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The Emperor grabs the spotlight in ‘Sith’

Ian McDiarmid finds himself center stage in this ‘Star Wars’ prequel
/ Source: The Associated Press

So who is this Scottish despot Ian McDiarmid, and why does he have it in for the Skywalker boys?

For 22 years, McDiarmid has been the man behind the curtain, the real cloaked villain of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” saga.

Now, the esteemed veteran of British theater steps to center stage with “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” as he pitilessly manipulates young malcontent Anakin Skywalker to become the strong arm of galactic oppression, Darth Vader.

McDiarmid originated the role of the prune-faced emperor in 1983’s “Return of the Jedi” and has been re-creating the character with the current prequel trilogy. After presenting the character as a seemingly honorable politician with a hidden agenda in “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones,” McDiarmid moves him into the full stink of evil in “Revenge of the Sith.”

Biding his time“What’s intriguing about it is I get to do more as the character moves toward the center of the movie,” McDiarmid, 60, told The Associated Press in an interview at Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch. “And it’s bright of George to keep him in the background for the first two, really. And also, that’s the way man operates. He’s on the periphery, and then when the time’s right, he makes his bid.”

That also could describe McDiarmid’s slow advance to the forefront of Hollywood’s biggest science-fiction franchise. With only a few film and TV credits at the time, McDiarmid landed the small but critical role as the emperor, who is heartlessly ready to sacrifice Vader to turn his son, Luke Skywalker, into an even more powerful henchman.

After “Return of the Jedi” was over, McDiarmid figured his “Star Wars” career also was finished. He returned to the theater, with occasional roles in such movies as “Gorky Park” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”

Then Lucas began the prequel trilogy and brought McDiarmid back as Palpatine, a political opportunist who gradually reveals his darker side. Along with chronicling Anakin’s transformation, “Revenge of the Sith” explains how Palpatine took on the emperor’s gnarly face and froggy voice, which McDiarmid developed while rehearsing for “Return of the Jedi.”

“He did look like a terrible little toad, and he needed a voice to match the face,” McDiarmid said. “So I thought it should be somewhere half in the glottal, like toads, but deeper as well. I thought of Japanese acting. As it happens, they produce quite a lot of their words from the stomach, and I thought, that’s pretty good. It should come from somewhere deep down inside him. And before I knew it, I was doing it, George liked it, and so we were off.”

The new “Star Wars” movie also puts McDiarmid in the thick of the lightsaber action. The emperor proves he’s not just the idea man; he occasionally zaps enemies with blue lightning that shoots from his fingertips, showing he’s not above getting his hands dirty in a brawl.

“When I saw fight the expression ‘fight training’ on the initial schedule, I assumed I was going to go and be taught a few falls and things, which I enjoy,” McDiarmid said. “I like falling on stage, to keep the insurance people happy.”

Instead, McDiarmid had to learn intricate dueling moves so he could duke it out with the Jedi masters the emperor seeks to topple.

‘I always was an actor’Discouraged by family and friends who told him acting was an unwise career choice, McDiarmid started out studying psychology in college. Classes did not sit well with him, and he found that, in being the dutiful student, he already was putting on an act.

“It wasn’t that I wanted to be an actor. I think I always was an actor,” said McDiarmid, who grew up in eastern Scotland. “I think it’s sort of something you are rather than something you decide and something you want to become. But frankly, I was too scared to do anything about it.

“But I got to the point when I was doing psychology in a sort of so-so, halfhearted way. I felt, this is mad, I’ve got to have a go at this thing. Otherwise, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.”

A veteran of many Royal Shakespeare Company productions, McDiarmid’s honors include a London’s Critics’ Circle award for “Faith Healer” in 2001. He spent 11 years as joint artistic director of London’s Almeida Theater, stepping down in 2002.

He works under the principle that guides the careers of many actors in Britain, where stage work takes precedence over film: Movies are something you do in between plays.

“The thing about acting on stage is, when the show’s over, it stops, and when the run stops, you’re on to something else. It disappears,” McDiarmid said. “It’s not like other art forms like the movies or paintings. It doesn’t sort of exist independent of your performance, and I love that.

“I’ve never had any interest from a personal point of view in posterity. I like the fact that things disappear all the time, and then new things occur. These movies are there forever, and they’re big, and so many people will see them. But I’m 60. I’ve done a lot. I hope I’ll do a lot more.”

The emperor loves opera?An actor who loves his privacy, McDiarmid went blissfully unrecognized by “Star Wars” fans until he came out from under his emperor makeup for the prequel trilogy. He said he does get approached by fans but that many keep their distance, wondering if the actor might be as malevolent as the emperor he plays.

“And of course, I’m much worse,” McDiarmid said.

Though he does evince a paternal moment or two toward Anakin, the emperor has no redeeming qualities that McDiarmid can see, other than that he may be a culture lover since he attends the opera in “Revenge of the Sith.”

If the emperor is a patron of the arts, McDiarmid is not above a little “Star Wars” manipulation himself if it will help interest people in live theater.

“The best thing about it is when I’m doing a play and people are at the stage door with photographs of me in ‘Star Wars,’ and I say, ‘I won’t sign it unless you’ve seen the play. So prove you’ve seen the play by showing me a ticket stub, or come tomorrow night and bring the program, and then I’ll sign it,”’ McDiarmid said.

“So I’ve been using ‘Star Wars’ mercilessly to sell tickets for the theater, and I’ll continue to do so.”