The theater’s artistic director at the time was Michael Grandage, who returned to his old playground to direct McDiarmid in Julian Barnes’ The Lemon Table, which the two collaborated on to direct for the first time.
In One Man’s Performance, McDiarmid combines two connected stories that offer sometimes witty reflections on mortality, aging, and the notion of silence. âThe first story has a gig viewer who can’t stand cell phones going off and getting pissed off about it, and he ends up doing something about it. And silence in the second speaks of last year of Sibelius where he struggles with the composer’s blockage to write his 8th symphony that everyone claims. So it’s a different kind of silence.
Award-winning actor Olivier and Tony relishes his return to the stage. âIt’s my big passion,â he says, âit’s the live audience, it’s flesh and blood, with a different audience every night where anything can happen. It will be great to come back to that. “
McDiarmid’s career dates back 50 years and includes lengthy stints with the Royal Shakespeare Company and over a decade as a joint artistic director at London’s Almeida Theater, while his film credits include Sleepy Hollow, Restoration and, well sure, the Star Wars franchise.
He was born in Carnoustie and raised in Dundee, and says the game piqued his interest from an early age. âI remember at school the choir was doing Waltzing Mathilda and there was only part of that, the tramp, and when we were asked to raise our hands if we were interested, I found my hand up and it’s very different from me. A few more hands went up and I thought arrogantly that I could do that a little better, and I got the part.
âAt the same time my uncle took me to see the Scottish Variety Show which featured a great Scottish comic called Tommy Morgan. I was only about six years old and again I was excited about it and I got to meet him afterwards and see him backstage with all his makeup on was a little scary, but very scary, and it got me. fascinated and that’s where I got the virus. ”
Even so, he didn’t become an actor right away. He ‘scratched’ a social science degree before taking the plunge and attending drama school, training at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. âI always felt inside me that this was what I wanted to do. I don’t know why I felt like this, it just seemed like a part of me.
He honed his acting skills on stage at places like the Liverpool Playhouse and the Citizens Theater in Glasgow. But it was his role as the evil Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi that changed the trajectory of his career overnight. âIt was lucky, to be frank,â he says, getting the part.
âMy agent once got a call saying that they, George Lucas and Richard Marquand who directed Return of the Jedi, wanted to see me. So a car came and I met them at lunch time as they were there. already shooting. We had a very short conversation about not much, we didn’t talk about the movie. It was a very nice meeting and I thought ‘it was nice to meet them’. But the phone was ringing when I got home and my agent said âyou got the part.â And I said, ‘well, what’s the part?’ and he said ‘oh, his name is the emperor of the universe.’ And I said, ‘Well, we’ll do it then,’ âhe said.
âMary Selway who was the casting director, a wonderful woman I knew well, had seen me play the aging and decaying Howard Hughes in a Sam Shephard play. I have no proof of that, but I guess it was. she said to George ‘I know this actor, he’s in his thirties and he plays a convincing older character’ and I think that’s what got me the part.
Alec Guinness, who played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original films, wouldn’t have liked to make the films, but McDiarmid embraced his role. âI really loved it, I was delighted. I have to create this character, recreate it and recreate it again if it’s not tautology, âhe says.
âI didn’t know what he looked like until makeup came on. I thought he might have fancy clothes like a Chinese emperor, but not at all, he just had this black dress. At first I was a little disappointed, but later I realized it was a brilliant thing to do because he was just disappearing into his own dark being.
He was also allowed to develop the character himself. “He looked like a slimy toad so I thought I was going to try speaking like a slimy toad.” I had to go back and listen to most of the part and in the room there was Steven Spielberg, as well as George Lucas. I don’t know if he had brought it with him to see if he thought the voice was good enough, but I remember Steven saying âoh my god you’re so meanâ and I thought â it seems to be going well â. So I continued to be mean.
âAnd I was very happy to be in the last movie, which means I was mean in all nine episodes, even the ones I didn’t appear in. So every bad act I’m responsible for and I get a weird kind of feeling of pleasure out of it.
McDiarmid loved working with Lucas, who created Star Wars. âI like Georges a lot. I get along very well with him. He is serious but not intimidating. He is a great figure and a very generous person, although he is discreet about his generosity which is another attractive quality about him.
He’s equally excited about JJ Abrams, who co-wrote and directed two of the final trilogy films. âWhen we first met in secret in London, he told me the outline of the plot. In fact, he practically played the whole movie. He was so enthusiastic, it spilled out of him. So it was a joy.
Some fans questioned the return of Palpatine, who apparently met a sticky ending in Return of the Jedi. âPeople were like, ‘he’s dead, why is he coming back?’ and I said that to JJ and he said, ‘no, it’s the emperor, he always had a plan’. Like Walt Disney, he wanted to live forever.
But if the big screen made him famous, it is the theater that he finds the most attractive. âIt sounds strange, but it’s like communicating with people in the dark and there’s something about it. Laurence Olivier said that âthe theater is above all a matter of the heartâ and I think that is true.
Which brings him back to The Lemon Table. âI hope people will be entertained. Julian’s talent is to interact with people and the main characters didn’t take the stage to confess, that’s what’s interesting about them, they came to assert. “I want you to listen to me because that’s how I feel, and maybe you’ll be able to recognize some of those feelings as well.” And that sums up why I love being on stage.
The Lemon Table, the Crucible Theater, Sheffield, October 26-30. Ticket office: 0114 249 6000. www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk