Our recent visit to Skywalker Ranch included tons of surprises, one of them being an appearance by actor Ian McDiarmid who sat down with the press to discuss his role playing 'Emperor Palpatine' in the Star Wars movies since the days of Return of the Jedi.
Did you ever expect to revisit your role as Emperor after your work on Return of the Jedi was complete?
Ian McDiarmid: It was extraordinary how I came to play the man in the first place. I had a very brief meeting with George. No lunch. They were very busy. And I got back, and there was a phone call from my agent who said, "It's great. You got the part." I had to say, "What part?". "It's the Emperor of the Universe." I thought, ‘It's the only way it's done, I'll do this.' And I embraced it wholeheartedly. I've been embracing it wholeheartedly ever since. Did I imagine I'd be sitting here talking to you 25 odd years, later? No certainly not, but it's been a great journey.
Did you imagine that your character would be the one of all the characters in the movies, all 6 films?
Ian Mcdiarmid: No. When George asked me to be in the prequels it was the same kind of meeting. Very short. We met in a hotel room. He said, "What would you like to drink?" I said, "I think I'll take the sparkling mineral water." And he said, "Oh, by the way, do you know anyone who wants to play an Emperor?" I said, "Funny you should say this." He said, "Great, you can give the water back." And that was that, once again. He did let me in on a few secrets, not many, as that was not his way. I'm all for that actually. That's the mark of a great storyteller. Never to give away secrets in advance. He did say the character would be on the sidelines in movies One and Two, and move into the middle with number Three. And it only slowly dawned on me, that if Vader was really the worst creature, the most evil, the darkest, the blackest villain in movie history, I was worse than him. I'm still slightly coming to terms with that actually. I think my relationship with Satan is closer then I'd have ever imagined.
Were you chomping at the bit playing undercover and in disguise for 2 films? Did you have a yearning to just get to the meat & potatoes of the role?
Ian Mcdiarmid: Yes, I was. Again, I didn't know how evil he was going to be. I knew he was going to be pretty evil...until I got the script. I didn't know that he would have fighting skills. Which I had to learn rather quickly. I imagine that his power was in his fingers and not his head. Little did I know he was the fastest light saberist in the Universe, but now I know and now he is, and there are a number of people who helped me get there.
Are you going to be making an appearance in the television series?
Ian Mcdiarmid: I don't think anybody knows the particular details of the television series, I don't think it's because people are being particularly coy, I just don't think they have decided yet. I know George's intention is to follow one of the characters. Sure if it's the period between the movies, the Emperor has to be referred to. But, you'll remember he was referred to often without actually appearing. And Peter Cushing was a very effective representative. So I suspect there will be a number of very effective representatives.
How did you come up with the voice?
Ian Mcdiarmid: When I saw that mask... it was years ago. The original intention, I think, was that my voice should...well it might even have been Clive Revell's voice because he already voiced the movie. Consistency is clearly very important...continuity when you're making a film. Richard Marquand, the director, said to me, if you can get your voice close to Clives, George may let you keep it. I had no idea that it might be taken away from me at that stage. I had the temerity to think, "Clive of course didn't see the face that I'm looking at." He saw an actor and an actress in a mask, and he matched the voice one morning at a recording session. And I had some time to get to know this character. I felt, well he comes from the bowels of the earth. He looks like an old toad. And before I knew it, I was making the voice. It just came out. And George heard it and within about 10 seconds liked it, and I've been stuck with it happily ever since.
How do feel about the Emperor being compared to modern politicians in the media?
Ian Mcdiarmid: He was a politician and he turned out to be an evil monster. That's not too difficult a story to follow. Either in Star Wars or if you happen to look at the front of any newspaper in practically any country. In England and if you come to the United States you're not short of candidates there. What I hope when people watch those films, is that they'll see lots of things they hadn't seen before.
What I think and hope, frankly, and this is me talking, that when people do watch this film as you now can chronologically (or will be able to in a couple weeks), that they'll see lots of things that they hadn't seen before. They'll not just see a great storyteller in operation - George, we all know that - but they'll see that many other layers emerge.
The one that interests me most, perhaps, not unnaturally if I play the character, is the chart. The chart of the rise of evil, fascism if you like. And it's very carefully plotted in the film. Not just through my character, but through organizations like the Trade Federation.
Now I bet some of you in this room have not found the Trade Federation fascinating.
This may change when you watch the films in sequence because you will see how my character was manipulating quietly, steadily, patiently all the time. And my conclusion as the result of all that is not just that George is a good filmmaker and a great storytelling, but he is a pretty astute analyst of the politics of power.
How is it playing a character 20 years later?
It's a very strange, and it will be when I watch the DVD sequence. To have been chosen when you're in your 30's to play somebody whose a 120, and then to find when you were in your early 50's that you were going to play the same character because you'll then age. In fact I don't think I have come out of the trauma yet. The interesting thing about that is that I think it's an absolutely unique challenge for an actor. I can't think of anyone else who's been asked to do that or indeed been given the opportunity to do it. I will always be grateful for that.
Dont't forget to also check out: Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith [WS] [2 Discs]