Long before The Rise of Skywalker ever released, in August 2018, it was reported that Matt Smith had joined the cast. By the following spring, Smith claimed he was “definitely not” in the movie. And sure enough, when the film released in December 2019, Smith was nowhere to be found.
But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t supposed to be in it at some point.
In a recent interview with Josh Horowitz, Smith explained that he was originally going to have an important role, but that nothing was ever filmed and the writers decided to take the story in a different direction.
“Well I could not possibly say,” Smith said when asked if he was supposed to play Palpatine’s son. “But it was a pretty groovy thing. Like, it was a really groovy part and concept. It was a big thing. Yeah, it was like a big story detail. Like, a transformative Star Wars story detail. But it never quite got over the line.” He then added that his role “was a big shift in the history of the franchise.”
So what was the role? Well, in April 2019 there was a report from a credible leaker that said Matt Smith would be playing a Sith Acolyte who is possessed by the spirit of Palpatine – thus being the host body for Palpatine’s duel against Rey and Ben Solo. And that would, I think, fit in line with what Smith is saying when he suggests this role would have marked a shift for the franchise, since it would’ve opened some doors and been the way Palpatine returned. It’s unclear if (and how much) Ian McDiarmid would have been involved in the project if they had chosen to go this route, but the bottom line is that Smith might have actually been planned to play Palpatine, in a sense.
If that’s all true, then I’m personally glad they didn’t go this route, because bringing McDiarmid back for the role just makes a ton of sense. And though that obviously meant changing some of the story about how Palpatine returned, they did keep the idea of an essence transfer, since that’s what he wanted to do with Rey (it was just implicit rather than explicit). And whatever issues people might have with how it all came across, I’m convinced that bringing McDiarmid back was a great move that helped to really connect things throughout all three trilogies. It would have been nice to see Matt Smith in Star Wars, but just not in this particular role.