Interview with Peter Dinklage

Reproduced from The New York Times website March 2012.


game-of-thrones-peter-dinklageIn January, the actor Peter Dinklage surprised himself during his own Golden Globe acceptance speech. Dinklage had won the award for best supporting actor in a TV series for his portrayal of the complex, sharp-tongued Tyrion Lannister, who’s the closest thing to a hero in HBO’s epic swords-and-sex hit “Game of Thrones,” which returns for its second season on April 1. As he took the statue from the presenter, Piper Perabo, the onstage microphone stand quietly lowered into the floor to accommodate the 4-foot-5 actor.

Dinklage thanked the people he needed to thank — the author George R. R. Martin, who wrote the novels on which “Game of Thrones” is based; his mother in New Jersey; the cast and crew. As the wrap-it-up music began to swell, Dinklage thought about what his wife had been telling him all night at their table: “Let people know. It isn’t right.” He hesitated a moment, then thought, I’m just gonna do it. “I want to mention a gentleman I’ve been thinking about, in England,” he said quickly. “His name is Martin Henderson. Google him.”

A month later, during breakfast at the Trump SoHo hotel in Manhattan, Dinklage still seemed a bit uncomfortable with the attention his off-the-cuff comment received. “I read about him online the day before the Globes. It really made me sad. I don’t know why.” He corrected himself: “I mean, I know why: it’s terrible.” In October, Henderson, who is 37 and is 4-foot-2, was picked up and thrown by an unknown assailant in Somerset, England. He suffered partial paralysis and now requires a walker. The night of the Globes, after Dinklage’s mention, Henderson’s name was a trending topic on Twitter. Dinklage later turned down offers to discuss the case with Anderson Cooper and other news hosts.

“People are all, like, I dedicated it to him,” he said. “They’ve made it more romantic than it actually was. I just wanted to go, ‘This is screwed up.’ Dwarves are still the butt of jokes. It’s one of the last bastions of acceptable prejudice. Not just by people who’ve had too much to drink in England and want to throw a person. But by media, everything.” He sipped his coffee and pointed out that media portrayal is, in part, the fault of actors who are dwarves. “You can say no. You can not be the object of ridicule.”

In many ways, Dinklage’s own story is unsurprising: an actor who flailed for years, worked steadily for some more years, then got a great role and became famous. The part of Tyrion Lannister has now won Dinklage that Globe, an Emmy and an army of new fans who never saw him in “Living in Oblivion,” onstage in “Richard III” or even in his breakout film, “The Station Agent,” in 2003.

Yet Dinklage’s sudden stardom offers a pleasurable meritocratic twist to his career, given that the entertainment industry doesn’t typically reward those who turn down roles on principle, much less actors who don’t meet a certain physical ideal. Sure, James Gandolfini struggled before “The Sopranos” made him an unlikely leading man. But James Gandolfini didn’t eat potato chips for dinner every night because he conscientiously objected to playing one of Santa’s elves in Kmart ads.

Dinklage recently moved away from New York, the city he called home for most of the past 20 years — first in Williamsburg and then in the West Village. The city was making him feel older than his 42 years. “Just all the clawing for space,” he said. “I felt myself becoming a bitter old man in New York, and I wanted to avoid that.”

So he has settled into a house in the woods in upstate New York with his wife, the theater director Erica Schmidt, and their baby daughter. But just 10 days after moving, Dinklage was back in Brooklyn, playing a “bitchy barista” in “A Case of You,” a small-budget romantic comedy written by his friend, the actor (and “I’m a Mac” pitchman) Justin Long. “This is the first time,” Dinklage marveled, “I’ve ever stayed in a hotel in New York.” Why come back to the city so soon for a small role in an indie film? It’s simple, he said. “When our friends call us to be in their movies, we show up.”

Dinklage grew up in Brookside, N.J., an hour west of the Lincoln Tunnel, and his insurance-salesman father and music-teacher mother didn’t even have a TV set in the house — or so Dinklage and his brother thought. One night when Dinklage was in his teens, he heard odd sounds coming from his parents’ bedroom and opened the door to find them watching a black-and-white TV they had just bought and hid in the closet. “So,” he recalled delightedly, “it was ‘Three’s Company’ from then on out, and my brain started to melt.”

Both Dinklage and his brother, Jonathan, were natural performers. (Jonathan now works as a professional violinist.) While Dinklage has said that as the only dwarf in his family, he was often angry about his height in his youth, he is quick to credit his parents for a relatively happy childhood. “I was fortunate enough,” he said, “to have an upbringing that made me more accepting of who I am.” After studying acting at Bennington, he moved to New York in 1991 with his friend and classmate Ian Bell, with visions of building a theater company modeled on the famous Steppenwolf in Chicago. Dinklage points to the 1984 “American Playhouse” production of Sam Shepard’s “True West,” starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich, as the moment that steered him toward a career in acting. “A lot of us became actors because of that. Men my age — that was the linchpin.”

The apartment they shared under the Williamsburg Bridge had no heat and shook when trains passed overhead; the oven was unusable, because it was filled with rats. When they complained, Dinklage recalled, the landlord pulled a knife in the living room. “It wasn’t really a living room,” Dinklage said, “just a big empty space that we dreamed of doing ‘True West’ in. But we ended up drinking too much and had one poetry reading.” Bell recalls it “as a space where we could have parties to raise the money to make rent,” but eventually they couldn’t make the rent — they came back from the holidays one year to find the door bolted shut.

Bell left for Seattle, where he’s now an actor and a director. Dinklage stayed in New York and soon was landing stage work and the occasional low-budget film. But he couldn’t book commercial jobs, because he wasn’t interested in the kinds of roles that paid well for dwarves. Specifically, he wouldn’t play elves or leprechauns. Even after Dinklage’s memorable first film role in the 1995 Steve Buscemi indie comedy “Living in Oblivion” — Dinklage played an actor who’s annoyed to be cast in a dream sequence, demanding, “Have you ever had a dream with a dwarf in it?” — he still couldn’t get an agent. “Word got out,” he says. “I started to build up a resentment. And that fueled my desire to live in a cold apartment and be like: ‘I don’t need you! I’m gonna write poetry. Why would I want to be a member of your club if you don’t want me?’ ”

After a recommendation from Buscemi, the New York-based film director Alexandre Rockwell cast Dinklage in his shaggy-dog ensemble comedy “13 Moons.” When Rockwell met Dinklage just before his first day of shooting, they were instantly simpatico. “You might come in with some luggage about Peter’s physicality,” Rockwell says. “Right away he cuts right through that. You’re thinking, He’s a dwarf, he’s a dwarf, but Peter comes shining through as a personality beyond any kind of diminutive-size issue.”

“Alex attracts Steve Buscemi and Seymour Cassell and all those actors that are in his movies,” Dinklage said, then added with pride, “I’m one of them.” By the end of the ’90s, Dinklage was managing to make a meager living. “What I really want,” he told a theater Web site in an interview, “is to play the romantic lead and get the girl.”

Then Tom McCarthy, a recent Yale grad, met Dinklage when the actor portrayed Tom Thumb in a vaudevillian play McCarthy directed and co-wrote. The two became friends, and McCarthy was soon convinced that, indeed, Dinklage was leading-man material. “It was crystal clear,” McCarthy says. “There are qualities that leading men possess, this kind of self-assuredness and this vulnerability. Pete had both.” One day McCarthy and Dinklage ran into each other on a Manhattan street corner — “Peter was temping, and I was just scraping by as an actor” — and McCarthy later thought that Dinklage might be perfect for a script he was working on, “The Station Agent,” about an introverted train aficionado who inherits a tiny depot building in rural New Jersey. “We never imagined,” McCarthy says, “that conversation would alter both of our careers.”

Soon McCarthy had rewritten the character for Dinklage. Along with Bobby Cannavale and Patricia Clarkson, two other New York theater veterans for whom McCarthy had written roles, Dinklage showed up for reading after reading while McCarthy honed the script and raised a half-million dollars. “He never wanted to do it with anyone but us,” Dinklage said. “That sort of loyalty is really rare.” In 2003, “The Station Agent” won the Audience Award at Sundance and kick-started the careers of both its director and its star.

“I’d been in great films before, but I’d never been involved in something from the early stages,” Dinklage said. “It’s the way I wanted to work. Like Steppenwolf — loyal to the ensemble.” Dinklage views loyalty as a superior character trait; he has a circle of close friends, from Bennington and the New York film and theater scenes, who have stuck together for years. Artistic endeavors, he believes, foster the kind of foxhole friendships that last forever — relationships that last because people don’t “follow that distracting white balloon of money or somebody more famous.”

“The base line of our friendship is: He gets the joke,” says Jonathan Marc Sherman, a playwright who attended Bennington with Dinklage. In the early years, when they all were having trouble finding work they felt proud to do, every November brought a wave of calls from casting directors with elf roles. “Having the group of friends helps you stick to what your instincts are telling you to do,” Sherman speculates — though, he notes for the record, “If they’d offered me those elf roles, I would’ve taken them in a second.”

Ten years after “13 Moons” and just before Dinklage was cast in “Game of Thrones,” he offered to help produce Rockwell’s next film. “With whatever clout I had,” Dinklage said, “I wanted to see what I could do to sort of protect him.” The movie was called “Pete Smalls Is Dead.” “It came and went,” he said. “Of course nobody saw it, but that’s O.K.” The opening credits for “Pete Smalls Is Dead” list 14 producers, including Dinklage. “Out of those 14,” Rockwell says, “I could have traded eight for Peter.” He laughs: “ ‘Producer’ is such a joke. I still have never met three or four of them. But Peter was on the front line.”

“It’s funny, loyalty,” Dinklage said at the restaurant. “I’ve never really thought about that. Friends of mine will read this and say, ‘Ah, it’s important in us, but it’s not important in him.’ I’m wondering if I’m loyal now. I think I am.” He stared down at his plate. “I should call people back more readily. I’m not the best friend sometimes in terms of that. I do follow that white balloon and get distracted a lot.”

I was curious how far Dinklage’s loyalty extended, so I asked him about the weirdest, most inexplicable title in his filmography: “Tiptoes’!” he exclaimed, shaking his head. “Oh, that movie. That was something.”


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