SWCVI: An Hour With Ian McDiarmid

The Emperor visited the Celebration Stage tonight but don’t worry – no one was struck with Force lightning. Of course, Ian McDiarmid did mention that he wouldn’t mind having little bit of that power in life. “Not enough to kill or maim. Just a little in my pinky.”

McDiarmid’s quips and stories were just what we wanted to hear. The line started forming for his panel well before 3pm. I overheard several fans discussing how excited and surprised they were when they found out that the beloved actor was attending Celebration. It was his first time, and he doesn’t usually talk about Star Wars. I even heard one fan talking about chasing him around London to get an autograph on a Senator Palpatine photo… I hope he didn’t actually chase him.

The audience gave McDiarmid a standing ovation when he entered Chapin Theater, and host James Arnold Taylor launched right into talking about the past. The actor sort of fell into the role of Palpatine. It was completely wonderful to hear him discuss how he developed the iconic voice that crawls right under our skins. He said he thought Palpatine looked like a black, slimy toad, and he imagined what sort of voice such a creature would have. He built it from there, and at one point, Steven Spielberg heard him performing the voice and said, “you’re so evil.”

He feels lucky to be involved in the entire Star Wars saga. He ended up with the role in the original trilogy because the actor already cast couldn’t wear the yellow contacts. He was in his early 30s at the time, and it set him up to be the right age for the prequels (yes, even though they traveled backwards through time). I found it funny that McDiarmid didn’t really know that he was playing both Senator Palpatine and Darth Sidious. He thought they were separate characters. Even other actors didn’t know, and Liam Neeson gave him hard time about it at a screening of The Phantom Menace.

He shared several anecdotes, but my favorite was one about the infamous opera scene in Revenge of the Sith. It’s a pivotal point for the character; we see him effectively switch from Palpatine to Sidious. McDiarmid pointed that out and also said there was a lot of dust blowing around the studio that day. The particles he was inhaling caused his voice to be raspy, but Lucas thought it was brilliant and intentional and really showed the transition.

Though he said the script that was written is the one that was spoken , it was in scenes like opera house where he was able to emphasize bits of Palpatine’s backstory. He said it’s “nice to think one day they might be followed up on.” Yes, Emperor, that is a nice thought.

He talked in depth about the different sides of Palpatine and in particular how evil the character truly is. “I am the most evil thing that ever walked.” He said there’s black and white, and Sidious is the blackest of them all. He really explored the voice, and it helped him get to that place. When a fan asked which facet of the character he felt was the most evil, he said the Senator. “I was the most evil when I was playing the Senator and so recognizable as a contemporary politician.”

I was intrigued that McDiarmid specifically mentioned the live action series. It came up while he was discussing the differences between creating the prequels and original trilogy; he mentioned how cost prohibitive digital production could be and that it seemed counterintuitive. He then mentioned that’s why Lucas is holding off on the live action series. It’s just too expensive. Later when a fan asked him if he would be willing to return for such a series, he said that if he’s still alive and Palpatine is in the script that he would really hate to see someone else play him. Interesting.

McDiarmid and Taylor 2

James Arnold Taylor wrapped up the panel with an amazing photo opportunity: he had McDiarmid lay on the Force lightning. I’m sure someone with Photoshop will add the appropriate effects to photos from the evening. I think we certainly gave McDiarmid a warm welcome, and I hope he returns to the convention soon.

Amy Ratcliffe is addicted to Star Wars and writing. You can follow her on Twitter and keep up with all things geeky at her blog.

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