Star Wars archive: Ian McDiarmid interview

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Empire takes coffee and biscuits with the supreme ruler of the entire galaxy - in waiting...

(This story was originally published in issue 192 of Empire Magazine.)

While making Revenge Of The Sith, Ian McDiarmid came to a logical conclusion. You add it up in your head, tot up the facts, all the arcane details of George Lucas' complex mythology, and the answer is obvious. Well, it is according to the actor playing Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, and the shadowy figure who looms in from time to time named Darth Sidious, who may or may not be one and the same person. "I began to realise," he says with satisfaction, the smallest trace of a sly, devilish smile curling his lips (ooh, he's good at this stuff), "if Vader is the great dark icon of our times, I'm blacker than him. I'm the blackest of the black."

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And wallop, there it is. The full-scale realisation that Empire is currently sitting down over a pleasant cup of coffee, and the odd digestive, with quite possibly the most evil character ever to disgrace a screen: Darth Vader's boss. To be fair, he's not revealing many of the traits of the supreme badass of the galaxy on this blowy Monday afternoon in West London. It's called acting, dear boy. After all, Palpatine is charm personified, while twisting the palpitating ranks of the Jedi around his little pinkie.

"The great thing in playing him," says McDiarmid, understandably wary of giving the game away, "is that it's clear in Episodes I and II that he's a hypocrite, a hypocritical politician, so that's what you play. And then there is this dark person in a black robe who crops up. He's a solid block of evil. No redeeming features. Except one: he has a scene set at the opera. He's obviously a patron of the arts."

Let's make an assumption. We do at least know he plays both roles. So, let's just hypothesise, for now, that Palpatine and Sidious are, somehow, related. McDiarmid, with a nod, allows this and smiles again. Naturally, Lucas had a better way of summing up the relationship.

Vader is the great dark icon of our times, but Palpatine is the blackest of the black.

"He said this casually, 'You should think of Palpatine's eyes as contact lenses...' So there's Palpatine's eyes and my eyes and that was very interesting. So, in fact, his face, which is the same as mine, was the unreal aspect. My own face was the mask. And then when I get into the mask, that is the evil person - that's the real face."

What's clear is that in Sith this double-sided figure will move out from the fringes to the centre of the plot, to be revealed, finally, in all his satanic giory. A mirror image of the slither the Emperor takes from the background to the epicentre in the original trilogy. What did come as a surprise, however, was the introduction of a lightsaber.

"It was a total shock," he laughs. "I had imagined that all his power was in his brain and in his fingers because you've seen that in Return Of The Jedi." Yet, when he got presented with the first shooting script, there it was in writing: 'Fight training'. "I thought, 'Oh, that'll be falling and things, I'll have to fall down a hole or something, and, indeed, it was a bit of that, but there was 'saber-wielding'."

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He does admit, although Samuel L. Jackson told him not to, that it encompassed some visual sleight-of-hand. "Not for Hayden, Ewan or Sam, they're master swordsmen. I just did a few strokes, but I had my brilliant stunt double."

At least he has a unique lightsaber design of his own. "It's not like the others," he says smartly. "You'll see it soon, they made a very special one for Palpatine."

Out here in real-life, McDiarmid is an easy man to like. Generous and open, he gives every question his full focus as a pivotal part of this huge Star Wars circus, if slightly more aloof from it. Not for him the agonised throes of a man besieged by maniacal fans. "I really don't court it, and if you don't it doesn't come looking for you. Usually, when I'm in a play, a few people turn up and I use it mercilessly," he giggles. "I say, 'I'm not signing anything unless you come and see the play.' So I've been selling tickets for the theatre through Star Wars!" Ian McDiarmid, patron of the arts.

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Back in the early '80s, when he was originally summoned for a meet-and-greet with Lucas and Return Of The Jedi director Richard Marquand, he had recently played an ageing Howard Hughes on stage. He had seen Star Wars, but was hardly proficient in the mythos. He wasn't even entirely sure what part he was up for. Yet, by the time he arrived home, the phone was already ringing.

"It was my agent, saying they'd offered me the part. And I said, 'What's the part?' There was this sound of him rustling through paper before he replied, 'Oh, it's called the Emperor Of The Universe.' And what will this classical actor take away from the whole bizarre experience? McDiarmid ponders the question for a moment before answering.

"I've got a little Polaroid of me that I quite like," he replies. "I was in costume, wearing dark glasses, and I looked like Roy Orbison on a bad day. So there is this Polaroid in my room - 'Roy Orbison on a bad day, playing the Emperor.'"

Evil comes in many guises...

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