How do you as an actor convey trustworthiness to the characters around Palpatine while simultaneously signaling to the audience not to trust him?
I suppose that, in a sense, he is hyper-sincere -- defensively sincere. He is a supreme actor. He has to be even more convincing than somebody who isn't behaving in a schizophrenic fashion, so he's extra charming, or extra professional -- and for those who are looking for clues, that's almost where you can see them. He's super-sincere.
There's a moment in one scene of the new film where tears almost appear in his eye. These are crocodile tears, but for all those in the movie, and perhaps watching the movie itself, they'll see he is apparently moved -- and of course, he is. He can just do it. He can, as it were, turn it on. And I suppose for him, it's also a bit of a turn-on -- the pure exercise of power is what he's all about. That's the only thing he's interested in and the only thing that can satisfy him -- which makes him completely fascinating to play, because it is an evil soul. He is more evil than the devil. At least Satan fell -- he has a history, and it's one of revenge.
But the Emperor -- well, I don't know all the details, but who does of the Sith? -- is an independent agent who just lives for the exercise of power. He doesn't know what scruples are, let alone have any. The only emotion that manifests itself truly is the one seen just before he meets his end, if that's what he meets, in Jedi -- and then that's pure anger, when he realizes that he hasn't succeeded in manipulating young Skywalker. So he has to kill him, and he tries to do that with unadulterated fury.
He has no sorrow about his mistakes, just pure anger?
Just anger. And his great strength is that he's not fearful, which of course is also young Skywalker's great strength, and ultimately Vader's too. It's understanding both sides of fear -- how it's important not to be fearful in order to not stop yourself from doing things you believe and know to be right. At the same time, it's on the dark side -- terror is what he specializes in. It's what motivates him and governs his every action -- his understanding of the nature of terror. He believes that everybody can be terrorized, or seduced by one thing or another.
But he's ultimately proven wrong.
Yes, he is, but not until the end of the movie, at the very critical moment -- as he succeeded with the father, will he succeed with the son? And he doesn't, because the father refuses to let him succeed with the son -- which is what makes it fascinating.
Did you ever sit down and discuss Palpatine's backstory with George Lucas?
No, not really. But it's what I feel to be true about the part -- and by and large, I think it's the same instinct that George has responded to.
But as George says, the fans always know what's going on because they've absorbed the story in all its detail. You can sort of work it out. The story hasn't changed. It's a story George set out to tell when he made Episode IV all those years ago, and now he's just telling it.
Do you know for sure whether you're doing Episode III?
Yes, I will be doing Episode III, and that is now a fact.
Has he given you a specific idea about how Palpatine will evolve in Episode III?
He's always said that Episode III will be the darkest. George feels people won't necessarily like it because of that, but my feeling is the reverse. I think they'll like it even more, because I think people are fascinated by the whole dark side of the saga. That's why Vader is so interesting. He's complicated, as we later find out. It's that apparently seductive darkness that fascinates people. They want to know more about it. They're not attracted by evil, but they're attracted by the nature of it. It's a very interesting thing to observe.
Why do you think people are so intrigued by evil characters?
I don't know, but I think it might go back to your initial question -- because it's mysterious. It's underneath. Milton, when he created Satan in Paradise Lost, which is one of the greatest creations in all of literature, made Satan as evil as Satan should be. But at the same time, Milton found him sympathetic as a soul in torment -- his best poetic writing is for that character.
But that's not the case with the Emperor, which makes it so interesting. He doesn't have any of those potentially redemptive qualities. He hasn't fallen. I imagine he's evil from birth, which is a terrible thing to imagine. He's not human.
So he has no awareness of how different he is from other people?
No -- no conscience, none of these things. He's untrammeled by humanity, by any feelings of guilt or responsibility or any of these things that bother all of us to a degree. And that's why, up to a point, he's entirely able to exercise his will. Of course, he's immensely clever, too.
When you were shooting Episode II, were you thinking about how you were going to evolve the character from film to film?
I don't really think about this. I play the lines, in the hope that something will emerge that'll be interesting and useful to the movie. That's what you do between action and cut, in these short bursts that are called scenes. But that's what acting is -- it's about responding to the moment. And then you abandon it to George -- but that's one of the things I like about film. It's the opposite from the theatre. You surrender your performance for other people to choose bits from, whereas in the theatre, you're in control of the whole part, every evening, and the director moves to one side. It's neither better nor worse -- they're just different experiences, and I find them equally fascinating.