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.
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