Emperor Palpatine is only a few steps removed from Satan himself in terms of absolute evil. But because of Ian McDiarmid, he never comes off as a dry figure. McDiarmid, a stage actor by trade, always performs Palpatine at the high register required by “Star Wars.”
In the earliest iteration of his role as the antagonist in “Return of the Jedi,” McDiarmid’s face was covered with makeup. Palpatine’s design had two effects: first, it disguised the fact that an actor in his twenties was portraying the decrepit old man, making the Emperor appear less than fully human.
McDiarmid was only 37 years old when he was first chosen to play Palpatine, so you read that right. McDiarmid is only seven years older than Mark Hamill and two years younger than Harrison Ford, which puts things into perspective. When compared to Sebastian Shaw, who played the unmasked Darth Vader and was 78 at the time “Jedi” was released in 1983, McDiarmid was likewise noticeably younger. Why was a young actor chosen to play a figure who was so old? In person, McDiarmid related the story during the 2022 “Star Wars” Celebration.
When it comes to pure evil, Emperor Palpatine is just a few degrees off from Satan himself. Yet he’s never a dry character thanks to Ian McDiarmid. A stage actor by trade, McDiarmid always plays Palpatine at the heightened register “Star Wars” demands.
When he first played the villain in “Return of the Jedi,” McDiarmid’s face was concealed behind makeup. The impact of Palpatine’s design was two-fold: his devious, wrinkled appearance made the Emperor look not quite human, and it concealed that this decrepit old man was actually being played by an actor in his thirties.
Yes, you read that right; McDiarmid was only 37 when he was first cast to play Palpatine. To add some perspective, McDiarmid is only seven years older than Mark Hamill and is two years younger than Harrison Ford. McDiarmid was also positively spry compared to Sebastian Shaw, who played the unmasked Darth Vader and was 78 when “Jedi” was released in 1983. Why was such a young actor selected for such an old character? McDiarmid recounted the tale himself at the 2022 “Star Wars” Celebration.
McDiarmid claims that his most well-known movie part is a result of Mary Selway’s casting work on “Return of the Jedi.” According to McDiarmid:
“I was portraying the elderly, aged Howard Hughes in a play that the legendary Mary Selway had watched. In the great Sam Shepard’s play “Seduced,” he was referred to as Henry Hackamore and was a fabrication of Howard Hughes. In a studio theatre that was much smaller than this, too. She then informed George that “this guy,” who is only 37 years old, “is probably going to be convincing as this ancient person, you know, 120.””
McDiarmid noted how, after landing the role, he was somewhat shocked by how repulsive Palpatine’s design was. Nick Duckman, a makeup artist, was applying latex on his face as he sat in a chair “I was aware that he would be old, but I had no idea that he would also be really repulsive and resemble the worst snake you have ever seen. That’s excellent, I thought, but I’ll need to find a voice to go with it.”
McDiarmid has previously claimed that George Lucas and the film’s director Richard Marquand first intended him to mimic Clive Revill, who provided the distant monotone of the Emperor in “The Empire Strikes Back.” “Having seen that makeup, which Clive never had the honour of performing or being in, I think the voice shouldn’t be like that; I think it should be something deeper, more sepulchral,” said McDiarmid, in opposition.
Thankfully, McDiarmid’s gut feeling won out. Due in large part to the contrast between his Palpatine voice and the actor’s own soft, smooth, and very British voice, which was like to the raspy growl of a demon, this voice helped to complete the image that McDiarmid was an elderly man.
Age catches up
Palpatine’s young casting turned out well in the end. McDiarmid was 53 years old when “The Phantom Menace” was filmed in 1997, making him the ideal age to portray the middle-aged Palpatine without any makeup. McDiarmid, though, said that he hadn’t anticipated this outcome. Before “Revenge of the Sith,” McDiarmid remembered:
“There was a story that George Lucas had nine movies in his head while we were filming “Return of the Jedi”… I never in a million years imagined that I would be a part of that since I assumed that he would choose a lot younger actor in that case.”
Obviously, Lucas had not intended for that to happen. The future Emperor and Dark Lord of the Sith, Palpatine was presented to McDiarmid by Lucas as having two distinct roles: the public face of a nice politician and Palpatine’s true personality. McDiarmid had already shown himself in the latter, but it’s not unexpected that he was equally adept at disguising himself throughout the trilogy. When I watch McDiarmid give interviews, he exudes charm and class.
McDiarmid’s performance as Senator/Chancellor Palpatine required very little acting, whereas Darth Sidious must have bit his tongue to be so gentle.
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