Peter Dinklage is sitting in a dark downtown New York bar, a half-filled pint before him, when a city bus pulls to a stop in the window, filling the frame with a billboard for HBO's hit Game of Thrones. The television adaptation of George R.R. Martin's fantasy novels recalls a Shakespearean tragedy more than Tolkien's Middle-earth, a distinction personified most of all in Dinklage's character, Tyrion Lannister – a figure of such complexity, charisma and mold-breaking sexuality he may fill a Tony Soprano-size void with a third the body mass. It's a role Dinklage was too literally born to play.
Draining his beer, the darkly handsome 41-year-old (thick curly hair, sloping James Dean eyebrows) remembers bleaker days when most acting gigs on the table required pointy, jingling hats, as apologetic agents checked in each holiday season to see if he was desperate enough to play a Santa elf. "I said, 'No,'" Dinklage says. "It was hard. I was wondering, 'How am I going to pay the rent?' You need the work, that's how you make your living. But I'm going to play roles that are appropriate to my size – it's all about how real it is."
Dinklage didn't just wait for better parts, he created them – shaping his best roles by the force of his example. He made his screen debut as a pissed-off dwarf actor in Living in Oblivion, played an indelible lead character, written for him, in 2003's career-making The Station Agent – and the writers for Game of Thrones tailored the part of Tyrion with Dinklage in mind. A longtime friend, playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman, credits all this to a life strategy adopted long ago. "Pete said, 'OK, people are definitely going to look at me wherever I go,'" says Sherman." 'So I'm gonna let you look, but you're gonna look on my terms. You're going to look at me do what I do better than anyone else.'"
That confidence attracts more than film offers. Lena Headey, who on Thrones plays Tyrion's bombshell sister, Cersei, describes first meeting Dinklage as a subtle, two-part reaction. "You think, 'Oh, there's Pete, and he's that size,' then you go . . . 'and he's superattractive,'" she says. "He totally knows he's got it."
Dinklage grew up in suburban New Jersey, in a family of average height; his father was an insurance salesman, his mother a music teacher, his older brother a violinist. By age five, achondroplasia was impairing his arm and leg growth, and had bowed his legs so badly he could barely walk, requiring doctors to break, reset and brace them together with a bar. Otherwise, Dinklage says, he had a relatively easy childhood, and while he'll admit adolescence was tougher, he won't say it was worse than average. "What was high school like for you?" he says. "High school sucks for everybody."
He went to Bennington, studied theater and then spent a decade as a hard-partying New York hipster: trying to start a Brooklyn version of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre under the Williamsburg Bridge, and rapping and playing trumpet in a band called Whizzy. "What, you never heard of us?" Dinklage says with mock outrage. "We were big, we played CBGB's!"
Rock-star fame may have eluded him, but Dinklage has recently experienced a street hassle that's apparently reserved for smaller stars. This would be the hug request. "I had one yesterday," the happily married actor says with a resigned smile, recalling a star-struck fan who stopped him on the street. "She seemed to be shaking a little bit," he says. "So I hugged her." He shrugs. "She asked permission, though," he adds, with the subtlest shade of Dinklage darkness. "Sometimes they don't ask permission."
These types of fan encounters don't tend to bother the actor when he's playing the role he savors most: a neighborhood character often seen wandering around the city with a large black rescue dog named Kevin. A few days earlier, he'd drawn his most satisfying notice from a kid who spotted him walking solo down the street. "You know those five-year-olds that have the personality of an old man?" Dinklage asks. "This was one of those kids." But the kid didn't try to hug him or crack wise about his height. Instead, he yelled an epithet Dinklage clearly relishes and renders in a thick New York accent. "He said, 'Hey, act-ah!" Dinklage recalls. "Wheah's ya' doo-wog?'" He laughs, then smiles at the memory of the bold little wiseass. "That kid was really great."
This story is from the June 9th, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.