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Speaking With ... Ian McDiarmid 05.04.12

Ian McDiarmid stars 'TimAthens' Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

Ian McDiarmid stars in "Timon of Athens" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

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Updated: May 2, 2012 6:26PM

It’s a long way from the planet Naboo to Athens, Greece. For actor Ian McDiarmid, the journey took seven years.

McDiarmid, known to millions of “Star Wars” fans as the Emperor Palpatine and Darth Sidious (whom we last saw in the 2005 film “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith”), is now at Chicago Shakespeare Theater starring as the title character in William Shakespeare’s “Timon of Athens.” Ironically, both Palpatine and Timon have a few things in common — most notably an ultimately tragic fate.

McDiarmid spoke to the Sun-Times about the worlds of William Shakespeare and George Lucas.

Question: You’re making your Chicago Shakespeare Theater debut with “Timon of Athens.” How did you arrive at this moment in your career?

Ian McDiarmid: I’ve known [Chicago Shakespeare artistic director] Barbara Gaines for years, and she was always inviting me to come to Chicago. Since it’s the 25th anniversary of the company, she and I talked, and I suggested “Timon,” and she said fantastic idea. And here we are.

Q. You and Barbara worked on the adaptation of what’s often called Shakespear’es problematic play.

IM: We had a long lead period, so it was the perfect opportunity to devote a lot of time to it. The play really needs it. Although it’s wonderful, it’s also fractious and odd and a hybrid. In essence he never really finished it. There are certain lines in the plot that confuse the audience, so we aimed to make it all more clear. Nothing radical at all. For example, we clarified Alcibiades’ role and why he leaves Athens. We’ve made it more linear, for example, in terms of the order in which certain characters appear. And it would have been impossible not to set it in contemporary times, because the play is about money an debt and those who lend and those who refuse to borrow and those who have that power. So it’s extraordinarily timely. Some of the lines just ring out and smack you in the face.

Q. You’ve done a tremendous amount of Shakespeare over the years as well as other theater. Do you approach Shakespeare’s plays differently?

IM: Not really. You try to make it the same. You try to approach it collectively as a new text that you have to get to the bottom of. What Shakespeare offers you is the opportunity to enjoy a rhythm in the language. [Laughing] You don’t have to approach it as if he’s some genius god and we can only hope to ascend to his level. There is nothing daunting about Shakespeare, and people should stop feeling that way about it.

Q. I must ask you about “Star Wars.” Would you agree that there’s something ultimately Shakespearean about the saga?

IM: George [Lucas] says it has some kind of arc as a Shakespearean story. It’s a kind of deconstruction of someone, this young Vader who starts out with such tremendous promise and you see him gradually corrupting. In that sense, that trajectory is Shakespearean.

Q. As the black-cloaked Emperor Palpatine, and of course Darth Sidious, you played an incredible villain. Is it more fun to be the bad guy?

IM: I just like to play a variety of the human spectrum. It was enormous fun because I came to know him in stages just as the audiences did, as George didn’t give very much away, of course. I turned out to be even more evil than Darth Vader. And since I portrayed the elderly Palpatine when I was in my 30s appearing to be so very old thanks to the use of many prosthetics and makeup, George was able to cast me many years later in the prequel trilogy so I could now play him as a young senator and chancellor. That was never in George’s mind when he cast me in “Return of the Jedi” because I was a very last-minute choice. It just worked out that way.

Q. Which “Star Wars” film is your favorite?

IM: “The Revenge of the Sith,” because [Palpatine] comes into his black, evil own.

Q. So political power ultimately corrupts?

IM: Well, the notion of a phony democracy runs throughout the “Star Wars” saga. Everyone’s promising peace and the right to vote and all the rest of it, while using the rhetoric to shore up their own desires for ultimate power. Absolute power ultimately destroys you. You surrender to hubris. Choose your world leader — with very few exceptions, it’s still valid today.

Q. What would Emperor Palpatine say to Timon if they met at a cocktail party?

IM: What’s your poison?

Q. What advice would he give Timon about life?

IM: Get one!

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