By all accounts Jake Lloyd should have been a superstar, ready to transition from his breakout role as the young Anakin Skywalker and into a regular cinematic presence. But that’s not the way things went. Aside from a role in the forgettable 2005 film Madison and reprising the role of Anakin in myriad video games, Lloyd turned his back on Hollywood.
Not only forced to endure tens of interviews a day, Lloyd also had to suffer the ire and mockery of his peers, upending his school life. In a 2012 interview, he claimed that he “learned to hate it when the cameras are pointed” at him. And then in 2015, Lloyd was arrested for reckless driving, driving without a license and resisting arrest.
Part of this tragic story is down to the negative reaction to Lloyd’s portrayal as Anakin. He was used as a whipping boy for what viewers disliked about The Phantom Menace in general. As we’ve seen more recently with Ahmed Best, these criticisms don’t exist in a vacuum and have a very real and damaging effect on the people they’re directed at. For Lloyd, it seemed as though he was beset on all sides. There was no escaping it.
But for my money, Jake Lloyd gives a great performance, portraying the complicated nature of Anakin Skywalker, his sweet innocence but also that brooding sense of darkness just beneath the surface. Clearly George Lucas thought so too.
The pressure to find the right actor for Anakin was immense and some three thousand kids were auditioned. Eventually this was whittled down to a shortlist of three who read for the role opposite Natalie Portman. Even at this early stage, it was clear that Lloyd was a natural talent, with great body language and screen presence. Lucas’ criteria was for the chosen child to be a good actor, be wise beyond their years, have a good charisma and possessing of a good personal quality. When it came down to a decision, Lucas said that he had a gut feeling that Jake Lloyd was the one.
There are three key scenes which I believe demonstrate Lloyd’s acting ability and the nuance he brings to the role of Anakin. Each of these examples demonstrates one facet of the character that would become critical to his becoming Darth Vader – love, attachment and anger.
The first of these scenes involves attachment. In one of the most important moments in the entire saga, Anakin leaves his home to become a Jedi. But he just can’t bring himself to leave his mother. He stops, turns and runs back to her. Luke only left home when every attachment had already been severed. For Anakin, it’s not as simple as that. His love for his mother tethers him in that moment and will anchor him to his attachment for the decades to follow. But he does leave, taking his first steps into a larger world, embarking on the mythic hero’s journey.
The second scene demonstrates the young Anakin’s vast capacity for love. In true fairy tale tradition, he’d already fallen in love with Padmé when she first came into Watto’s shop. But it’s a more unassuming moment I think best portrays this. On board the Nubian Royal Starship, Anakin shivers under a blanket as Padmé comes in. In a moment of earnest emotion, he produces a japor snippet he carved her, so she’d remember him.
Lastly, there’s Anakin’s anger which I briefly touched on in my love letter to TPM. Lucas meant Anakin to be a paragon of virtue and innocence in TPM but in cleverly casting Jake Lloyd in the role, he imbued the character with more depth. When Anakin discovers that he will not be trained as a Jedi we see a look of anger on his face. It’s subtle, but it’s there. For me, this shows what Lloyd brought to the screen, enriching the scene and its place in the wider saga.
The biggest problems people seem to have with Lloyd have more to do with personal issues over Lucas’ storytelling. Focussing solely on Lloyd’s acting and it’s clear what a nuanced and compelling performance he gives. He’s an embodiment of childlike innocence and wanderlust, but there’s also a brooding quality, a darkness that perfectly sows the seed of the teenaged Anakin as picked up in Attack of the Clones by Hayden Christensen. But that’s an article for another time.