Imagine you’re a 20-year-old Canadian (born in Vancouver, raised in Thornhill, Ontario) who’s not long out of high school (Unionville High, just outside Toronto). You’re a former athlete (provincially ranked in tennis) who has starred in a Canadian teen drama and a few small indie films, one of which (Life as a House) earned you some critical notice, including a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor in 2002.

Now imagine that one day, after an open-call audition, you find out that George Lucas wants to cast you as the lead in two of his three new Star Wars films—prequels to the original triptych, which were among the most lucrative movies in history.

Do you choose to accept the part, and run the risk that you’ll forever be typecast as Anakin Skywalker, the Jedi-knight-errant with a quick temper, deft saber, and gnarly rattail? Or do you say “Thanks but no thanks” to George Lucas, instant stardom, and an immediate payday? “There was no ‘Should I or shouldn’t I?’” Christensen says. “I was fresh out of high school. I was worried where the next paycheck was coming from. And here was this amazing opportunity. It obviously came with a lot of baggage. I wasn’t naïve about that. But there wasn’t any part of me that was going to say, ‘Nah, I think I’ll wait for the next one.’”

The benefits of that decision are all around us: For starters, this cozy farmhouse. The 200 acres of farmland. The enormous flat-screen TV. And—nerd alert!—he keeps an official Anakin Skywalker, Dark Lord of the Sith-issue lightsaber close at hand, in a clear box on the bookshelf like a trophy, near copies of Robert Frost’s poems and Wayne Gretzky’s autobiography.

Most young actors patiently stalk fame, but Christensen had fame handed to him on a platter. Because whether they turned out to be triumphs or flops, successes or stinkers, one thing was dead certain about Lucas’ prequels: They would make Christensen a household name. The obvious question when he was cast was whether he would be the next Harrison Ford (international superstar)—or the next Mark Hamill (forever limited in the public’s mind to a single, star-crossed role). Three years after the final Star Wars opened, you could say the jury’s still out. Millions of people know the name Hayden Christensen. But none of them know it because they saw him in Factory Girl.

“It took me a while to get used to people staring,” he says, then offers, by way of comic understatement, “You know, the Star Wars movies have a huge following.”

And there are drawbacks, like people you don’t know starting to wonder whom you’re sleeping with—though Christensen’s been relatively lucky in this regard, mostly sidestepping invasive scrutiny. He’s been linked in the press, routinely and predictably, with whatever costar he’s currently filming with (Natalie Portman in Revenge of the Sith [he denies having dated her], Rachel Bilson in Jumpers), in the kinds of couplings that always carry a whiff of P.R. brimstone—and just as reliably dissolve shortly after opening weekend. He’s also, just as predictably, been the subject of speculation that he’s gay. He’s said on the record that he’s not. He’s also said he doesn’t mind people’s thinking he is. He knows they’ll talk either way.