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The secret behind the voice of Star Wars' Emperor Palpatine, according to Ian McDiarmid himself

"He looks disgusting, so I thought he should sound disgusting" said the Return of the Jedi actor

The Emperor
Image credit: Lucasfilm

The Emperor is, it turns out, a sick man in more ways than one.

Speaking at the 40 Years of Return of the Jedi panel Saturday afternoon at Star Wars Celebration Europe 2023 — a retrospective panel that featured appearances from Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Warwick Davis (Wicket), and Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian), amongst others — actor Ian McDiarmid entertained fans by talking about his experience playing Palpatine in three different periods of his career… and at significantly different ages each time, as well.

“It’s incredibly confusing, because I was just a kid when I was playing this 120 year old, and then I went back to being my own age… which was particularly terrifying,” McDiarmid jokes (He first played Palpatine when he was The Emperor in 1983’s Return of the Jedi, and then again in the Prequel Trilogy from 1999 through 2006… where Palpatine was canonically 30 years younger. “And then I turned out not to be dead, to many people’s surprise, especially my own,” he added laughing, referring to Palpatine’s surprise resurrection in 2019’s Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

Asked by panel moderator Ming-Na Wen about the origins of the distinctive voice of Palpatine, especially in his Emperor form, McDiarmid offered an unexpected, but entirely logical, inspiration — the sound of someone sounding as if they’re going to be sick.

“Well, he looks disgusting, so I thought he should sound disgusting,” the actor explains, dramatically performing such a sound for the crowd as it slowly morphed into the way the Emperor speaks. “To put it crudely, it was a voice on the vomit,” he added.

Next time you think of the Emperor doing something particularly evil or cruel — like, say, ordering the eradication of the Jedi Order — just comfort yourself with the thought that, as soon as the scene ended, it’s very possible that he was immediately puking his guts out, so ashamed he was by what he was doing.

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Graeme McMillan

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Popverse staff writer Graeme McMillan (he/him) has been writing about comics, culture, and comics culture on the internet for close to two decades at this point, which is terrifying to admit. He completely understands if you have problems understanding his accent.