‘Game of Thrones’ on HBO
By DAN KOIS
In 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.” “ ‘Tiptoes’!” he exclaimed, shaking his head. “Oh, that movie. That was something.”
“Tiptoes” stars Kate Beckinsale and Matthew McConaughey as a couple whose relationship runs into trouble when she learns that his entire family are dwarves. As she struggles with the fact that the baby she’s carrying may also be differently sized, she is reassured by her brother-in-law, played not by Dinklage (he plays a friend) but by Gary Oldman in, according to the trailer, “the role of a lifetime” — on his knees, with a harness to shorten his arms and a hump under his shirt. Gary Oldman, that is, plays a dwarf. “There was some flak,” Dinklage acknowledged. “ ‘Why would you put Gary Oldman on his knees? That’s almost like blackface.’ And I have my own opinions about political correctness, but I was just like: ‘It’s Gary Oldman. He can do whatever he wants, and I’m so happy to be here.’ ”
I told him I was impressed that he would defend “Tiptoes,” a movie that seems, on its face, ridiculous. “It was a lovely mess of a movie while we were making it,” he sighed. “I saw the director’s cut, and it was gorgeous.” That two-and-a-half-hour director’s cut was shown at a film festival in Austin, Tex.; the director, Matthew Bright, was reportedly fired shortly afterward, and the movie was recut. “The people who fired him ruined the movie,” Dinklage insisted. “They made it into a weird little quirky rom-com, but with dwarves.” He looked gloomy as he recalled this. “It was sort of an amazing idea for a movie, but the result was what we were fighting against — the cutesiness of little people.” I asked if he ever hoped to be a spokesman for the rights of little people. He made an exasperated sound and held his hands out, palms up. “I don’t know what I would say. It would be arrogant to assume that I. . . .” He put his hands down on the table. “Everyone’s different. Every person my size has a different life, a different history. Different ways of dealing with it. Just because I’m seemingly O.K. with it, I can’t preach how to be O.K. with it. I don’t think I still am O.K. with it. There’s days when I’m not.”
The final day of the “Case of You” shoot, a man approached Dinklage looking for an autograph. “He had this ‘Game of Thrones’ coaster,” Dinklage recalled. “With me on it! And it was legitimate. It wasn’t like he made it in a copy shop. That was bizarre. Do you just walk around with a Formica coaster?”
For all the wild fandom it provokes, “Game of Thrones” started out like all those other gigs over the years: as a call from a friend of a friend. “I knew David Benioff a bit socially,” he said. “I knew his wife, Amanda Peet. He’s a smart guy, so I always sought him out at dinner parties.”
“He was always much friendlier to Amanda than he was to me,” Benioff says. “I knew he was incredibly funny, incredibly smart and had that caustic wit.” From the beginning, Dinklage was the first choice for the role of Tyrion, according to Benioff and the show’s co-creator, Dan Weiss, who observes that Dinklage’s “core of humanity, covered by a shell of sardonic dry wit, is pretty well in keeping with the character.”
Dinklage was cautious during his first “Game of Thrones” meeting. In the film “Prince Caspian,” part of the “Chronicles of Narnia” series, he had played the dwarf Trumpkin and spent the seven-month shoot in Eastern Europe and New Zealand sweating under a long red beard. “It was a lovely experience,” he said diplomatically, “but it was pretty uncomfortable.” So in that meeting with Benioff and Weiss, before anyone explained “Game of Thrones” or Tyrion Lannister to him, he made a simple request: no beard, no pointy shoes. “Dwarves in these genres always have this look. My guard was up. Not even my guard — my metal fence, my barbed wire was up. Even ‘Lord of the Rings’ had dwarf-tossing jokes in it. It’s like, Really?” But he learned from Benioff and Weiss that Tyrion was a different kind of fantasy little person. “He’s somebody who turns that on its head. No beard, no pointy shoes, a romantic, real human being.” And perhaps most important in getting Dinklage, who still hadn’t had that many lead roles in the years since “The Station Agent,” to sign on before the meeting was half over: “They told me how popular he was.”
Indeed for fans of the novels, Tyrion is among the most beloved among the scores of kings, warriors, wenches, slaves, queens and monsters that populate George R. R. Martin’s world. “My readers identify with the outcast,” Martin says, “with the underdog, with the person who’s struggling rather than the golden boy.” But Dinklage’s sly performance has made Tyrion all the more popular. He plays Tyrion as the only modern man in a muddy, violent, primal world. He loves good food, good conversation and a good book. Unlike the warmongering lords and knights of Westeros, but like most HBO subscribers, he would prefer to stay out of battle; when he’s forced by his father into leading a regiment to war, he manages to be knocked unconscious before the fight even begins.
Certainly Tyrion gets many of the series’ funniest lines. “How would you like to die?” a fearsome warrior asks him in the show’s first season, waving an ax. “In my own bed, at the age of 80, with a belly full of wine” and attended by a woman, Tyrion answers. But Dinklage’s bravado masks Tyrion’s deep well of melancholy; the black sheep of a powerful family, he has been despised his whole life by his iron-willed father and hot-tempered sister, Cersei. In the second season, Tyrion is cast in the unfamiliar role of power broker in the nation’s capital, sent to rein in the excesses of Cersei, now the queen. “It must be odd for you,” Tyrion tells Cersei in one of the first new episodes, “to be the disappointing child.” Dinklage delivers the line not with a cruel, mocking flourish but with a hint of sadness — at the only way he can connect with the sister who never loved him.
Recently Dinklage had to confess to Martin that he had read only the first book in the “Game of Thrones” series. “He looked a little hurt,” Dinklage said. “I felt bad. But no disrespect, I still haven’t read all of Tolstoy.” Dinklage likes being surprised when the scripts come in; when I asked if he really didn’t know all the crazy things that will happen to Tyrion in coming seasons, he shrugged. “I need to know the back story, obviously, to figure out who this guy is. But the . . . front story? Is that even a word?”
The series, which famously killed off the heroic Ned Stark at the end of its first season, is no safe place for an actor. “It is amazing how many more people die,” Dinklage said. “Like, leads. Like, coming up. People are gonna be shocked. They think Ned Stark was something — there’s so many more.” Tyrion, for what it’s worth, seems unkillable. “There’s a lot ahead of Tyrion,” Martin says, and judging from the books, that’s true — so far. Dinklage said he was signed on for six seasons — further into the future, possibly, than anyone besides Martin can see. “Anyways,” Dinklage said, “HBO will read this and laugh, because they own my life. ‘Ha ha ha, he signed that in blood!’ ”
The success of “Game of Thrones” — the show was renewed for a second season within days of its premiere, its viewership increased throughout the season and it was nominated for 13 Emmys — has led Dinklage to attend fan events of the sort he’s never done before. He finds it hard, sometimes, to put himself out in the world after a lifetime spent encircled by his own little Steppenwolves. His rambunctious, witty character helps, and so in a way, he’s acting, even offscreen. “They’re somewhat expecting Tyrion, you know? I mean, they like me, but they just kind of want me to say my favorite lines and stuff.” He laughed. “He’s a great character to hide behind. He’s a large personality.”
During his hiatus from “Thrones,” Dinklage hopes to act in Molière this summer at Bard, under his wife’s direction. He has been developing a script for years, based on the life of the “Fantasy Island” star Hervé Villechaize, with his friend Sacha Gervasi, director of “Anvil!” “He interviewed Hervé right before he killed himself. Sacha was a journalist, sitting here like we are now. After he killed himself, Sacha realized Hervé’s interview was a suicide note.”
What else? “My friend Mark Palansky wrote this amazing script for myself and Catherine O’Hara,” he added, which spun into a discussion of O’Hara’s greatest moments in Christopher Guest mockumentaries. “That’s a true company of loyal people,” he sighed. “They have a home, don’t they?” Do you ever wonder, I asked, how you could get in on that? He brightens. “Maybe working with Catherine will help!”
He hasn’t quite found his own home yet, but maybe his six or seven or eight or nine years on “Game of Thrones” will provide him one. Or maybe the communities he’s building around himself will keep growing until they encompass all New York and Hollywood.
“I feel really lucky,” he said, then added, “although I hate that word — ‘lucky.’ ” When I asked him why, he mulled it over for a moment, looking away. Then he focused back on me. “It cheapens a lot of hard work,” he said. “Living in Brooklyn in an apartment without any heat and paying for dinner at the bodega with dimes — I don’t think I felt myself lucky back then. Doing plays for 50 bucks and trying to be true to myself as an” — here he put on a faux snooty voice — “artist and turning down commercials where they wanted a leprechaun. Saying I was lucky negates the hard work I put in and spits on that guy who’s freezing his ass off back in Brooklyn. So I won’t say I’m lucky. I’m fortunate enough to find or attract very talented people. For some reason I found them, and they found me.”
Dan Kois is a contributing writer for the magazine and a senior editor at Slate.
Editor: Adam Sternbergh