INTERVIEW: Star Wars Emperor Ian McDiarmid trades his lightsaber in and treads the boards in Chichester

He enthralled millions as the villainous Palpatine in Star Wars but Ian McDiarmid is now at the other end of the acting spectrum on stage in Chichester.

Star Wars actor Ian McDiarmid was just five years old when the amazing world of live entertainment caught him in its grip.

Ian, known to millions as Palpatine in both the original and prequel Star Wars trilogies, was taken by his father to a variety show in Dundee where he was brought up.

"I saw a comedian called Tommy Morgan who had a variety bill, jugglers, ventriloquists, and it was an extraordinary world to me.

"Because my father knew the stage manager, I got to go backstage. I got to see these people in make-up which was just extraordinary to see. But the question that I most wanted answering was how did the dancers, when they hit the stage, make that zing noise.

"Of course, it wasn't them. It was the orchestra. I didn't realise that there was an orchestra. But for me, afterwards it was like a scientific experiment working out all that was going on."

And in a sense, it's an experiment he is continuing in Chichester this summer where he is appearing in a new version, by Rupert Goold and Ben Power, of Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters In Search Of An Author.

It's a play very much about the relationship between reality and fiction, or more specifically the fact that each person's perceived reality can only ever be a version of what's out there.

For Ian, who plays The Father, the script, sent to him by Rupert, hit the spot: "I am a big admirer of Pirandello. When I ran the Almeida (theatre), we did two Pirandello productions, and two years ago at the Donmar I did Pirandello's Henry IV.

"I have always been fascinated by his Six Characters and always thought it was very much a play of its time. It must have been sensational then. I have seen a seen quite a few productions, but I felt that it was just one of those plays that you couldn't revive in a really exciting way - until I saw Rupert's script.

"Rupert is trying to do what you need to do with all classics. He is trying to reinvent it and make it as exciting now as it must have been back then."

The great thing about the adaptation is that while it is obviously free with the text, it is very true to the spirit of the original.

"And by setting the play in this rather interesting world of filming a docudrama (rather than setting it in the original's theatrical room), it really puts the debate about what is real and what is fiction very much centre-stage."

The first scene is usually a group of self-indulgent actors turning up to rehearse; Rupert gives them a new context by having them arrive during the making of a drama documentary about euthanasia.

The first production sparked a riot with its deliberate reaction against a certain type of drama; and while Ian certainly wasn't hoping for riots in Chichester, the aim remains to offer something unsettling - too unsettling for the lady who clattered out of the audience the other night.

Ian takes the view that that's fair enough - except insofar as it damaged other people's enjoyment. It is supposed to be a provocative piece.

To Ian falls the part of The Father. As he says, the challenge is to play a character who is at once a deeply-troubled family man and a man with some serious existential questions he wants answered.

Just what he's about, of course, isn't for Ian to say: "All of the characters are supposed to be in a regular state of uncertainty. When he is in pain and anguish, I play that as painfully as I can, but you think is it real or is it manipulating? And I don't really have definite answers to that one!"

Six Characters In Search Of An Author, Chichester's Minerva Theatre, until August 23.

Playing the villan

For a dozen years Ian successfully ran the Alemeida Theatre with Jonathan Kent, having been told at first that they would probably last just three months.

It was during this time that he returned to Star Wars when the second trilogy was made.

After a minor part in the film Dragonslayer, Ian had been cast by Star Wars creator George Lucas in Return Of The Jedi as Emperor Palpatine, the principal villain.

Sixteen years later, he reprised the role as a younger Senator and Chancellor in the three prequel films, kicking off with The Phantom Menace.

Their success is relatively easy to explain, Ian believes: "It's a very good story and it is very cleverly told. It's an archetypal story which George had made his own. He would be the first to admit it.

"George thought that children would like it and that adults might like it. He had a feeling for it, but obviously didn't know that it would become a world phenomenon."

Films one, two and three (the more recent trilogy) were an enormous risk: "What he didn't know was whether it would appeal to the new generation of fans. He thought one or two things might happen. It might alienate the people that liked the first ones or that a new generation might like it."

In fact, response divided largely down age lines, older people preferring the earlier movies; younger people preferring the more recent ones.

As for Ian, he says it hasn't made a huge difference to his career: "It's a shorthand in a way. But in this country I think a lot of people would have known me before anyway, and there are many distinguished actors that have played villains."