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Peter Dinklage: Master of the Game

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

May 24, 2012
Peter Dinklage rolling stone cover
Peter Dinklage on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Mark Seliger

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!"

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