Peter Dinklage isn’t your father’s dwarf actor. Actually, there’s a pretty good chance your father didn’t even know he had a dwarf actor. It’s easy to get confused when the majority of them are dressed like elves, leprechauns, Oompa-Loompas, or Ewoks. When dwarf actors do get to show their faces, they tend to be sight gags at best, forced to wear diapers, get thrown around by a sniggering Mike Myers, or, if they’re lucky, play magical creatures who befriend children.
And then there’s Peter Dinklage. He made his screen debut in 1995’s Living In Oblivion, screaming at Steve Buscemi, “You can take this dwarf sequence and shove it up your ass!” He’s played at least one magical creature who befriends children—Trumpkin the dwarf in a Chronicles of Narnia sequel. But he’s also played Richard III in an off-Broadway production, and starred in the 2004 indie The Station Agent, the first movie to feature a dwarf in a lead role (and, no less substantially, the first movie to deal with the subject of dwarfism with anything approaching dignity). Even in roles where his stature was the punch line, like when he throttled Will Ferrell for calling him “an angry elf” in Elf or was mistaken for a child by Tina Fey in 30 Rock, his height has never been the most interesting thing about him. Watch any of Dinklage’s films (except Tiptoes, which you should never, ever watch under any circumstances) and you might find yourself forgetting that he’s a dwarf altogether. And yes, I’m well aware that last sentence makes me sound as old-man foolish as Chris Matthews trying to compliment Obama. If Obama is post-racial, than Dinklage is post-dwarfism. It may not be entirely true for either of them, but in both cases, it’s at least a step in the right direction.
I called Dinklage as he was preparing to fly out to Utah for this year’s Slamdance Film Festival—where his latest movie, Pete Smalls Is Dead (co-starring Steve Buscemi and Tim Roth), premieres tomorrow on opening night. If you can’t make it, don’t despair; the movie is good enough that it’ll probably get a distributor and find its way to an art-house theater near you soon enough. And even if you got a flight out to Park City in time for the screening tomorrow, the odds are against you meeting Dinklage anyway. “I like to hide,” he told me of his typical festival experience. The combination of endless hipster parties and a general lack of oxygen in the Utah mountains is, he said, enough to induce a “Terry Gilliam hallucination,” which apparently isn’t his idea of a good time. So relax, non-film festival-goer. You’re one of the lucky ones.
Eric Spitznagel: You know what I liked the most about Pete Smalls is Dead? It felt like a tribute to seedy Hollywood, with its dive bars and sad-sack screenwriters. Is that something you’ve had some experience with?
Peter Dinklage: Oh yeah, of course. I live in New York now, but I was in Los Angeles for a few years, and I definitely found that part of it appealing. Even before I got there, I read books by Dennis Lehane and Charles Bukowski, who wrote about the L.A. underbelly. There’s a sad part of the city that’s very easy to romanticize. Everybody wants to be in the business, or thinks they can be in the business, and obviously all of them can’t be successful.
But they can all drink.
And they do. L.A. can be a scary and beautiful and boozy place.
What’s your favorite place in L.A. to get a watered-down beer and some weird conversation?
Boy oh boy. Does anybody actually go out in L.A.? When I lived there, I’d just stay in my apartment. I vaguely recall some good bars. I used to like this place on La Brea. The Lava Lounge, I think it was?
Off Sunset? Yeah, I remember that. They had Mai Tais that could melt your face.
Yeah, that’s the one. I don’t think it’s there anymore. They turned it into something else. I’m in New York now, which has a better quality of watering holes. There’s Scratcher, which is a really fun Irish dive in the East Village. And … let me think. [Long pause.] You know what the problem is? I just came back from working in Ireland, so I’m biased. The bars in the States don’t even compare with the pubs over there. I’m having a hard time readjusting myself to the watered-down swill that passes for beer in this country.
There’s something about your performance in Pete Smalls Is Dead that reminded me of Jack Nicholson in Chinatown.
Well, thank you, sir. I owe you for saying that. I’m going to send you a fruit basket.
It might’ve just been because of the busted nose.
That seems more likely.
No offense to your acting. But you play a guy with a broken nose in a film-noir set in L.A., and it’s hard not to make the connection.
The similarities are glaring. Nicholson and I don’t often get compared with each other, so I thank you for saying that. And my fake broken nose thanks you. I like the busted-nose look. I think it’s a good look for me.
As good as Nicholson is, I don’t think he’s ever had to emote in a room filled with farting corpses.
Not in movies, at least. I’m not sure about the rest of his life.
That may’ve been my favorite scene in Pete Smalls is Dead. But maybe I’m just a sucker for a fart joke.
I didn’t even know the corpses were farting. They put that in during post-production. If I’d heard the farts while we were filming, I would have … well, I don’t know what I would have done differently. I have a very specific reaction to certain farts.
You’re going to have to share a few more details than that.
No, sorry. That’s as far as I’ll go with this line of questioning.
You had some hilarious pulpy dialogue to sink your teeth into. Lines like “The minute that door opened and I smelled that familiar cheap cologne, it all made sense.”
Yeah, I loved it. It was really hard-boiled stuff.
How do you say something like that and make it sound natural?
Well, it always sounded very natural to me.
Really? You’re saying things like, “Eskimos have 500 words for snow. The French have 500 kinds of cheese. And all I have is 500 kinds of questions.” I can’t even think a line like that in my head without doing a bad Humphrey Bogart impression.
Because of all those Bogart movies, it’s becomes a cliché to speak in poeticisms. But I think Brandon Cole and Alex Rockwell, the writers on this film, found a way to circumvent those clichés. I never felt awkward speaking in that sort of lyricism. And honestly, I don’t think there’s enough of it out there. Writing is getting killed by too many chefs. Back in the Bogart days, it started with great scripts. You had a writer and he wrote a script and that was your movie. I think that’s been watered down a bit lately.
We should talk about Steve Buscemi’s character. Specifically, his wig. He looks like Harpo Marx.
I know, it’s funny. He’s like a Harpo Marx that speaks.
Was that a challenge for you as an actor?
For me or for Steve?
For you. He’s the one wearing the wig. He doesn’t have to look at it. But you’re in the scene too, and you’ve got to have a conversation with him without breaking.
I’ve worked with Steve a lot, probably more than any other actor. This is the fourth or fifth movie I’ve done with him. And at this point, nothing’s shocking. He’s had a variety of hairstyles. It’s just par for the course. When you do a scene with him, you just have to steel yourself, because you never know what you’re going to get. And you know what? The hair wasn’t the most off-putting thing for me. If you look closely, he’s wearing a cheetah medallion. It’s the face of a cheetah, done in gold, and it’s hanging around his neck with a leather vest. It’s pretty mesmerizing.
For that reason alone, I want to watch the movie a second time.
It’s worth it, man, I’m telling you. I was more enthralled by his jewelry than anything about his hair. That cheetah was hypnotizing.
You’ve been working with Buscemi since the mid-90s. You guys must be pals by now.
God, no. I can’t stand the man.
So he’s an arrogant prick?
Oh yeah, absolutely. He’s a terror. No, no. I love working with him. I love working with the same actors repeatedly. That happens a lot. It’s kind of inevitable, especially if you work with the same writers and directors and you start to form a company of actors. You gravitate towards each other. I prefer it that way. You skip the small talk and go straight for the good stuff.
Do you and Buscemi socialize off the set? Are you drinking buddies?
Because … you’re afraid drinking publicly with him might lead to a stabbing?
I don’t socialize. I’m kind of a hermit. The life of an actor can be very lonely.
What about George Clooney? He’s an actor and he doesn’t seem very lonely. I get the impression that every night he’s sipping martinis and loosening his tuxedo tie.
Could be. I don’t know about that. It’s too glamorous for me. If it’s true, that’s lovely. I wish my life was like that. I spend my nights just sitting and reading a book and drinking my tea and walking my dog. That’s about as exciting as my life gets.
When you get around to writing a memoir, it’s gonna be awesome.
I know, I know. I’m kind of boring. But I’m 41 now. Maybe in my 20s I was a little more lively. But I’m done with that.
One of the remarkable things about Pete Smalls is Dead is that your height was never an issue. It was brought up maybe once or twice, like when another character made a crack about getting you a “kiddie chair.” But other than that …
I’m very proud of you.
You waited a long time to ask the dwarf question. It only took you, what, half a dozen questions to get here? That’s impressive restraint.
Should I have waited longer? Do you need a little more foreplay?
No, man, it’s great. But I’m curious, how much thought did you put into it? Did you know how many questions deep into the Q&A to wait before bringing it up? Or were you just improvising?
I had no clue. I was looking for a segue.
I was hoping something would just happen organically. Like maybe you’d mention that you’re a fan of Warwick Davis, and then I’d go, “Oh, speaking of dwarf actors…”
Just go for it, man. Don’t wait for permission. Just come right out and ask.
But doesn’t that annoy you? You have to be sick of the dwarf questions by now.
Not at all. It comes up once in a while. Why wouldn’t it?
Because you’re hardly the only short actor out there. The movie business in general is like a casting call for Terror of Tiny Town. You’re what, 4’5”?
Tom Cruise is five feet at most. But nobody’s asking him, “What’s it like to be a wee actor?”
Maybe not to his face. Or maybe they are asking him, I don’t know. I think it happens with everybody. I don’t take this stuff personally. As long as you’re not crouched down next to me, talking to me like a Little League coach, I’m all right with it. Don’t laugh, that’s happened.
Shut up. You’re lying to me.
Not at all. You’d be surprised how condescending people can be. But listen, I’m 41 years old. If I’m not adjusted to the slings and arrows, then I guess something’s wrong with me. And I absolutely shouldn’t be an actor.
Here’s an experiment I’ve been dying to try with you. What was the name of your first pet?
That’s a tough one. We had so many growing up. It was like a zoo in my house. We had a lot of pets. My family had a habit of collecting creatures that didn’t always want to be pets. The first animal I can remember was a Lab named Zoe. Before that, there was a parrot, but I don’t remember his name because I was an infant. The parrot only loved me, which was very strange. He wouldn’t let anybody get near me. He’d attack anybody that even came close.
And your parents were O.K. with that?
I don’t think they had a choice.
So you were essentially raised by an attack parrot?
Yeah, pretty much. I remember it used to groom me and it hated everyone but me. I wish I could remember it’s name.
So let’s go with Zoe then. The Lab.
Yeah, Zoe. He was a good dog.
What was the name of the street you grew up on?
I … wait, hold on. Is this one of those things where you figure out my porn name?
You got me.
Are you 14 years old? How old are you?
I’m 41, just like you.
I don’t believe it. I’m going to need to see an ID.
You want me to fax it to you?
What are you doing with this? Is this Teen Vanity Fair? Is this the issue that Justin Bieber is editing? By the way, that’s the first time I’ve ever brought up Justin Bieber in conversation.
Are you going to tell me your porn name or not?
It’s Zoe East Main. Not a very good porn name, I know.
It’s terrible. If this acting thing doesn’t work out and you end up in porn, I’d definitely go with Peter Dinklage.
Thank you … I think.
Schindler’s Fist starring Peter Dinklage. That’s a great marquee porn name.
I’ll keep that in mind.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)