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Much ado about nothing

Claire Allfree, Metro

When I ask Anna Paquin, Hayden Christensen and Jake Gyllenhaal how it feels to be described as Hollywood's most wanted, they stare back blankly.

'Er, I don't know what you mean,' mumbles Christensen. 'I think that whole thing is really weird,' says Paquin flatly. Gyllenhaal just stares, convinced I don't mean him anyway. Point taken. The Brits are obsessed with celebrity to the point of idiocy. The Americans - the younger, savvier ones, at any rate - don't get what the fuss is about, particularly if the fuss happens to be about them.

Paquin, Christensen and Gyllenhaal are starring in a revival of Kenneth Lonergan's 1996 classic slacker generation portrait This Is Our Youth. By any account, it's an impressive meeting of careers. Paquin, 19, won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in The Piano at the age of 11. Christensen, 21, stars as Anakin Skywalker in the next Star Wars instalment, Attack Of The Clones. Gyllenhaal, 19, most recently starred in October Sky. All three are ludicrously young, good-looking and talented. But in the scruffy green room at the Garrick Theatre they are also three slightly awkward, nervy youngsters taking a break.

Well, almost. I have been warned not to ask questions about Star Wars, which is a shame, since it would be handy to know if the next episode is going to be better than The Phantom Menace, nor Paquin's last film X-Men, which is fine, since I haven't seen it. Nor anything personal. Right. So, that leaves the play then. Happily, Gyllenhaal and Paquin at least have plenty to say about that.

Lonergan isn't particularly well-known in this country, although this premiere precedes the UK premiere of another of his plays, The Lobby Hero, at the Donmar in April. Athreehander set in Manhattan in 1982, This Is Our Youth is a deceptively simple black comedy about three intelligent kids stranded at the cusp of adulthood without direction or moral responsibility, thanks to affluent parents who have brought them up with money rather than love. It was written before two of the cast were born, but all three believe the times and people it depicts aren't so different from the ones they know.

'We've a Republican president, we're on the edge of recession, the divide between rich and poor is still stratospheric,' says Gyllenhaal. 'We might not be those kids but we know people like them. We might not choose to express the depth of our insecurities with drug deals but everyone remembers what it feels like to have sex for the first time.'

Do they feel they have been lucky? That, if it weren't for some odd grace of God, they, with their looks, intelligence and opportunities, could have found themselves drifting as help-lessly as the similarly blessed characters they portray, stoned out of their minds on fear, as Christensen's character memorably puts it? 'No,' says Christensen, who is either very shy or not enjoying this one bit. 'I've no idea what drives people to take heroin. I can't relate to that at all.'

'But you do sense the potential in yourself, in plays like this about people your age,' argues Paquin, who plays Jessica, a girl pathologically terrified of what people think of her. 'You prepare your character, you work out the factors in her life that makes her who she is, then you bring to her bits from your own life, and you realise, wow, those lives are pretty close.'

Both Gyllenhaal and Paquin come across as centred, calm and utterly focused on what they are doing. Paquin is an old hand. 'You can't get affected by attention or you become someone different to who you were, and then you have nothing to bring to your job,' she states simply. Gyllenhaal worries that he is too young and doesn't know enough to make the right emotional connections within his characters, but says he knows more than he did. Christensen says little, but does think that doing the play has forced him to think about why he is passionate about what he does. Thanks for coming all this way to meet us, they say at the end. Nope, they really don't get the fuss thing at all.

Now Playing
Garrick Theatre From Mar 2, Mon-Sat 7.30pm (Mar 2, first perf 3pm, press night Mar 15, 7pm), mat Thu & Sat 3pm, ends Apr 20 10-35

This is London, March 12, 2002