When you hear the name Anakin Skywalker, what comes to mind? Is it the precocious Jake Lloyd in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace? What about the badly burned and defeated visage of Vader we see in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi?
Whoever is your favorite, there have been quite a few actors to play the character over the years. Some were phenomenal (original trilogy), and some left a lot to be desired (remakes, we’re looking at you).
Here’s a list of all the actors to handle the helmeted mantle over the years and how they did in it. We’ll be using the classic Star Wars rating scale of between one and five lightsabers. A five saber rating is like blowing up the death star and a one lightsaber rating is like getting stuck in the death star trash compactor.
For this list, we’re looking at actors who’ve played the character as Vader, Anakin, or both together.
James Earl Jones – OG Vader
For millions of fans, the smoky, robotic voice of Darth Vader in the original Star Wars was a spooky and unsettling introduction to the character. Jones struck the perfect chord between hypnotic authority and style.
His force choking of subordinates, his machine-assisted breathing and his desire to rule the universe with his Jedi son all add to the mystique of one of the most popular characters in modern cinema.
Jones was mostly a Broadway actor before he took on the role as the electronic man in black. Interestingly, he wasn’t even credited as the voice of the role in the first two films. Turns out he didn’t even view it as a full role, and instead considered his contribution a “special effect.”
Rank – Five Lightsabers.
This is the OG Vader by which all other Vaders (and Anakins) are judged.
Jake Lloyd – Episode One Vader
While they’re fairly beloved in present times, it’s easy to forget that people were fairly upset that the first Star Wars prequel featured a kid Darth Vader. Remember, the last time we saw Darth Vader he threw emperor Palpatine off a balcony and then became a force ghost.
In Phantom Menace he was a child. Not many people were into it regardless of how many tickets were sold. The closest connection we got to Lloyd and “that” Vader was a shadow in the film’s poster.
He also played the character in a number of video games.
Lloyd never really picks up the costume or anything, and he plays the character as a bumbly kid with some real talent for machines and racing. In that sense, it was a success. However, many people didn’t really like his acting, and he quit appearing in things soon after.
Rank – Two out of five lightsabers.
He did what he could with what he had but no one’s holding this up as the definitive portrayal.
Hayden Christensen – Prequel Vader
Christensen had the honor of playing Darth Vader both before and after he took on his uniform. This should’ve allowed for some serious, believable character development but thanks to the shaky writing and poorly-conceived romantic scenes with Padme as Anakin, it was mostly mediocre.
His performance was often criticized as stilted and robotic, and he was also fairly whiny and entitled. However, just like Jake Lloyd, he was the victim of a pretty clunky script. Christensen also gets a lot of heat for the prequels in general, and much of it isn’t neccesarily deserved.
We haven’t seen everything Christensen has to offer as Vader, either. We’re going to see the character again in the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi on Disney Plus.
Rank – Three out of five lightsabers.
The only reason he isn’t ranked lower is that there’s always the possibility he can redeem himself in the new Obi Wan show, and he is responsible for the bulk of Vader’s onscreen persona, for good or bad.
David Prowse – Original Trilogy body actor Vader
Think of Prowse as the unsung hero of the Vader hall of fame. He’s responsible for Darth Vader’s physicality throughout the original three movies, and he did one hell of a job.
In fact, the argument could be made that Prowse is just as important to Vader as Jones. It was the combination of the two that created the ominous caped leader in the first place.
The fact that he’s not well known just proves what a good job he did.
Rank – Five out of five lightsabers.
Sebastian Shaw – Momentary Vader
Obviously, with one person (Jones) doing Vader’s voice and another (Prowse) handling the physicality but neither appearing on screen as themselves, someone needed to step in and play Vader as a person.
That person ended up being veteran actor Sebastian Shaw, who played the terrifying Darth Vader at his least terrifying moment, and then again as a force ghost.
It wasn’t a huge role but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t incredibly iconic. For only having about 30 seconds of screen time, he did a pretty bang up job.
Rank – Four out of five lightsabers.
Matt Lanter – Voice and Video Game Anakin
What’s weird about Lanter is that he’s the one of the lesser-known people on the list by far but probably one of the most common Anakin/Vaders. Lanter’s appeared in so many Star Wars properties it’s honestly hard to keep track.
He plays Anakin in almost every Star Wars Lego game and also in the TV show Star Wars Rebels. He’s also the voice of Anakin in 2017’s Star Wars: Battlefront II. He’s put in a lot of work and his contributions deserve to be mentioned.
Rank – Three out of three lightsabers.
Zac Efron – Robot Chicken Anakin
Think of this as a bonus. Efron famously played Anakin in the Cartoon Network show Robot Chicken and then again in the 2010 one-off Robot Chicken: Star Wars Episode III.
Honestly, he nails it. It’s perfect in tone with just the right amount of whining and irreverence. Maybe we’ll see more of him in the future.
Rank – Four out of five lightsabers.
Honorable Mention Vaders
A lot of actors have taken up the Anakin/Vader mantle for one-off projects or smaller video games. Actor Matt Levin played Anakin in Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds – Clone Campaigns, a PC game from 2002.
Dominic Armato played him in Star Wars Racer Revenge from 2002. Voice actor Mat Lucas played Anakin in 2003’s Star Wars: Clone Wars and in its video game companion as well.
These hard-working voice actors all get an honorary participation lightsaber.