This December's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will focus primarily on new characters such as Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), but the film has room for some familiar faces as well. Unsurprisingly, famed villain Darth Vader has received most of the publicity; Rogue One will also feature appearances by Rebel Alliance founders Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) and Mon Mothma (Genevieve O'Reilly). Most of these were confirmed late in the movie's development, so fans have been wondering what other classic characters will be in the film.
Since Rogue One deals with the Galactic Civil War, there's always the possibility that Emperor Palpatine shows up to deal with a situation. Some are theorizing that he'll factor into the plot somehow, pointing to a mysterious shot in the first teaser trailer that depicts a cloaked figure bowing to someone (or something) flanked by the Emperor's royal guards. If Palpatine is in the movie, he'll apparently be played by a different actor, as veteran thespian Ian McDiarmid has confirmed he did not take part in the project.
Speaking with XGN, McDiarmid (who portrayed the Emperor in Return of the Jedi and the three prequels), discussed his excitement for Rogue One while stating he wasn't cast in it:
"Rogue One’s on its way, when I was in charge of things – I mean the Emperor, not me. I am not featured in [the movie] myself, but I understand that Darth Vader may be making an appearance."
This doesn't necessarily mean Palpatine will not be in Rogue One at all, but McDiarmid's lack of involvement certainly diminishes the chances of seeing the Emperor. Lucasfilm recasting the role wouldn't make a great deal of sense, given that McDiarmid is still an appropriate age to bring life to the character. It's not like the spinoff is set decades before the events of the prequels, where a younger actor would be required. Additionally, McDiarmid is so distinct and recognizable as Palpatine, that anyone else filling in could come across as a cheap imitation. If Gareth Edwards was planing on incorporating the Emperor, chances are McDiarmid (who remains enthusiastic about Star Wars) would have come back.
Some fans may be disappointed by this development, but it's arguably for the best that Palpatine stays out of the picture. The antagonistic side of Rogue One is covered with new adversary Krennic and Vader. Edwards also has to introduce an entire team of scrappy Rebel fighters looking to steal the Death Star plans, so there might not be any room for the Emperor as it is. It would perhaps be more disappointing if Palpatine showed up and had little to do. Plus, one of the objectives of the anthology films is to flesh out the universe further and not rely too much on what's come before.
There's always the possibility McDiarmid is throwing some misdirection, but odds are if a character as substantial as Palpatine were part of Rogue One, it would have been news by now. It remains to be seen if the Story Group has any future plans for the Emperor, but for now viewers will have to make do with his apprentice only, and many will happily take that.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opens in U.S. theaters on December 16, 2016, followed by Star Wars: Episode VIII on December 15, 2017, the Han Solo Star Wars Anthology film on May 25, 2018, Star Wars: Episode IX in 2019, and the third Star Wars Anthology film in 2020.