How 37-Year Old Ian McDiarmid Landed The Role Of Wrinkly, Old Emperor Palpatine

When it comes to pure evil, Emperor Palpatine is just a few degrees off from Satan himself. Yet he's never a dry character thanks to Ian McDiarmid. A stage actor by trade, McDiarmid always plays Palpatine at the heightened register "Star Wars" demands.

When he first played the villain in "Return of the Jedi," McDiarmid's face was concealed behind makeup. The impact of Palpatine's design was two-fold: his devious, wrinkled appearance made the Emperor look not quite human, and it concealed that this decrepit old man was actually being played by an actor in his thirties.

Yes, you read that right; McDiarmid was only 37 when he was first cast to play Palpatine. To add some perspective, McDiarmid is only seven years older than Mark Hamill and is two years younger than Harrison Ford. McDiarmid was also positively spry compared to Sebastian Shaw, who played the unmasked Darth Vader and was 78 when "Jedi" was released in 1983. Why was such a young actor selected for such an old character? McDiarmid recounted the tale himself at the 2022 "Star Wars" Celebration.

McDiarmid explains

According to McDiarmid, he has Mary Selway, the casting director on "Return of the Jedi," to thank for his most famous film role. McDiarmid explained:

"The great Mary Selway had seen me in a play, playing the aging, aged Howard Hughes. Well, a creation of Howard Hughes, he was called Henry Hackamore in the great Sam Shepard's play 'Seduced.' And it was in a studio theater much smaller than this. And so she said to George, 'This guy, he's relatively young, 37, who's probably going to be convincing as this old person, you know, 120.'"

McDiarmid recalled how once he got the part, he was a bit taken aback by just how repellant Palpatine's design was. Sitting in a makeup chair as latex was applied to his face by makeup artist Nick Duckman, he thought, "I knew he was going to be old, but I didn't know he was gonna be completely hideous and look like the worst reptile you've ever seen in your life. But then I thought 'that's great' and I'd have to find a voice that goes with it."

McDiarmid has said in the past that George Lucas and director Richard Marquand initially wanted him to imitate Clive Revill, who had voiced the Emperor in "The Empire Strikes Back" with a distant monotone. However, McDiarmid disagreed, "Having seen that makeup, that Clive never had the privilege of doing or being in, I think the voice shouldn't be like that, I think it should be something deeper, more sepulchral."

Thankfully, McDiarmid's instinct prevailed. His Palpatine voice, akin to the raspy growl of a demon, completed the illusion of McDiarmid as an old man, especially due to how different it was from the actor's own soft, smooth, and very British voice.

Age catches up

Casting Palpatine so young worked out in the long run. When "The Phantom Menace" was shot in 1997, McDiarmid was now 53, the perfect age to play the middle-aged Palpatine sans makeup. However, according to McDiarmid himself, he hadn't expected this would be the case. In the run-up to "Revenge of the Sith," McDiarmid recalled:

"When we were doing 'Return of the Jedi' there was a rumor that George Lucas had nine films in his head ... It never occurred to me in a million years that I would be involved in that, because I thought, 'oh well, then he'll get a much younger actor.'"

Obviously, that turned out not to be Lucas' plan. McDiarmid further mentioned how Lucas pitched prequel-era Palpatine to him as two roles: the public face of a kindly politician, and Palpatine's true self, the Dark Lord of the Sith and future Emperor. McDiarmid had already proven himself in the latter, but across the trilogy, he was just as good disguised, and it's not surprising. Watching McDiarmid in interviews, he radiates gentlemanly charm. 

While Darth Sidious must have bitten his tongue to be so kind, McDiarmid barely had to act at all as Senator/Chancellor Palpatine.