Onscreen he's a Jedi knight with a very dark future. She's a galactic Senator with the worst taste in men in the universe. Offscreen Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman seem far less exotic. Unlike some of their Hollywood counterparts, neither has ever made news by trashing a hotel suite or getting arrested outside the Viper Room. Instead, they have become known for smart career strategies and finely tuned performances in films whose budgets wouldn't pay for the wigs in a Star Wars movie.
Portman, 20, gained the respect of critics as a low-key Lolita in The Professional (1994), Beautiful Girls (1996) and Anywhere but Here (1999)--roles that showcased her ability to appear wary and wide-eyed, seductive and silly. Lately, when she hasn't been playing Padme Amidala, she has been going to college and keeping a low profile. "When I'm at a restaurant with my parents, I don't want to be stared at," Portman says. (Last week, however, Portman turned the spotlight on herself by writing a letter to the Harvard Crimson. The actress, whose family immigrated from Israel, took issue with a racially charged essay about the Palestinian conflict that had appeared in the newspaper.)
Christensen is no stranger to publicity either. Since well before the release of Attack of the Clones, he has been a hot topic on the Internet and a magazine cover boy. The Canadian, 21, had only a few film and TV credits when he screen-tested for the role that will make him world famous. "He gave a great reading," recalls Portman. "He could simultaneously be scary and really young." After shooting Clones, Christensen shrewdly took a supporting role in the drama Life as a House, which was released last year. His performance as a troubled teen earned him nominations for Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards. More recently, he starred in a play in London. "I could've definitely gotten trapped in certain stereotypes if I'd made different choices," he says.
Now Christensen and Portman must decide what to do before summer 2003, when they go into production on the next Star Wars film. Portman has completed her credits for a B.A. in psychology but may go back for another year of college. Christensen, besides choosing his next movie role, is facing the prospect of life in a glass house. "I think I'm a pretty grounded individual and will handle it as well as anyone my age would," he says. "Or maybe I'll become a big mess. Who knows?" --J.C.