5 little-known facts about Emperor Palpatine actor Ian McDiarmid

HOLLYWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 16: Ian McDiarmid arrives for the Premiere Of Disney's "Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker" held at The Dolby Theatre on December 16, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 16: Ian McDiarmid arrives for the Premiere Of Disney's "Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker" held at The Dolby Theatre on December 16, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images) /

Though Darth Vader may be the most famous villain in all of Star Wars, the true villain of the nine-chapter saga is Emperor Palpatine, the evil senator turned emperor who was responsible for the downfall of the Republic. Palpatine was played by stage actor Ian McDiarmid, who first played the role in 1983 before reprising it for all three chapters of the prequel trilogy and then one more time in Episode IX in 2019.

Here are five little-known facts about the man behind the Emperor.

1. He’s a prolific stage actor and has won both a Tony Award and an Olivier Award

Though he may be best known for his work in Star Wars, most of his career was on the stage. Performing Shakespeare in the British theater as early as 1972, McDiarmid has received numerous awards for his stage performances including a Tony, the award given for work on Broadway, and an Olivier Award, the British equivalent to the Tony that is given for work in British theater. He won his Olivier in 1982 for his role in the play Insignificance and his Tony award was for his role in Faith Healer in 2006.

2. He never intended to be a film actor

Ian McDiarmid always thought of himself as a stage actor and never thought he would be an actor in movies. Before his work in Star Wars, he had only been in a small handful of movies and had always had very small roles. His only work in American film before Star Wars was a role in the 1981 movie Dragonslayer. Even after his success with Star Wars, McDiarmid mostly stuck to theater work, only appearing in three movies in the 16 years between Return of the Jedi in 1983 and The Phantom Menace in 1999.

3. He didn’t audition to play Emperor Palpatine

The casting director for Return of the Jedi approached McDiarmid about playing the Emperor after seeing him in a performance of the play Seduced, where he played a dying Howard Hughes. Despite only being in his 30s at the time, McDiarmid’s performance as the older Hughes convinced the casting director that he was the right actor to portray the ancient Emperor Palpatine in the movie. Once it was clear that the makeup department would be able to convincingly make the 37-year-old actor appear old and wrinkled in the close-up scenes, McDiarmid was offered the part.

4. He studied fencing to prepare for Revenge of the Sith

Though McDiarmid had portrayed the Sith Lord in Return of the Jedi as well as the two earlier prequels, Revenge of the Sith was the first time that McDiarmid ever wielded a lightsaber as the character. The now 60-year-old actor prepared for his first combat scenes in the saga by taking fencing lessons along with his other co-stars, who would have lightsaber fights in the movie. McDiarmid ended up performing all of the closeup and non-acrobatic sequences for his lightsaber duel with Mace Windu, though the most extreme stunts in the fight were still handled by a trio of stunt doubles for the character.

5. He appears in at least two movies in every Star Wars trilogy

Now that the Skywalker saga is complete, it’s clear that the Emperor was the main villain of the nine-film saga, but some people are still surprised by how often the character actually appears in the movies. While everybody knows that McDiarmid appears in all three episodes of the prequel trilogy, he is actually credited with work in two movies for both the original trilogy and the sequel trilogy.

For the original trilogy, he is clearly in Return of the Jedi a great deal, but he is also in The Empire Strikes Back thanks to the DVD edition of the movie that was released in 2004. For that release of the movie, McDiarmid reprised the role of the Emperor to reshoot a scene between the Emperor and Darth Vader, with slightly altered dialogue in order to create better continuity between the prequel and original trilogies.

For the sequel trilogy, again, McDiarmid’s involvement in the third movie is obvious, but he also appeared in The Force Awakens. That’s thanks to archival recordings of the actor being used during Rey’s vision after finding Luke’s lost lightsaber — meaning that A New Hope and The Last Jedi are the only two movies in the Skywalker saga where Ian McDiarmid doesn’t appear in any way.

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