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."
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