There is life before Star Wars. Here's the skinny on Hayden Christensen

Hayden Christensen needs to work on his first impression. In fact, he needs to work on MAKING an impression, period, here in the fly-buzzed garden of a too-hip Los Angeles teahouse, where the actor is supposed to be discussing New Line Cinema’s Life as a House. The drama — written by Mark Andrus (Oscar-nominated for As Good as It Gets) and directed by Irwin Winkler (The Net) — stars Kevin Kline as George, a spiritually empty architect who finds out he’s dying of cancer and decides to spend his final months building his dream house with Sam, his pill-popping, Goth-garbed son.

But for scores of Star Wars fans, the film will offer something more: their first chance to assess whether Christensen, who’ll play Anakin Skywalker in George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones, has what it takes to wield a lightsaber. If nothing else, the actor proves in Life as a House that he can walk on the dark side; in his opening scene, Christensen wakes up, huffs paint fumes, puts his head in a noose tied to a clothes rack, and masturbates. A conspicuous first impression, worthy of discussion — if only Christensen were actually here to discuss it.

Three days later, back at the tea garden, it’s a different story. ”I am so, so sorry,” says Christensen, evidencing genuine, red-faced remorse and decked in a baggy sweater/T-shirt/cords ensemble. As it turns out, he has some perfectly legitimate excuses (a late-night flight from his home in Toronto, phone not hooked up in his new L.A. apartment), and with his sleepy good looks and soulful demeanor, the young actor makes it hard to hold a grudge. A soft-spoken 20-year-old with a palpable passion for acting and a panicky fear of bees (”Get away from me, I’m allergic to you!” he freaks at one point), Christensen exudes a charm and gravity that’s immediately apparent and grows only more impressive over time. ”He was a little broody,” says Winkler of his initial encounter with the actor. ”But I took his audition tape home and looked at it over and over again, and he just kept popping out at me. He’s just got this natural charisma, but it’s wrapped in an intriguing package.” Episode II casting director Robin Gurland sums up the Christensen mystique this way: ”It’s in the eyes. He’s on the verge of adulthood, so his face still has this innocence, but in the eyes, there’s this intelligence that’s so knowing, so mature — which makes him just perfect for Anakin.”

Some observers have even likened Christensen to a certain Rebel Without a Cause — a comparison that he embraces. ”I’ve always tried to fantasize being like James Dean, which is funny given what’s being said now,” he says. ”He’s probably the most natural actor to grace the screen.” Like Dean, Christensen takes his art very, very seriously. Consider his response to the old ”Why acting?” question: ”As a means of expression. Of reinventing yourself. To become something that you’re not. And now…I don’t know. To be honest, I’m struggling with this concept. Is an actor an artist, or is he just someone else’s puppet?”