Emperor Palpatine actor was done with ‘Star Wars.’ Then J.J. Abrams called

Ian McDiarmid poses with a Palpatine cosplayer at 'The Rise of Skywalker' world premiere
Ian McDiarmid, right, poses with a Palpatine cosplayer at “The Rise of Skywalker” world premiere in Los Angeles on Monday.
(Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images )

He thought his days visiting the galaxy far, far away were over.

It’s been 15 years since Scottish actor Ian McDiarmid was last seen in the “Star Wars” film franchise as Emperor Palpatine, a Dark Lord of the Sith who’s considered the most wicked who ever lived in the George Lucas-created world.

McDiarmid had said his goodbyes to the character, as he was seemingly killed off in the 1983 movie “Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi.”

So you can imagine the shock when the actor received a call from J.J. Abrams, writer-director-producer of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” which is due in theaters Dec. 20 and marks the final episode of the Skywalker saga.


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“The three phone calls I’ve had in my life about ‘Star Wars’ have all been amazing,” McDiarmid told The Times at Monday’s “Rise of Skywalker” world premiere at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. “The first one was to meet George [Lucas] all those years ago for ‘Return of the Jedi.’ We met very briefly and he cast me by lunchtime as the emperor of the universe.

“Perhaps the most surprising thing of all ... was to get that call from J.J. saying, ‘We’re thinking of bringing him back. How do you feel about it?’ I said, ‘I feel really good. I bet [the character] doesn’t,’” the Tony- and Olivier Award-winning actor added with a chuckle.

“As you see, in the movie, he’s fairly physically impaired, but his mind is as sharp as ever.”

Ian McDiarmid and Mark Hamill with R2D2 for world premiere of 'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker'
Ian McDiarmid, left, is one of several returning actors in “The Rise of Skywalker,” including Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. Jimmy Vee will again voice R2-D2.
(Charley Gallay / Getty Images)

Abrams explained on the blue carpet, beneath Disney’s re-creation of a starlit sky, that talk of bringing Palpatine back into the story began while the filmmaker was working on “The Force Awakens.”

Once he and his “Rise of Skywalker” co-writer Chris Terrio decided to go in that direction, they couldn’t imagine doing it without McDiarmid.


“One of the best voices ever,” Abrams said of McDiarmid’s signature sinister tone. “His voice is spectacular. Being able to hear him not just speaking but projected in the soundstage was fantastic. He’s incredible in the movie.”

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McDiarmid talked to The Times about working on the film with Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) and Daisy Ridley (Rey) and how it felt to walk back on a “Star Wars” set.

How did it feel when you first returned for “Episode IX”?

It was a very exciting day the first day because it was completely secret. Everything was a surprise. A lot of people in the studio didn’t even know I was in it.

Did you know what you’d be doing?

No, and the first thing I had to do — not everybody has a script — was when my voice was off screen, as Kylo Ren was coming into my lair. So I had this microphone that we called the “God mic.” Yes, it means it sounds like God and everyone can hear it in the recording studio in this vast soundstage.


So everyone there heard my voice come back after all that time and it was a great moment. And then later on they saw the appearance — after they’d recovered from fainting.

Did you have chills hearing your Emperor Palpatine voice again like that?

Yes, I did. It was impossible not to, really.

Cast and creators of 'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker' stand onstage before the world premiere audience in Hollywood.
The cast and creators of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” stand on stage before the world premiere audience in Hollywood on Monday night.
(Jesse Grant / Getty Images)

Did you get to interact with any other returning actors, like Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) or Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian)?

No, I don’t want to spoil it for people, but I saw two of the actors. When the trailer was revealed and I came on very briefly, and it was fairly clear I might be involved in some way, none of the actors knew, so their jaws dropped, same as all the fans.

How would you describe interacting with Adam Driver in the recording studio?


We had a couple of scenes. I wish they had been longer. I wish we had more time. I love working with him. He’s a wonderful actor. He has, of the many actors I’ve worked with, the most extraordinary concentration on set. But the minute we stop filming, he’s charming and we can talk about other things, but his concentration is electric.

Any thoughts you can share about interacting with Daisy Ridley as Rey?

She’s completely different and just as exciting to work with. In lots of ways, she’s wacky and entirely serious, but you know between takes she might sing a song or two. She should do musicals! She sings very well. That’s her way. She’s a joy to work with, actually.

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In one or two words, how would you describe your appearance in “The Rise of Skywalker”?

Grotesque. That one word will do, I think. It’s sort of hideous Sidious.

What does it mean to you to be back in the franchise now?

Well, I’m astonished to be back for the third time, really. But it’s great to be involved in it precisely because it is the last film of this particular saga.


And the emperor then has a journey that is longer than most people, including me, would have suspected.