With Star Wars back in the news, what better time to speak to the man known the world over (or should that be universe?) for playing Emperor Palpatine. Ian McDiarmid gives Mark Kebble his views on the Episode VII, what it means to return to the Almeida and why theatre is in a good place
I really didn’t want to begin my interview with Ian McDiarmid with a reference to Star Wars. Ever since playing Emperor Palpatine for the first time in Return of the Jedi in 1983, this acclaimed and wonderful stage actor must surely have grown tired of answering questions about the ‘dark side’. So I didn’t intend to make a big deal of Star Wars, even if the Emperor terrified me as a kid. And then the Star Wars: Episode VII teaser trailer went viral a day before this interview.
‘Yes I saw it too, it was good wasn’t it,’ Ian says in his distinctive, eloquent accent. ‘It was also good to see the dark side is strong.’ Nearly a decade since we saw Emperor Palpatine’s true colours and Anakin Skywalker transform into Darth Vader in the Star Wars prequels (Episodes I-III, which for non-fans is a little confusing as on screen that followed Episodes IV-VI), JJ Abrams is bringing the world of Jedis and Siths back to life.
Surprising to think it when you see him on screen, but Ian was only 39 when he first played the Emperor in Return of the Jedi. ‘It was great,’ he thinks back 30 years. ‘When I got the part, I didn’t really know what it was. When you were handed scripts, they were missing details, but I did eventually get to know that I was playing the Emperor of the universe, so I thought that couldn’t be bad! The interesting thing was that there was an element of blue screen, but filming took place in these gigantic studio spaces. I was expecting to be in a cupboard!’
Rather than be prickly about the subject, Ian appears more than happy to discuss his part in the mythology, returning for the prequels as his age meant no digital trickery was needed to portray a ‘younger’ Palpatine. But it’s more than evident that stage is Ian’s first love and Star Wars only gets a small look in during this interview, with the primary focus falling on his return to the Almeida Theatre, where he was joint Artistic Director for 12 years along with Jonathan Kent.
Opening on 5 December, Ian plays Shylock in Rupert Goold’s wonderfully inventive take on Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. In this restaging Shylock is a millionaire property owner with a story set in Las Vegas, where the Almeida will be transformed into a world of glitter, gambling and greenbacks. ‘That was a very good idea,’ Ian approves of the restaging, ‘and was one of the reasons I wanted to do it.’
There’s a nice connection in the fact that Ian has worked with Rupert Goold before, and the latter is now juggling the role that Ian enjoyed from 1990-2002. ‘When I heard he had taken the job I was excited – because he’s an exciting director,’ Ian says on Rupert’s appointment as Almeida Theatre Artistic Director. ‘It needs to keep reinventing itself and I knew that he would do that. He’s very similar to Jonathan and I – if you see a production done in one way, then attempt to find something completely different when staging it again.’
Rupert, he feels, encapsulates everything that’s good about theatre at present. Back in 1990, the Almeida Theatre was very much on the fringe, whereas today it’s anything but – and the same has happened elsewhere. ‘Josie [Rourke] is picking up from what Michael [Grandage] created at the Donmar, and it’s what Rupert is doing here [since taking over from Michael Attenborough]. These people are committed to change, taking theatre in a direction they feel strongly about. That’s what excites me.’
You can see exactly what he means with The Merchant of Venice, which has already had a successful run with the RSC. Although that’s at the forefront of his mind now, I just have to ask – will Ian be back in Star Wars: Episode VII? ‘I have no idea and that’s not me being coy,’ he insists. ‘I have been dead for 30 years – when they threw me down that pit, I was told that he was dead! Still, if they go back in time again…’
The Merchant of Venice runs from 5 December-14 February. Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street N1 1TA; 020 7359 4404; almeida.co.uk