Peter Dinklage: Master of the Game

How the actor conquered 'Game of Thrones' simply by being himself

Peter Dinklage rolling stone cover
Mark Seliger
Peter Dinklage on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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It's good to be Peter Dinklage these days, it really is – beautiful new baby, happy marriage, house up in the mountains, sweet Game of Thrones gig, the whole triumph-against-the-odds thing that his acting career has become. (Though he's hesitant to fully acknowledge the last bit: "I triumphed because I'm odd?") There isn't much left to complain about, not that he ever did much of that – his parents never moved anything from the high shelves in their house, just expected him to get on with it, to climb up for what he wanted, and that's what he's always done.

There's just one lingering annoyance: Out in public, Dinklage can't hide. "I can't be anonymous," he says, "because of my size" (which, to be precise, is four feet five). Hats and sunglasses don't help; neither did the wild-woodsman's beard he had going until last week. "Even if they don't recognize him," says his wife, theater director Erica Schmidt, "they think he's Wee Man from Jackass or they think he's the guy from In Bruges. So there's a constant assault." Before Dinklage and his family moved from Manhattan to rural upstate New York earlier this year, the unending attention – mostly pleasant, sometimes frighteningly aggressive – was wearing him down.

Up here, life is easier. His five-month-old baby can have her own room – which, he says, is bigger than their entire old West Village apartment. ("She's beautiful," he jokes of his daughter. "I wonder who the father is.") Dinklage's big mutt of a dog, Kevin, can run with him each morning through the woods behind the house, where they dodge Lyme-disease-ridden ticks instead of cameraphone-toting tourists. His wife's career means they'll likely have to move back to the city eventually ("The list of people happy here is probably my dog, me, the baby, then my wife – from happiest to least happiest"), but right now, Dinklage is savoring the quiet.

At the moment, he's able to see much of the Hudson River Valley, stretching in every direction against azure skies – we've stopped at the midway point of a mile-long walkway that extends high above the river. Despite the unseasonably scorching April sunshine, Dinklage has a brown-and-blue-striped knit cap pulled over his shaggy, currently surferish half-blond hair, and aviator shades hide his blue-green eyes. Solo joggers, packs of college girls, moms with their kids and one lady pushing a cat stroller pass by without looking his way, and for a moment all is peaceful – we can hear birds chirping from somewhere in the near-cloudless blue.

A middle-aged woman in calf-length workout pants speed-walks by, then doubles back, yelping, "I saw you on Game of Thrones'." She has a purple fanny pack at her waist that matches her nail polish, and she's clutching a bottle of water. "You're really a good actor. Wait till I tell my son I met you. He's not going to believe it. Because I saw you and I said, 'Oh, God, that's him, that's him, you know?' So do you guys film out here, or where?"

"Ireland," Dinklage says in his stage-trained baritone, leaning against a wood-and-stone bench, looking way too hip for the outdoorsy setting: He's wearing one of his James Perse hoodies ("I dress and eat like a fifth-grader, basically. I like sandwiches and cereal and hooded sweatshirts") over a pair of Varvatos blue-striped pants whose frayed bottoms suggest some aggressive amateur tailoring, possibly with a scissor, and his usual scuffed, Springsteen-esque leather boots. "And Croatia and Iceland."

"You're so bad in that show," she gushes. "With the women! You're naughty! Every Sunday I watch it and I love it. You were also in, what was the other one I saw you in . . . ? What was it? It wasn't Sex and the City, was it?"

"That was Sarah Jessica Parker," Dinklage says. "We get mistaken all the time."

"No," she says. "You were in Elf! That is my favorite movie! When you went on the table? I watch it all the time!"

"A holiday classic," Dinklage says.

"So you live right in this area? Or what?"

"Right under the bridge here," Dinklage replies without a pause, remaining deadpan. "In a cave. Actually, you can't pass. You've got to solve a riddle. I have to give you a riddle and then you can walk past."

"Well, yeah," she says, blinking behind her shades. "Anyways, nice to meet you!"

At 42, Dinklage comes off as more comfortable with himself than most humans of any size or shape: He doesn't walk so much as he struts. "He truly is just who he is," says Lena Headey, who plays his sister, the evil queen Cersei Lannister, on Game of Thrones, and who has known him since they bonded on a failed 2006 pilot called Ultra (she played a superhero, he was her Professor X-style coach). "There's nothing about him that isn't anything but confident." But over a pint of Guinness at a New Paltz steakhouse (a destination he selected despite being a vegetarian since high school), Dinklage claims it's all a pose.

"Any swagger is just defense," he says. "When you're reminded so much of who you are by people - not a fame thing, but with my size, constantly, growing up – you just either curl up in a corner in the dark or you wear it proudly, like armor or something. You can turn it on its head and use it yourself before anybody else gets a chance."

It's almost certainly unintentional, but Dinklage is practically quoting from the gospel of Tyrion Lannister, his Emmy-and Golden Globe-winning character on Game of Thrones, a debauched, Machiavellian, secretly righteous underdog: "Never forget what you are," he said last season, "the rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, then it can never be used to hurt you."

For a pay-cable show that takes place in an imaginary swords-and-sorcery world and requires you to distinguish between the banners and bloodlines of what feels like dozens of entirely fictional royal houses, Game of Thrones has achieved an improbable level of mainstream success, with more than 4 million viewers weekly. Dinklage himself has no particular idea as to why Thrones has become such a phenomenon: "I can't explain why the show is so popular," he says. "Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings deal with great big Joseph Campbell-style myths, good and evil. Our show is so much more unclear. It's sort of the antithesis of those things – things that aren't black and white." As much as any character, it's Tyrion who embodies that moral ambiguity, as the semi-outcast scion of a rich, scheming family who has developed a weakness for "bastards, cripples and broken things."

He gets all the best dialogue, too. "Tyrion is the class clown," says George R.R. Martin, creator of the ongoing series of books that inspired the show. "His wit buys him an acceptance from the bullies and the jocks and the otherwise dominant characters around him."

From the very beginning, Dinklage approached Tyrion as a "much more arrogant version of myself – but now the character seems to be getting into his head. "I've done it for two years now," he says softly. "Maybe it's had an effect on me. It's kind of sad when you play a character that's much better than you are, though. I guess people who played super-heroes have suffered from that all the time – if you can't fly, what good are you? Poor George Reeves!"

It all started in a suburban New Jersey basement with some puppets, a tricycle and a double album by the Who. When Dinklage was six or seven, he and his older brother (now a successful violinist) would put on shows in their parents' basement for "neighborhood elderly people. We'd do a puppet Quadrophenia," Dinklage recalls, "set up little drum kits with tuna-fish cans and do a whole show and sell tickets for a bottle cap or whatever. We'd put the stereo speakers facedown on the floor upstairs, so it would come through the ceiling. We were basically the Little Rascals of New Jersey."

Dinklage would also do a routine to "Send in the Clowns": "I was in some sort of wig, but not dressed as a clown – I knew from an early age not to humiliate myself," he says. "I was on a tricycle, and we played the entire song, and my whole part of the revue was to ride the tricycle and fall over, ride the tricycle and fall over, while these old people were sitting there. It's really a sad visual now that I think about it, a six-year-old little guy who keeps falling over on a tricycle. But if you ask any actor, they have those stories, they turn to that stuff. I don't know if Robert De Niro was doing puppet shows in his basement, but he was doing something."

As a young child, Dinklage underwent painful bone-shaving operations, "a common procedure" to prevent complications from achondroplasia, the genetic condition that causes his dwarfism. "Not everyone who's a dwarf has this operation, but it can come back and fuck you up if you don't. It can lead to scoliosis and really bowed legs and difficulty walking." His father, a salesman, and his mother, a music teacher, never talked much about his height: "If it was a movie of our lives, there would be a conversation every scene. But no, never. That's not the way life is. No one talks about anything! I think it would have stood out and I would have remembered it, or I would have gone, 'Eww, you're being weird, go away from me.'"

Did they explain his condition early on? He shakes his head. "What do you need to explain? There's nothing you need to explain. It's like explaining your hands. You grew up with it, it's part of who you are, it's not like overnight something happens, like an illness. An illness, you need to explain, a disease, a sudden injury or anything like that, but when it's part of your physiognomy?" He pauses. "But I do remember seeing myself in a school play on tape," he continues, "at the dawn of VHS, and thinking, 'Wow, I am much shorter than the rest of the kids.' That was a little heartbreaking."

At his all-boys Catholic high school, he continued doing plays – they were a refuge at a school where he didn't fit in: "I was a sullen kid who smoked cigarettes and wore black every day, and I went to a school that was lacrosse players and Izods." He doesn't have to say much about his teenage years to make it clear that they were not, for the most part, fun: He mentions being terrified of certain jocks, and that being "not very popular" left some slow-healing psychic wounds. "Now I'm so depressed," he half-jokes after discussing it for all of two minutes. "Can't we talk about Singin' in the Rain or something?"

In his junior year, a teacher who recognized his talent decided to showcase it in an Irish play called Sharon's Grave. "It was the first time I played a part written for somebody my size," he recalls. "He was just this wretched guy who was carried around on the back of his older, dim-witted brother, sort of an Of Mice and Men relationship. It was like, 'Oh, wow, there are these things out there, it's not just Gilbert and Sullivan, there are these parts out there.' It was only later that I ran away from roles that were specific to people my size."

Dinklage went off to Bennington College, where he majored in drama. He was happier there, but started experiencing panic attacks. He had too much pride to seek any help for them, and they eventually went away. "I should have seen a shrink," he says. He filled his college years well, however: "I smoked too much pot, stayed up too late, did a lot of plays, listened to a lot of Pixies and Dinosaur Jr."

This year, he'll deliver the commencement address at his old school: "Bennington produces some of the great contemporary novelists," he says, grinning. "But I'm on a TV show! So they asked me instead."

Dinklage is behind the wheel of his Volvo, cruising through tree-lined roads just outside New Paltz. His impressively stocked iPod – hooked up to the stereo, on permanent shuffle – lands on one of the lush synth-pop tunes from the soundtrack of last year's excellent noir film Drive, in which Ryan Gosling wore cool driving gloves, steered getaway cars and murdered people. Dinklage smiles. "Sometimes I play this soundtrack and I pretend I'm Ryan Gosling in that movie," he says. "But instead of L.A., it's upstate, so it doesn't work as well."

He glances at his car's interior – the baby seat in the back, the bulky New York atlas jammed in between the front seats (he doesn't believe in GPS: "I don't want the Man to know where I'm going"). "This is just like Drive," he says. "Except not at all." It's early afternoon, and a yellow bus in front of us pauses to drop off some kids. "Fucking school bus slowing me down when I'm listening to my Drive soundtrack!" Dinklage says in a mock roar.

He's on his way to a Lowe's, where he's planning to buy a chain saw to cut down some unruly branches on his property. "Is it creepy if I buy a chain saw? Would you be scared? You know what, Ryan Gosling's character in Drive wouldn't have asked that. We would just go and buy a chain saw like it was nothing, like it was a daily thing I do."

With his heavy-browed good looks, Dinklage has his own reputation as a heartthrob, a subject he first had to address years ago – when he was promoting his breakthrough film, 2003's quirky indie The Station Agent, this theme came up a lot. "I was behaving as my friends behaved: You go out, you have some beers, you talk to girls, you have a nice night. I have friends who were doing that and getting laid all the time. I wasn't one of them, but for some reason in the public eye, I was 'Mister guy about town,' and I think it was just because of my size and stuff. It was a funny reverse spin on it. I was like, 'What am I, an orgy guy?'"

In fact, he confesses, "I was socially a little bit of a mess, in terms of confidence with the other half." When did that change? "You get a little older, you get comfortable. Women respond to comfort, and a sense of humor. I was always able to make them laugh, so that helps a lot. Women on the whole are often not as shallow as men are. They can be, but they cut through things a little more easily than men do in terms of that superficial stuff."

On the other hand, he may be double-reverse-spinning the whole thing himself: "Pete is superflirtatious, the most successful flirt I've ever met," says Headey. "We literally walk down the street and people are like, 'Oh, hi, Pete!' And I'm like, 'When did you meet them? What have you been doing?'" And Game of Thrones co-creator David Benioff recalls meeting Dinklage at a dinner party years back: "I looked around the table and realized that every woman there, including my wife, was hanging on his every word, enthralled."

Dinklage's own wife, needless to say, is well aware of his appeal. "Lately, girls have been, like, licking his face," says Schmidt. "But what's frustrating about it is that Pete is an incredibly handsome, charming, funny guy, but when he does a magazine or something it's like, 'Isn't it amazing he's four foot five inches tall and he's sexy?' You know, that's just who Pete is. And the rest of the world has to catch up."

Peter Dinklage wasn't just the first option to play Tyrion Lannister – he was the only option. "If he hadn't accepted the part, oh, boy," says series author Martin. "I don't know what we would have done." Adds Benioff, "When I read George's books, I decided Tyrion Lannister was one of the great characters in literature. Not just fantasy literature – literature! A brilliant, caustic, horny, drunken, self-flagellating mess of a man. And there was only one choice to play him."

When Dinklage first started his career – moving to a squalid post-college apartment in pre-gentrified Williamsburg, Brooklyn, back in 1992 – neither he nor anyone else could have imagined that he'd be so heavily courted for a leading role in a big-budget show. "I wanted to be doing Beckett plays in barns or something," he says over an egg-salad sandwich one morning. "I certainly didn't want to be on television. I didn't have a TV. TV? Kill me. What's on TV? I was a fuckin' snob. HBO just showed repeats of The Beastmaster back then – there wasn't really an HBO."

In 1995, he had a small but hilariously unforgettable role in the indie film Living in Oblivion, ranting about the idiocy of dwarfs popping up for no particular reason in movies' trippy dream sequences. Even after that, he couldn't get agents to meet with him, let alone represent him. He still doesn't have one, relying on a manager and a lawyer.

"I just wasn't a type that agents were looking for," he says. "I was too specific. They didn't have the imagination to send me on auditions for things that weren't written for a dwarf. They would only see ads at Christmastime, and if I didn't want to do those, what business would I bring them?" Faced with that rejection, he ignored Hollywood for years, temping, acting onstage, scoring indie-film roles and enjoying himself, maybe a little too much, with his friends.

Dinklage had an almost physical allergy to pointy shoes, to fake beards, to playing any sort of magical or unearthly figure. "I always wonder: Why are all these fantasy books, especially for children, fascinated with people my size being fantastical creatures? Growing up, I was always like, 'Really?' That was my big thing. Maybe Tolkien or whoever never met someone my size. And if they did, maybe if they had been friends with somebody who was a dwarf, they wouldn't have written it that way." He sighs, and looks around the dreary diner where we're eating breakfast. "Yes, we can cast magical spells, don't tell anyone. We don't need the waitress, I can refill your Diet Coke glass right now."

In addition to stage and TV work, Dinklage has been in more than 30 movies, working steadily for well over a decade. He's happy to take parts – like the children's-books author in Elf – that refer to his stature without exploiting it. But he seems to be especially proud of roles like the one he played in both the American and British versions of the farce Death at a Funeral – which weren't written for someone his size.

He wishes other actors his height would reconsider certain roles – particularly ones that involve answering to the names Dopey or Sneezy or Sleepy. "I just feel like it's the responsibility of people my size to persevere a bit more about what they do. Because it will just perpetuate itself if you agree to do these things. Mirror Mirror – I have a friend who was in that movie, and he was like, 'Why did I do this?' You look on the top of the cabs in New York, and the ad was seven dwarfs. Really, Snow White? Come on. I don't know. I just can't do it. I have to play a person. I can't play an adjective. Or adverb? Are they adverbs or adjectives?"

He relented, once, in 2008's Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, playing a magical little guy with, yes, pointy shoes and a fake beard. He knows that his twentysomething self would have been disgusted. "He would have given me shit, totally. But fuck him." He begins to address his younger self directly: "'Go enjoy your mac-and-cheese again for dinner. Look under your oven – oh, yeah, that is a rat. I'm jet-setting first class, man. I'll see you later.' That's what I'd say to that snob."

Taking on the role of Tyrion Lannister required less compromise – the character is all too human. "That's what I like about that show, he does have a sexual appetite. You never see one of those Narnian creatures with that. Those scenes are fun! We get so much flak for it, but what's wrong? I just find it to be so sad, people get in such an uproar about breasts, but not chopping people's heads off."

He likes the (relative) realism of Game of Thrones' world – Tyrion, at least, hasn't had any scenes with the computer-generated baby dragons who popped up at the end of Season One. "They're cool, those dragons," he says. "I met 'em. They're nice guys. They like to party – one of them does. I always mistake one for the other. It's a whole thing. One's actually kind of a dick and the other one likes to party."

Some fans of the books had one concern about the idea of Dinklage as Tyrion: He was far too good-looking to play a character whom Martin clearly described as unattractive. (He's also too tall, as Martin himself points out.)

"That just shows how much we've come along," Dinklage says. "That people can actually say that is very kind of them. If I was born 400 years ago, instead of now, I wouldn't have the life I have. There were freak shows and there was horrible discrimination. We were the first to be killed by the Nazis – the physically deformed and what have you. So I think it's just a good sign of the times that people can say that."

He doesn't let his size define or limit him – but, perhaps because of that very fact, there's no denying that Dinklage is now one of the most famous and successful smaller people in the world. When he won his Golden Globe in January, he stepped to the stage and used the spotlight in a way he hadn't before, and may never again: He told the audience that he'd been thinking about "a gentleman . . . his name is Martin Henderson," and suggested they Google his name. Henderson is a British dwarf who had just been badly injured by a thug in what can only be termed a hate crime. Dinklage had been deeply troubled by the reports of the incident, and his wife urged him to say something. "I feel like Pete is in a position to possibly affect change for the way people look at people his size," Schmidt says. Afterward, Dinklage declined offers to appear on various talk shows to discuss Henderson (who told the British press he was grateful for the support, but still has yet to meet or speak to Dinklage).

"Maybe 20 years ago I would have done all of these shows and ranted and raved," Dinklage says, "but I'm a little bit more at peace with things now and I did what I wanted to do and said what I wanted to say. I have a friend who says the world doesn't need another angry dwarf."

That one out-of-character moment aside, Dinklage doesn't necessarily feel a sense of responsibility to other people his size. "I just want to work," he says. But he nods when I mention that Eddie Murphy made racial progress in Hollywood simply by playing parts originally intended for white actors. Dinklage wouldn't mind a similar feat, pushing things forward with his work alone: "The idea is to get to that level where you don't have to preach about it anymore."

Earlier, as we had walked along the Hudson, I had mentioned that Tyrion had become a heroic character on Game of Thrones and Dinklage winced – the idea seemed to tarnish the moral ambiguity that keeps the show from becoming The Lord of the Rings.

But now, sitting in the sunshine at a picnic table attached to a superb burrito stand near Bard College, Dinklage reconsiders the idea. "I think he's a quiet hero," he says between bites, allowing himself a smile at the thought. "And that, I like."

This story is from the May 24th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1157: May 24, 2012