Ian McDiarmid looks back on ‘hazardous’ Star Wars prequels (Exclusive)

Orlando Parfitt
Yahoo UK Movies Features
Str Wars legend... Palpatine at 'Revenge of the Sith' premiere (Credit: Wenn)

He played the most evil character in movie history, but Emperor Palpatine actor Ian McDiarmid was charming and rather honest when we grilled him about all things ‘Star Wars’.

The British thesp, who played the Emperor in the ‘Star Wars’ prequel trilogy and ‘Return of the Jedi’, was promoting the crazy-looking ‘Star Wars Celebration Europe’, taking place in Essen, Germany this July.

But he was happy to tackle topics as diverse as: why George Lucas sold the ‘Star Wars’ franchise to Disney, Lucas’ strengths and weaknesses as a director, problems on the prequel sets and the Emperor’s finest moment. Here’s McDiarmid on...

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...why George Lucas sold 'Star Wars'

“To make the kind of films that the made when he started, which I think is equally as exciting as him continuing the franchise. He has an experimental side of his brain, apart from in the digital universe, that hasn’t been exercised lately.

“[In the prequels] it’s not that George wanted to do everything: directing, the script and so on, it’s just that... George’s digital planning was such that the films were ready fairly circumscribed. It was quite hard for new people and people around him to be at their creative best. Now his collaborators are released from that even though he’ll be in the background suggesting storylines. 

“I don’t think he’s run out of steam. I just think he loves encouraging young people. He’s done it throughout his life. He felt it was about time to empower them. Really exciting people like JJ Abrams, Michael Arndt, Lawrence Kasdan. It’s what the saga needs.”

...George Lucas’ limitations as a director

“I worked with Richard Marquand on ‘Return of the Jedi’, and one of the reasons that Richard was brought in was that he was very good with actors. George felt that sometimes actors wanted things from him that he just couldn’t give. George’s great skill was his technical expertise. His view of it is that he takes the casting process very seriously, and once he’s cast them he thinks ‘they will do what they do and I will do what I do’.

“In terms of helping an actor develop a character in depth, that’s not his strong suit. I was fortunate that my character - even though it was fairly straight-forward - was solid evil. Then with the prequels he was a devious politician as well. In a sense I had a strong hook and of course I’d been doing it for a while. The younger actors probably needed a bit more guidance than George was able to give.”

...the problems with the prequel trilogy

“George was always thinking about what he would do later when the digital component was added. That couldn’t be explained to people often because it wasn’t actually decided yet in the cutting room!  I know George very well. He’s deeply intelligent and considered, but sometimes he didn’t have time to show that when the films were being made.

“I got the best reviews in the series because I had the biggest trajectory for my character. They were very flattering but the young cast [such as Hayden Christensen’ and Natalie Portman], they had quite a lot to deal with. There was no time. The circumstances we were working in were fairly hazardous as we were down in Leavesden studio before it was fully built and equipped. As we were filming those scenes they were building not just the sets for the next day, but the studio itself. We were surrounded by scaffolding and pipes. The first assistant director would say ‘I know it’s a nightmare but please don’t stop’. In terms of concentration it was much harder than usual.

“George often wasn’t able to say what the nature of the conflict was that they’d be fighting against... because he didn’t know. Actors always want to know if it’s an ironic moment or if it’s a matter of life and death. In the final edit the actors felt ‘oh my god if I’d known that was going to happen I would’ve played it differently’.”

...the long-rumoured TV series set between 'Episode III' and 'IV'

“I’m still a little optimistic about playing Palpatine again - though not hugely - because there’s those television scripts. George could never get them off the ground because he could never make it work financially, but if anyone can make it work then it’s Disney. I think there might be a glimmer of hope for me there.

“I have seen a little bit of what George put in those scripts and it sounds exciting - of course it’s when the Emperor is in complete imperial charge. There’s a lot of untapped material in that period for a [spin-off] film and TV adventures. There are many possibilities and lot to explore. I just hope I’m alive to see some of them!”

...Emperor Palpatine’s greatest moment

“The scene in the opera [in Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith’, when Palpatine seduces Anakin, played by Hayden Christensen, into joining the Dark Side]. It was shot at the end of a very long day. I’d done a bit of the sword fight with Mace Windu and then the transformation moment, the Jekyll and Hyde moment. I’d also got most of the studio dust in my throat because they’d been driving four wind machines at me. So I could hardly speak. It was a Friday afternoon and the AD’s birthday... not the most auspicious circumstances to do the biggest dialogue scene in the series. But George said: ‘let’s do it anyway’. I said ‘you must be joking I can hardly speak’ but he said ‘no, your voice sounds great, it sounds half-way between Palpatine and the Sith’. When I see that scene it does seem like a voice in transition. I’d lost my voice by Saturday.”

“I like it so much because it’s part of the craziness of making a movie. George said ‘if you need a line just say, but whatever you do don’t stop’. That should be the motto for making a ‘Star Wars’ movie. It did allow us both as actors to really engage and it’s when the emperor is at his most evilly seductive. The fact that the most evil person in the history of the world is interested in the arts also greatly amused me but I don’t think he was paying particularly close attention to the squid ballet in front of him!”

The ‘Star Wars Celebration Europe’ takes place at Messe Essen in Germany from July 26-28.