'Star Wars' Emperor recalls his first day on the job

05:00 AM, May 01, 2013

"Return of the Jedi" star Ian McDiarmid played Emperor Palpatine, the vilest of villains in George Lucas' "Star Wars" universe. Lucasfilm/


Written By by Brian Truitt, USA TODAY

Bizarre.

That’s how Return of the Jedi star Ian McDiarmid describes his first day playing pretty much the most rotten person in George Lucas’ Star Wars galaxy.

Emperor Palpatine had first appeared as a shadowy figure in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back — with British actor Clive Revill giving a gravelly voice to the head man of the Empire — but the Scottish-born McDiarmid was tapped to play the cloaked villain in Return, the third of Lucas’ original trilogy of films celebrating its 30th anniversary this month.

He actually wasn’t the first one cast, though: McDiarmid says a much older actor was supposed to play the Emperor — who doesn’t look a day over 120 — but he couldn’t take the yellow contact lenses that were a necessary creepy part of the character’s look. “His eyes just wouldn’t support them and they couldn’t insure him.”

Casting director Mary Selway had seen McDiarmid, then in his late 30s, play an aging Howard Hughes in a small theater in England, and she recommended Lucas give him a call.

It was all shrouded in mystery, really,” says McDiarmid, whose agent phoned him that a car was coming to get him just as he peeked out his window and saw it had already arrived. “That’s how organized they are.”

He spent 15 minutes talking to Lucas and Jedi director Richard Marquand, still not knowing what role it was. He didn’t think it had worked out, but his agent called again as McDiarmid got home and told him he was playing the Emperor.

I knew who the Emperor was vaguely because he had made an appearance in The Empire Strikes Back, but the idea that that should be me was beyond surreal,” he says.

The actor recalls a part of him did make an immediate impression in the initial meeting.

As I was leaving and just going out the door, George said, ‘Oh by the way, great nose.’ I thought that was an unusual thing to say, but then I thought maybe that’s a good sign. Maybe they need a great nose,” McDiarmid says, laughing.

You can work out why he said that because that was about the only part of my face that was actually left. And of course it peeked out rather nicely from below that black hood. Presumably, they were going to give you a prosthetic one if it hadn’t but they got it for free.”

McDiarmid, now 68, had his first glimpse at the costume during a makeup test, and he was surprised at just seeing a simple black cloak since he was expecting something Chinese-like and grand, with studded diamonds and assorted accoutrements.

His first thought? “That’s not very imperial,” he says. “And then I thought, no, that’s very clever, that’s exactly what someone like that should look like. He’s very old and he doesn’t want to bother with what he wears because he’s the most important person in the universe.”

On his first day on set, he was rehearsing a scene with David Prowse, the man who was underneath the Darth Vader suit in the original films, and he was to walk down a staircase and be met by Prowse at the bottom.

While the Emperor’s contact lenses didn’t bother McDiarmid, they didn’t allow for peripheral vision.

The doors open, the smoke came out and of course I couldn’t see a thing,” he says. “But I had this cane, so I sort of inched my way — I thought, well, I am 120 so this won’t look too bad.”

And it got worse. When he reached the bottom, McDiarmid couldn’t hear what Prowse was saying due to his height and his helmet.

I thought there might be some magnification,” he remembers. “I knew it wasn’t going to be his voice ultimately — it was going to be the great James Earl Jones — but it would have been nice to be able to hear a cue.

It wasn’t Dave’s fault but because I couldn’t hear a word he was saying, I just had to guess when he stopped speaking.”

There was one more surprise in store for him that day. His old friend Michael Pennington played Imperial officer Moff Tiaan Jerjerrod in Return of the Jedi, and they didn’t realize they were both in the movie until a scene where Pennington bowed and called him, “Mighty Emperor.”

I saw him after we cut,” McDiarmid says. “He said, ‘My God, it’s you.’ I said, ‘If I had known you were getting down on your knees to me, I would have done it for nothing.’ “

Marquand told him to try and match Revill’s voice from the previous film, but instead McDiarmid, who would usually sleep through his four hours in the makeup chair every morning, found the right guttural sounds by looking at the monster in the mirror.

It seemed to me that he should sound like a disgusting old toad,” he says. The actor recalls going into a sound session with Lucas and producers Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy much later: “After the first take Steven said, ‘Oh my God, you’re so evil!’ So I guess that was approving the voice, and I’ve had it ever since.”

McDiarmid has talked with Lucas over the years, and there were rumors of Palpatine being resurrected for a live-action TV series (he played a younger, manipulative version of the character in the three Star Wars prequels).

While Lucas was evasive, he did tell McDiarmid that the Emperor probably did have a backstory, much like Darth Vader and everybody else.

The notion “fascinates me and plays into my imagination, but I’ve got no clues,” says McDiarmid, who is appearing at Star Wars Celebration Europe in July. “It would be interesting to think that actually maybe at one point he wasn’t just total wickedness but something that happened to twist his nature.”

McDiarmid would be happy to return in J.J. Abrams’ upcoming Star Wars: Episode VII movie, he says, but there is that small problem of Vader sending him to “cosmic hell” at the end of Return of the Jedi.

I remember it well because it took about a week to get me down that chute with the wires and flying,” McDiarmid says. “I remember saying, ‘Is he dead, George?’ at the time, and he said, ‘Yes, he is. Absolutely dead.’

I guess that means he can’t survive and do Episode VII, unless of course he’d been clever enough to clone himself. He’s certainly clever enough, but I don’t know if he had that idea or not.”