Back in 1999, you couldn’t walk into either a movie theater or a toy store without seeing the face of ten-year-old Jake Lloyd. He was the young actor chosen to play young Anakin Skywalker in the first Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, and so merchandise bearing his likeness was everywhere. And while the massively hyped movie was met with hostility from hardcore Star Wars fans, it still made a star out of Lloyd. But what happened next?
The Phantom Menace was undoubtedly the film that propelled Lloyd to international fame, but he actually had a couple of acting credits to his name before that. Most notably, the young actor appeared alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in the classic Christmas film Jingle All the Way.
After that, he auditioned for and won what was probably the biggest role going that year: Anakin Skywalker. Appearing in The Phantom Menace, he would play the younger version of one of the most popular cinematic baddies of all time, Darth Vader.
But although The Phantom Menace made over $924 million at the box office, critics and many Star Wars fans strongly disliked it. Plus, Lloyd’s performance as young Anakin received a lot of criticism. In fact, he was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actor before he was even ten years old.
And so while child stars rarely have it easy, now poor Lloyd faced the difficulty of being hugely famous and widely disliked as an actor. That’s a position that even most adults would find intolerable, and so it’s hard to imagine what impact it had on a little boy.
“I just have to wear a bag over my head when I go out in public,” he said in a 1999 interview, talking about the fame The Phantom Menace had brought him. However, he was also full of praise for the movie and for the cast he had worked with.
Lloyd only released one other movie after The Phantom Menace, and that was the sports film Madison. The film was actually shot in 2000, but it wasn’t released until 2005. By then, however, Lloyd had retired, after quitting acting in 2001. It later emerged that some of the other school kids had been picking on him for being involved in the Star Wars franchise, leading to his decision.
However, Lloyd didn’t cut ties with the Star Wars world altogether. He continued to voice Anakin Skywalker in video games, for one. And in 2005 when the final Star Wars prequel, Revenge of the Sith, came out he posed with the rest of the franchise’s cast for Vanity Fair magazine.
Slowly, however, Lloyd started to fade away from the public eye. Indeed, after Revenge of the Sith, the Star Wars franchise seemed to be over, and Lloyd was free to get on with his adult life. In 2007, then, he graduated from his Indiana high school.
Lloyd grew out his hair, grew a bit of a beard and settled down into the life of a fairly average teenager. He went to Columbia College Chicago to study film and video and began picking up freelance directing and editing jobs along the way. Plus, he became a familiar face at various Star Wars conventions.
Lloyd seemed to enjoy the convention circuit, too, and the opportunity to meet other celebs as well as mingle with fans. In addition, he gained a following on Facebook, where he kept his followers up to date on his projects. He began work on a documentary about Tibetan refugees in India and also started filming music videos.
In 2012, meanwhile, British tabloid The Sun reported that Lloyd had said Star Wars and the subsequent bullying had made his life “a living hell.” It was even claimed that Lloyd had destroyed all his Star Wars memorabilia and had “learned to hate it when the cameras are pointed at [him].”
Lloyd, however, completely disputed all of this on Facebook. “The Sun is claiming I gave them an interview recently that I did not,” he wrote. “The quotes in the article do not accurately reflect my feelings for the time I spent on Star Wars or the time I spent in high school. I feel very fortunate to be part of the Star Wars family and always have.”
And although it was true that he didn’t want cameras pointed at him, Lloyd continued to appear at fan conventions. Plus, despite the fact that the initial backlash against his performance as a child had never entirely gone away, in 2014 he described his experience of Star Wars fandom as “the gift that keeps on giving.”
In June 2015, however, Lloyd suddenly found himself on the front pages of all the celebrity gossip sites. That was because he had been arrested for reckless driving in South Carolina. The cause of his behavior wasn’t alcohol or drugs, however, as people may have expected. No, it was actually a mental illness – specifically, schizophrenia – that had caused Lloyd to act erratically.
Lloyd’s mother, Lisa, explained to the media that Lloyd had been off his medication when he had broken the law. She also revealed that he had attacked her at their Indianapolis home a few months prior, again as a result of his mental illness. It was clear that this was a serious issue.
Unfortunately, neither the Star Wars online fandom nor the internet in general has a reputation for measured responses to serious issues. And so Lloyd’s struggle with schizophrenia – an incredibly misunderstood illness – was met with mockery and cruelty. “Someone probably showed him Phantom Menace,” one commenter wrote.
Even more concerning were the internet trolls who contributed to the commonly held misconceptions about schizophrenia. “If he doesn’t take his meds from now on, lock him up for good,” wrote one on TMZ. However, individuals with schizophrenia are far more liable to injure themselves than members of the public when in the grip of the condition.
Some of Lloyd’s co-stars, though, stepped in to defend him. Ahmed Best, who played the incredibly polarizing character Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace, told Vice that “the amount of vitriol [Lloyd] took as an eight-year-old was just wrong, and it affected him.” Salon also joined the defence with an article entitled “Leave Jake Lloyd alone: We need compassion for mental illness, not snark.”
Luckily, however, there were pockets of compassion around, too. Many Star Wars fans, for example, wished Lloyd well on his Facebook page and elsewhere. That said, he still had to spend ten months in prison before he was finally moved to a psychiatric center. And, unfortunately, many mentally ill people suffer the same fate or worse.
Now that Lloyd is receiving help, though, his mother reports that he’s doing better. And, hopefully, he’ll be able to bounce back before too long. There’s no denying, however, that the whole incident brought out a definite dark side to Star Wars fandom. And let’s hope that it’s not one that will take Luke Skywalker and the entire Rebellion to remove.