indication that he sought to be treated with respect. Jake Lloyd brings that across rather well in the way he looks and the way he speaks the lines. Anakin is a person and you better treat him like one when you want his sympathies. Anakin lives in a harsh reality, he does not owe you anything. He is enslaved and pushed around but he will not allow outsiders to treat him as if he was a nobody. Being someone is all he has got left to hope for.
For many ‘Darth Vader fans’ this must have been harrowing. Darth Vader clearly was someone, a commanding central presence, and definitely not merely a side-line figure of whom others publicly doubt whether he is more than …. well … a nobody really. The Phantom Menace makes that even more pressingly clear when Obi Wan calls him ‘another pathetic lifeform’ in direct resonance with Jar Jar Binks. As discussed elsewhere, this connection between Anakin and Jar Jar as outcasts runs deeper. If you review Jake Lloyds portrayal of Anakin from this point of view it makes a lot more sense. But I can imagine how infuriating this must have been for people expecting a somebody on top of the narrative. But what they got was a nobody and Jedi Order Reject who is only trained because Qui Gon was willing to give his life in blackmailing Obi Wan into the mentor role.
The Prequel Trilogy assumes you know about Anakin Skywalker strengths, because they are easily deduced from Darth Vader’s strengths: battle prowess, fine piloting skills, a fanatical zeal in furthering his cause and a strong capacity to bond. But what the Prequel Trilogy wants to show you are Anakin’s weaknesses. In particular the Prequels want to show you how strength can conspire to become a huge weakness. Darth Vader is willing to throw away his life’s work, the Empire built with Sidious, and his life to save a son that he has hardly known, and in the process frees the Galaxy of a great evil. The reverse side of that coin is Anakin throwing everything away to save the woman he loves. In a metaphoric and direct way the circumstance of Anakin’s greatest weakness begets that of his greatest strength.
Anakin Skywalker can be seen to bond very quickly with Padme Amidala in TPM, but significantly more so in Attack of the Clones. But forming this attachment so easily and quickly is not something Anakin experiences as a strength. It makes him deeply uncomfortable. For someone who is struggling to be somebody, who is still very much in doubt about whether or not he really is someone, falling in love rapidly and deeply can be an extremely unsettling and terrifying experience. If the woman he loves so deeply rejects him, then this confirms his worst fears. But if the circumstances of his life’s choice, becoming a Jedi, prevent him from loving Amidala then this confirms his life’s choice was likely very questionable. Yet being a Jedi is, amongst other things, Anakin’s vehicle for becoming someone. That is why Anakin Skywalker compares his feelings for Padme with torture, why he claims she is ‘inside of him’ and why he torments himself over this nascent relationship.
Of course this makes Padme extremely uncomfortable as well. Yet naïve and genuine as Anakin is, pathetic as some may prefer to think, he expresses what he feels straight off the heart. He does so consistently. Not only does he rapidly confess his love for her without hiding its more suffocating aspects, later he does the same thing with the crime he has committed against the Tuskens. Anakin carries his emotions all over his face and his body, only in the last few minutes of Revenge of the Sith does this change. Anakin does not express his emotions with care, or eloquently or after long consideration … no they just burst forth from him in a characteristically awkward way. When Anakin is in love he is very much not in control and he knows as much. It scares him and attracts him. Hayden Christensen hits those expressions very well, the anger, the desperate love, the exaggerated expectations and the naïve openness.
I am pretty sure that this is miles apart from the bad-ass, cool, calculating and sovereign Darth Vader that many fans were expecting to see. But the thing is, just like the Empire never was cool similarly Vader also never was. The weaknesses that led to Anakin’s fall morphed exactly into the strengths that allowed for his redemption. The Prequels wanted to show us these weaknesses and to shed light on how such weaknesses could also turn into great strengths. Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen’s acting portrays this far beyond merely adequate. Anakin Skywalker is emotionally insecure and damaged by his early years, he is wooden and stiff yet naively open-hearted and awkward when facing the love of his life and finally he is fanatically zealous, extremely attached to and battle-ready to protect the ones he loves. This may not have been the Anakin you were expecting, but it is the one who is properly acted out by Lloyd and Christensen.