He was Senator Palpatine
in The Phantom Menace
and the Emperor in Return of the Jedi
. Now, in an exclusive Insider interview, Ian McDiarmid
talks about bridging the gap as Supreme Chancellor Palpatine in Episodes II and III of the Star Wars
When Darth Vader first burst on the scene in 1977, storming into the Rebel Blockade Runner amid smoke, stormtroopers, and blaster fire, it was impossible to think of him as anything but the ultimate villain of Star Wars. It seemed there could be no soul darker, no mind more evil, no heart more cold.
That was before we met the Emperor.
As Darth Vader himself put it, "The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am."
Sure enough, in Return of the Jedi, we learned quickly that Vader was but a pawn in his master's dark game of galactic domination. The Emperor, from the moment he first touched down on Death Star II, made it clear that it was he who was in charge all along. By the end, we saw that Vader could actually be a hero, and that the ultimate villain of the Star Wars saga was a hunched-over old man with piercing yellow eyes, black robes, and a distinctively chilling voice.
To pull off the crucial role of the Emperor (who first appeared briefly as a hologram voiced by Clive Revill in The Empire Strikes Back), George Lucas and Jedi director Richard Marquand turned to Ian McDiarmid, a charismatic British stage actor then in his mid-30s. McDiarmid sunk his teeth into his first major film role, emerging from marathon make-up sessions to create a modern day icon of cinematic evil.
No wonder that 16 years later, Lucas again enlisted McDiarmid to play a young Senator Palpatine in Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace, making him one of the few performers from the classic trilogy to reprise his character in the prequels.
Once again drawing on a tremendous reservoir of experience in the theatre, McDiarmid (who in the meantime had also appeared in the Frank Oz-directed comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and the Oscar-nominated Restoration) played Palpatine as a smooth charmer who manages to maneuver Chancellor Valorum out of office' and himself in' even as his home planet of Naboo is under siege, and all with a smile on his face and a spring in his step.
Naturally, McDiarmid returns for Episode II, luxuriating in his character's new position as Supreme Chancellor and looking forward to continuing his rise in Episode III. No longer the new kid on the block, McDiarmid is now a Star Wars vet and fan favorite from both the classic and prequel eras.
In between filming Episodes I and II, the Scottish-born actor, an early drama school classmate of Denis Lawson (Wedge), took a role in Tim Burton's blockbuster Sleepy Hollow (with Star Wars actors Christopher Lee and Ray Park) and continued to focus on running the Almeida Theatre, the thriving and popular North London playhouse where he serves as joint artistic director with Jonathan Kent.
The duo were awarded the Theatrical Achievement of the Year award by London's Evening Standard in 1998 for their work transforming the once-obscure playhouse into one of the region's most acclaimed theatres.
McDiarmid was starring at the Almeida as Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest when the Insider caught up with him. The production was the last at the theatre before a 14-month renovation project, during which time the Almeida will continue to produce plays at a converted bus station across town.
The last time we interviewed McDiarmid (Insider #37), Episode I hadn't come out yet, and we had tons of questions about Return of the Jedi. But this time, the first thing we wanted to talk about was Episode II -- even though so much about the story is still top secret.
Let's get this out of the way right off the bat. There is a lot about your work in the prequels that we can't talk about yet. Why is it necessary to keep so much about Palpatine a mystery?
The principal answer to that, of course, is that he is a man of mystery. That is how he exercises, maintains, and increases his power -- by choosing what he's public about. He's the great political manipulator of all time.
I found it interesting in Episode I to watch the wheels turning in Senator Palpatine's mind. We sense he's up to no good, yet we never see him actually do anything sinister.
Yes, that's probably the most interesting aspect of the part for me. Palpatine appears to be a hard-working politician -- and when you say the word politician, immediately you think about equivocation, which is the nature of the job. But at the same time, I know that underneath all that is an evil soul. The undercurrents are always there in his mind and in his gut.
Everything he does is an act of pure hypocrisy, and that's interesting to play. I suppose it's rather like playing Iago. All the characters in the play -- including Othello until the end -- think that "Honest Iago" is a decent guy doing his job, and he's quite liked. But at the same time there's a tremendous evil subconscious in operation.