Ian McDiarmid: ‘As a kid, I always wanted to be the baddie’

<span>Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Ian McDiarmid, 77, has distinguished himself as a theatrical all-rounder. He made his name on stage as an actor of incisive authority and is internationally known as Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars films. Between 1990 and 2002, he ran – with Jonathan Kent – the Almeida theatre in London with tremendous flair. He is touring a one-man show, The Lemon Table – his adaptation of a pair of acerbically funny Julian Barnes stories: one about Sibelius in old age, the other about a sixtysomething concert-goer with zero tolerance for coughers, chatterers and mobile-phone users.

What first drew you to Julian Barnes’s stories?
I recorded The Silence for Radio 3 for an interval in the Proms in 2004 and thought there was dramatic potential in it. I had a nice letter from Julian Barnes encouraging me to think about it more. But it wasn’t until two years ago, pre-pandemic, that I came across the book again at home and hit upon a second story, Vigilance. The attraction was not only that both stories have first-person narratives but that I would not have to alter the words because they’re perfect. Julian has his own music. His words are rhythmic, precise and roll off the tongue. And the stories are funny – I thought there might be a way of combining them on stage. I talked to Michael [Grandage, the show’s co-director with Titas Halder] and he said: let’s see what we can do.

What’s your own worst experience of a mobile phone disrupting a performance?
I’ve not suffered as much as my late friend Richard Griffiths who, in The History Boys, used to stop the action whenever a phone went off. If it went off a second time, he’d tell that member of the audience to leave, saying that that until they did the performance would not continue. I’ve never been that extreme. I also remember Kevin Spacey, when he was in an O’Neill play at the Almeida, saying: “Tell them we’re busy,” before carrying on seamlessly.

The Barnes stories involve a testy resistance to age. What do you see as the most positive thing about getting older?
In old age you know a bit, don’t you? Although sometimes you know less than you think you do… I’m lucky to have a place in north-east Scotland – on the North Sea. It’s very peaceful… the only sounds I hear are birds and the sea. There’s no interruption. It’s bliss. And, fortunately, it’s not completely isolated; people pass with their dogs so I don’t feel completely cut off.

What’s the most troublesome thing about getting older?
As an actor, it’s the dread of losing your memory. The part of the brain that learns lines is, I’m happy to say, different from the part that thinks: “God, where are my keys?” But for many actors of my generation, that part of their brain ceases to function. Michael Gambon has been frank about this: he is an incredible loss to British theatre.

Of all the old men you’ve played who have you most enjoyed?
I remember a casting director saying: Ian will come into his own when he is older… Playing Einstein in Terry Johnson’s Insignificance was particularly enjoyable – involving an imagined relationship with Marilyn Monroe. More recently, I was in Chris Hannan’s What Shadows as Enoch Powell when he had Parkinson’s. That was interesting to do.

Is it important to think about death as one gets older?
We should think about it. Death has been with me most of my life because my mother died when I was very young so I encountered death early – I was 10 and discovered her body and didn’t realise she was dead. It has always been in my mind. In common with everyone else, I’ve had other tragedies. But that was the starting point to my thinking about death.

What does Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars contribute to the subject of ageing?
As he gets older, he gets more destructive. In the last movie he defied death, which was great to play… What’s fascinating is that he never went away from those movies; his ghastly presence ran them. I get a strange satisfaction from that.

What does it take to play a villain?
I’m not sure why playing villains is so satisfying. As a kid, I always wanted to be the baddie. We played Robin Hood and my friends said: “You can be the sheriff,” and I said: “No, I want to be King John because he is worse.”

There is plenty of irascibility in the Barnes stories. Are you irascible?
No, although we’re all angry about certain things. I wish I were less angry about some things.

What riles you most?
The incompetence of contemporary politics.

How optimistic are you about the post-pandemic future of theatre?
It’s tough at the moment. Theatres are doing everything they can to ensure people’s comfort and safety but it’s going to take time, they have lost a lot of revenue.

You must be relieved you are no longer running the Almeida.
Jonathan and I are relieved yet profoundly sympathise.

What do you like to do to relax?
I like to walk near where I live – the scenery is appropriate to Star Wars with black rocks that look like the Fifth Kingdom. When I eventually got my lines, I sat on a rock to learn them and it helped.

There’s much about music in the Barnes stories – what music do you enjoy most?
A wide mixture, including Sibelius – not just to plug the show. Michael [Grandage] and I have a passion for Shostakovich.

You and Michael Grandage are long-term collaborators – is that a luxury in the theatre nowadays?
It is a luxury – because you develop a shorthand over the years. We got to know each other when we were both actors. We have a shared aesthetic and sense of humour.

And could I ask, as it is relevant to Barnes’s stories, about the value of silence?
I am very good at silence. I long for it and now I have it.

The Lemon Table plays Yvonne Arnaud theatre, Guildford, 9-13 Nov; Home, Manchester, 16-20 Nov; Malvern theatres, 23-27 Nov