Darth Vader's Boss

Randy & Jean-Marc Lofficier
May 1984
Starlog #82

It is common knowledge that London is the home of the Queen of England. It's also the home of another royal figure -- the Emperor of the Star Wars Universe. Ian McDiarmid, the Scottish-born actor who portrayed Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi and returns for The Phantom Menace as Senator Palpatine, has had a distinguished stage career concentrated in London's West End theater district. His other screen roles include The Awakening, Dragonslayer, Richard's Things and Gorky Park.

But acting was not McDiarmid's first career choice. "I started off intending to be a clinical psychologist," he explains, laughing. "I studied for over three years at St. Andrews University in Scotland, where I was born. In my third year, I realized that clinical psychology wasn't what I wanted to do at all. I wanted to act."

"I worked for a year before I could begin to pay my way through drama school. Eventually, I went to the Royal Scottish Academy of Dramatic Art and I worked in various repertory theatres in England and Scotland. Progress led me to the Royal Shakespeare Company, and later I got into movies."

Although Industrial Light & Magic executed effects for Dragonslayer, it wasn't that fantasy film which prompted Lucasfilm to seek out McDiarmid for Star Wars. "One day, I got a phone call. Someone said they were looking for an actor to play the Emperor of the Universe. They thought of me, because the film's casting director had seen me as Howard Hughes in Seduced, a play by Sam Shepard. In it, I played an older part under a lot of makeup. At the time, they were looking for someone who was a bit younger to play someone older because the special effects and makeup were rather strenuous."

An actor's face is his trademark, yet McDiarmid wasn't bothered by the idea of playing a pivotal role with his face virtually unrecognizable. "The makeup was very carefully explained to me. In fact, it was in photos of the Emperor from The Empire Strikes Back, which wasn't me," he explains. "That Emperor was a combination of things -- an old New York actress, some mask materials and Clive Revill's voice, not mine. Since I had seen that [film], I knew roughly what the Emperor would look like. They had shown me the drawings, too. George Lucas assured me that I could keep my mouth and nose -- they're fairly distinguishing features, which quite pleased me. He also said my eyes would be mine, but they would change the color.

"All these things helped me suggest a person other than someone who just ran things. They gave the character an added dimension, which is what I was really looking forward to in playing the part."

Besides portraying the Emperor, McDiarmid also had a hand in the creating of his screen presence. "The script was there, of course, a very tight, very good script by Larry Kasdan and George," he says. "You wouldn't have wanted to change the script. And the film's scheduling was so precise that there wasn't too much leeway. But, within that, I had complete freedom to create the character. I found the voice, which was a deepening of my own, and this slightly humorous interpretation. What was most interesting was to try and get a hold of the satanic side in a broad, simple way. I thought: 'My task is to go one step beyond Vader, and see how black and uncompromising I can be.'

"Of course, if you're playing a part like the Emperor of the Universe, even if it's only for a few weeks, you can't lose. I had the people all around me making certain that I was as comfortable as possible. I was handed drinks with straws, I had an oculist to put in my lenses. All these things actually help you feel like an Emperor, because emperors are served."

Despite his creative input, the actor didn't assemble a background for the character. "I didn't think it would be particularly helpful," he laments, "especially since George was going to give me absolutely no clues whatsoever as to how this man had gained this position of leader. I'm sure he knows, but he isn't going to give the saga away. So, I was just given the script to work from. Of course, I had seen the other two movies, so I knew their continuity."

Not only did McDiarmid remain unaware of the Emperor's past (which we moviegoers will glimpse in The Phantom Menace), but he did not always know everything about his present. The actor explains: "I only received my section of the film, which is unusual. Normally, you get a full script, but it was George's intention that no one know what happened. For example, he very much wanted to protect Vader's story. If these secrets had gotten out, the surprise would have faded.

"We were on the set one day, when Richard Marquand [the director] asked, 'Would you run through these lines for me before we shoot?' I said, 'Which lines?' He said, 'You know,' and pointed them out to me. I had never seen them before. That's because I had gotten the wrong script.

"The making of a Star Wars film is extraordinarily secret, I thought I was working for the British Secret Service. I had to sign a document, which was like the Official Secrets Act. Once again, that helped the mystique, but it meant I could talk about the film to no one -- not that I particularly wanted to talk about it. I think it's wonderful that the secrets should be revealed to people only when they see the movie."

Due to the technical complexity of mixing the film's soundtrack, McDiarmid knew from the beginning that he would have to return to "loop" (re-dub) his Jedi dialogue. Although his natural voice is at a higher pitch than the Emperor's, the tone was not changed electronically. "They added things, like echoes and reverb, on top, and, of course, it's in a multi-track stereo. But they didn't do anything with its natural timbre. It was I who dropped my voice down to what comes out on screen," he reveals. "I spent a great deal of time working on that.

"Because I knew it would have to be done again in dubbing, I practiced. I also listened to Clive Revill's voice from the previous movie. While I was allowed my own interpretation, if I had chosen a pitch different from his, people would have felt that something was wrong. They might have required an explanation, like, 'Did the Emperor have a throat operation?' So, I had to get in the rough area of his voice. I listened to a tape of Clive, got my voice in the same vicinity and added my own stuff."

McDiarmid also spent many hours having his appearance "enhanced." He smiles. "It took four hours to do my face. I managed to get up at 3:30 a.m. to get myself ready. Normally, you must go to bed at 6 p.m. or something so you can look your best. George told me, joking, 'Now I want you to go to bed as late as possible, so you can wake up and look your worst.' So, I did. I would crawl down to the car, and then go to the studio. Nick Dudman, who designed my makeup with Stuart Freeborn, would take over, and I would just lie there. I didn't have to cooperate very much as they pulled my face about.

"First, they stretched my face, covering it with gunk. The, they added the latex, then, the rubber pieces and various other bits. Meanwhile, another artist would be working on my hands, doing the same thing. Then, they put in the contact lenses. I didn't have to worry about my hair, because I wore a cowl and a rubber dome over my forehead. At the time, I had very long hair because of another role, so I tied it in a ribbon."

Unfortunately, simply enduring the four-hour makeup session didn't mean McDiarmid would get a chance to act. "Always, on movies, there's a great deal of waiting," he says, "because of the set-ups, things that go wrong, things that have to be changed. I had to be ready by 8 a.m. regardless. Some days, I wasn't used at all and I would just sit in my dressing room. I couldn't even go on the set and watch. I could read, because they could take the lenses in and out.

"Eating was more difficult. It wasn't everything through a straw. Nick would say, 'You can chew a bit and I'll retouch later.' but that was difficult, because if the rubber around my mouth had worked loose, it would have taken Nick an hour to fix, and they might have wanted me on the set immediately.

"So I just sat in my room, surrounded by mirrors. I saw this creature staring at me, and I did, I'm afraid, spend a great deal of time just looking at this thing that we had all created, the Emperor. Seeing myself in that way was fascinating, though it sounds very narcissistic to say so. A bit of the face was me -- my nose, my mouth, my eyes -- but it looked very different. I thought, 'If I ever live to be 150 years old, this is how I'll look.' The makeup was entirely based on the aging process, not jokes or fantasy. That's the way the face goes, the way everything sinks and drops."

McDiarmid's first day on the Jedi set introduced him as the master of all he surveyed in a truly royal way. "The first scene we shot was the hangar, where I come down from a ramp to meet Vader," he recalls. "That's one of the biggest studios in Europe, and I hadn't been in it before. A friend of mine, Michael Pennington, who plays one of Vader's lieutenants, was there. I walked into this room, in makeup for the first time, my eyes slightly hurting, trying hard to adjust to what was happening. I saw what looked like 3,000 people -- I don't know how many there were, but they weren't painted on! -- and I said to Michael, who was standing next to Vader, 'You didn't tell me! I thought it was going to be a quiet party, just the three of us!'

"There wasn't much time that day, because it was very expensive with all those extra people around, and there were some shots that had to be done. All I had to do was walk down the ramp. I was taken up to this high scaffold, and they said they would do one rehearsal. They pointed me in the right direction and suddenly there was steam and smoke, the ramp shot down, and all these people in red and black preceded me. Then there was a voice, 'Cue Emperor,' and down I hobbled.

It was an extraordinary first day on a movie. Doing it was a fantasy for me. As a kid, I had always wanted to play villains -- they're always the most interesting characters. But I had never imagined I would play one of the villains of all time!"

As with his past films, McDiarmid had certain physically demanding scenes in Jedi. "I had to come back to do some reshooting on my 'death,'" the actor notes. "The precise moment when the dummy takes over and it's no longer me was very difficult to do. I was on a harness and had to be lifted up by Darth Vader. Once, he let me go and I went spinning around his head. I think they were rather sorry they hadn't filmed that incident. The scene took a while, and George supervised it himself, because it was mainly a technical thing. I spent about three days being jerked on a wire. There weren't any other stunts I had to do."

Participating in a modern motion picture legend was another. "I suppose it was very awe-inspiring," McDiarmid comments, "but everyone was so wonderful. I had see the movies and, along with everyone else, thought they were great. But to actually know I would be in one, playing the part that had been discussed throughout the series! I went to see The Empire Strikes Back with the kids one afternoon before I started shooting. When they referred to the Emperor, I thought, 'That's me!'

"I have a great admiration for George Lucas. I like him as a person. He's very serious and gentle. These films are very well-intentionned. All right, they make tremendous amounts of money and appeal to kids, but they say good things, and they say them in a broad way. I believe in the Star Wars films."

A good working relationship with his fellow actors and director Marquand also eased McDiarmid into this new universe. "Mark Hamill is such a good actor! It was absolutely no problem to work with him," he reports. "We had a complete rapport on and off screen. So, all those initial fears of joining the series were overcome. Usually, that's what makes people act better, the person with whom they're acting.

"I had known Richard Marquand vaguely before Jedi. He trained in the theater. He was very good with actors. So, we had George on one side, reminding us of the story's stength and looking after the technical details, and Richard with his understanding of actors on the other. It was ideal. I don't think I've had a happier time on a movie.

"One of the most difficult things about this film was reacting to Dave Prowse in the Darth Vader costume. Not only was Dave's voice markedly different from James Earl Jones', but so is his speech rhythm. Richard would say, 'I think you have to imagine that Vader will take longer to say that line.' I had to learn Dave's dialogue as well as mine. Dave would do his lines, and having seen the other two films, I would imagine how they would sound in the finished film."

Although Return of the Jedi is now part of the Star Wars legend, Ian McDiarmid relates a story of how he vied to impress some young friends. "I saw [Jedi] with some four-year-old children who I know. They wouldn't believe that I was the Emperor of the Universe," the actor says. "It was very frustrating, because that was all that I was allowed to tell them. I said, 'I'm Darth Vader's boss,' but they would not have any of it.

"I took them to the first preview and they sat there. For a while, they were convinced it wasn't true, so that was no problem. I had just been selling them a bill of goods. Then, halfway through the movie, they realized it must be true.

"At the end they sat there looking stunned and wouldn't speak to me. They wouldn't come near me! I think they felt that I had been masquerading all these years. This flesh and blood that you see before you was not the real thing -- it was some reincarnation I call up to come down and do terrible things on Earth!"