You play Tyrion Lannister, a major character on the HBO series Game of Thrones, a show that kills off major characters all the time. Are you worried about your job?
I don’t think Tyrion is going anywhere. He once said that he’d like to die “in my own bed, at the age of 80, with a belly full of wine and a girl’s mouth around my cock.” I like to think that was a premonition. That’s how he’s going to go. He’s a survivor. But you’re right; it’s amazing how many major characters get killed this season. People who have read all the George R.R. Martin books that the show is based on tell me Tyrion’s still alive. We’re only on season three and there are five books. Tyrion hasn’t been killed yet, so I feel pretty secure.
Do you feel like a badass when you’re swinging around a sword, or is it just awkward and weird?
There’s a scene in the show when I chop a man’s leg off from behind. The gentleman was probably about 70 years old. They filmed him from the back, so you don’t see how old he is. Also he’s an amputee. He had one leg, so basically I just knocked out the fake leg. I had a big dull sword, and I knocked a wooden leg off an amputee who was 70 years old. So to answer your question, no, I don’t feel like a badass. The fight scenes are all a big lie. The whole time, you’re trying not to get hit in the eye with a sword, and you wish you had on a welding helmet. In one of the battle scenes I did, it was cold and wet, and if at any point you weren’t wet enough they’d hose you down for consistency. Not that I’m complaining, but when it’s 35 degrees and they’re hosing you down with cold water, it’s very easy to get into that medieval state of mind.
When you won an Emmy, the announcer said that Game of Thrones is “filmed on location in Awesome Land.” Tell us more about this magical place called Awesome Land.
It’s in Northern Ireland. And Croatia, Morocco and Iceland, but mostly Northern Ireland. We shoot in a studio in Ireland where the Titanic was built. Not the movie but the ship that sank. That can’t be a good omen, can it? I love being over there. It’s like getting paid to be a tourist. Not that we have a choice. You can’t shoot a show like this in New Jersey. You need these exotic locations that exist out in the world. It’s why Peter Jackson shot Lord of the Rings in New Zealand. I’m just lucky. We’re in our third season now, and our fourth year doing the show. Northern Ireland isn’t huge, so I think we’ve technically used every bit of geography the country has. We’ve walked every square inch.
There’s a video on YouTube called “Peter Dinklage Gets So Much Pussy” in which two guys talk about how much you’ve been getting laid since Game of Thrones. They estimate your sexual activity has increased 600 percent in the past few years. Does that sound about right?
It depends. By “pussy” do they mean actual pussy? Or is it a metaphor, like for gardening? Because if that’s the case, then yes, I’ve been doing a lot of gardening lately. If they mean sex, they might be getting me confused with somebody else. But if pussy means wearing old-man sweaters and watering my herb garden, then absolutely, I’m getting so much pussy.
You are aware that you’re a sex symbol, right? Some might even call you a DwILF.
DwILF, as in Dwarf I’d Like to Fuck? That’s very clever. Honestly, I think there’s an irony in all of this. I take it with a grain of salt. They’ll say, “Oh, he’s sexy,” but women still go for guys who are six-foot-two. It’s nice that people are thinking outside the box, but I don’t believe any of it for a minute. We still live in a world where Paul Newman is the sex symbol standard.
We notice you have a few scars. Do any of them have interesting stories?
I have a pretty big scar that runs from my neck to my eyebrow. I was in a band called Whizzy for many years in New York. We were this punk-funk-rap band. We played a show at CBGB, and I was jumping around onstage and got accidentally kneed in the temple. I was like Sid Vicious, just bleeding all over the stage. Blood was going everywhere. I just grabbed a dirty bar napkin and dabbed my head and went on with the show. We didn’t care much at the time about personal safety. We were smoking and drinking during our shows, and one time my bass player fell off the back of his amp because he passed out. It was one of those bands.
Have you stolen anything from a movie or TV set, such as your armor from Game of Thrones?
I wouldn’t want it. We’ve all been hurt from the armor so much more than saved by it. It really hurts. If you fall over while wearing that armor, you could get your throat slashed. We had a guy fall off the back of a horse, and if he hadn’t been wearing the armor, he would’ve been fine. But because he was covered from head to toe, he got banged up. It nearly killed him. That stuff is dangerous.
During your Golden Globes acceptance speech, you mentioned Martin Henderson, who was partially paralyzed during a dwarf-tossing attack in Britain. Did you ever hear from him?
No. And he doesn’t need to call me. It’s fine. The whole thing was spontaneous. The morning of the awards my wife and I were having coffee, and she saw a story about him on the internet. She’s the one who told me, “You should say something.” And I was like, “No, no, I don’t want to be one of those actors with their political causes.” But the world is kind of fucked-up, and sometimes you have to put a Band-Aid on the broken leg. My friends were less concerned with what I said than that I apparently brushed off Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie on my way to the stage. When you’re in that moment and you’re about to accept an award and you have no idea what you’re going to say, you don’t notice that Brad and Angelina are reaching out to say hello. All I saw was a sea of people I needed to get through. Friends don’t care about issues like dwarf tossing. They only care about “Dude, you dissed Brangelina.”
You’re from New Jersey. Was your upbringing more like a Bruce Springsteen song or the reality show Jersey Shore?
It’s funny you mention Springsteen. I was born in Bay Head, New Jersey, and his manager lived next door to us. Bruce used to come over to his house and hang out and play guitar. This was when I was two, so I don’t remember any of it. My mom and dad went to a wedding at a surfboard factory, and Bruce was in the wedding band. He was about 17 years old at the time. My mom didn’t think he was that great. She told me he was too loud. But yeah, I liked growing up in Jersey. I was always jealous of kids who grew up in New York City. They seemed so much cooler and well-rounded. It’s like the guys who grew up with a sister. They weren’t as strange or nervous around women as the rest of us. When you grow up in the city, you have a different walk. You have this ease and confidence about you. I desperately wanted that confidence as a teenager.
You were an insecure teenager? That sounds like everybody on the planet.
I know, right? High school is a funny thing. On one hand you’re so fragile. But I thought I was William Burroughs by the age of 13, so I had this massive ego as well. Everything in high school feels like it’s life or death. Shakespeare really got it right with Romeo and Juliet. Even though in most stage versions or movies they’re played by adult actors, Romeo and Juliet were 13. I went to a pretty athletic high school, and I didn’t have many friends. I remember once talking to my best friend, and we came up with the idea that we should hang ourselves off the bell tower. “That’ll show them.” We totally had no inclination to commit real suicide at all; we just liked the idea of the whole town responding to this tragedy, how the school would mourn. Oh God, we were so dramatic.
As kids, you and your brother would perform puppet shows for your parents. Was that your first taste of—
Whoa, whoa, just hold on! That sounds like I’m Ed Gein or John Wayne Gacy. [haughtily] “When I was performing puppet shows for mother and father.” Good God, man. “When I skinned the squirrels and made puppets out of their carcasses and performed them for Mother and Father.” Is that the impression you’re trying to give people?
So it’s not true? There were no puppet shows?
[Sighs] Yes, it’s true. But it was for the neighborhood, not just Mom and Dad. Everybody in the neighborhood would come over and watch my brother and me do puppet shows. We basically did little puppet musicals with the loudest songs we could find. We did a puppet version of Quadrophenia, the Who album. We made drum kits out of tuna fish cans. It was fun. We would have haunted houses too. My brother, who’s a violinist now, was the real ham, the real performer of the family. His passion for the violin is the only thing that kept him from being an actor.
You said no for a lot of years as an actor: no to playing elves or leprechauns, no to any role you thought was degrading, even if you were starving or unable to pay your rent. What’s the trick to saying no when your bank account says yes?
It was never easy to say no. There were consequences, of course. I think I was more arrogant back then. I had this clear image of who I wanted to be, maybe too clear. I didn’t allow anything to break the outline of it. I was very protective and defensive, mostly because of my size. I expected the entertainment business to see only my size and nothing else, so I wanted to pretend my size wasn’t who I was at all and do roles that had nothing to do with it. But I was completely limiting myself and my career, because it is who I am. Look at roles like Tyrion. My size is obviously why I got the part. I wouldn’t be playing Tyrion if I wasn’t this size.
How did you make peace with that?
I didn’t for many years. I basically just decided not to have a career. That was my only option, or what I thought was my only option. And then I started meeting friends who were writers and directors, and I found a back door. They put me in independent films, such as The Station Agent and Living in Oblivion. I came to terms with using my size rather than being exploited by it.
What’s your secret to being poor in New York?
I don’t think I have a secret. Back then it was so cheap to live in Brooklyn. That’s why we went there, because we could afford it. There was nothing hip about it. I don’t know how people do it these days, because Brooklyn isn’t cheap anymore. At the time, we were living without any heat, not even a stove. I’m a baby now. I like my comforts. But in my 20s my friends and I took suffering for our art to an extreme. It sounds so ridiculous now. “In my day, we ate grubs and had a book of matches for heat. We made soup out of drywall.” Shut up, young me.
You played Tina Fey’s boyfriend on 30 Rock. She reportedly wrote the part for you because she wanted a “show-mance” with you. How do you politely tell Tina Fey, “I’m sorry, but I’m married”?
Well, she’s married as well. And also, this is what we do for a living. You’ve blurred the line here, buddy boy. Seriously, though, even if she were single, I wouldn’t have a chance. The line of people who want Tina Fey’s attention is already way too long. We shot most of our scenes on the street in New York, and this was around the time she was doing her Sarah Palin impersonation on Saturday Night Live. She was like royalty at that time. I mean, she’s always royalty, but especially at that time. You’ve never seen somebody more beloved by an entire city. Strangers were constantly walking up and saying hello or telling her how much they loved her. It was insane to watch. I’ve never seen anything like it.
You’ve never had fans approach you on the street?
Well, yeah, but not in that volume. I don’t know if I could deal with that. I did Comic-Con in San Diego once, and I couldn’t even leave the hotel. Game of Thrones fans are the nicest people ever, but a thousand nice people coming at me gives me claustrophobia. And I can’t wear a pair of sunglasses and pull my hat down and just disappear. I’m four and a half feet tall, so I sort of stand out. The thing I really hate are the camera phones. They’re always trying to sneak pictures without you noticing. It feels invasive. And I think it says a lot about our society. There’s not a person on the other side of camera, as far as they’re concerned.
You’ve done a few films with director Frank Oz, who’s probably most famous for being the voice of Yoda in the Star Wars series. Did you ever ask him to say anything as Yoda?
Oh my god, no. That would be too real, it would blow your mind. Your head would explode. I worked with Frank years ago on a movie called Death at a Funeral, and it was an ensemble with a bunch of guys around my age. If you’re in your 40s, you’re a Star Wars freak. It took a lot for us to control ourselves, but we all managed it. He was amazing for reasons that had nothing to do with Yoda. Like his cursing.
What was so amazing about his cursing?
That he was doing it at all. I mean, I have a foul mouth, and everyone I know has a foul mouth. Every other word out of our mouth is “fuck.” But you hear someone like Frank, who’s such a part of your childhood, swearing up a storm, it’s just jaw-dropping. I did Sesame Street a little while ago, and those puppeteers are hilariously dirty. When the kids aren’t around, it’s like being in a muppet brothel. I think that’s how they keep their sanity. When you’re doing stuff for kids all day, you have to unload every once in a while. I had a muppet humping my leg. It was fantastic.
Last year you gave a commencement speech at your alma mater, Bennington College, and walked onstage with a mace. You mentioned that a student gave it to you. Was that true?
It was. His name was Ben, I think, and he just handed it to me five minutes before I went out. He said it was a gift. It was actually quite heavy. That kid knew what he was doing. Hopefully he’s a successful sculptor right now. The interesting thing was, the ball part of it, which he had bronzed or silvered or whatever, was an artichoke. He had dipped an artichoke in bronze. So if you smelted it, you could probably have a meal afterward. I left the mace with my mom. I think it’s on her mantel right now. The next day I had to fly out to do a job, and I couldn’t take a mace on the plane with me. My mom offered to take it off my hands, and it’s still there. I think she’s using it as protection out in Jersey.
You’re developing a biopic of the Fantasy Island actor Hervé Villechaize, in which you’ll likely star. Other than being a dwarf, what do you have in common with Villechaize?
I guess not much. We’re very different personalities. He had a desire that was definitely thwarted by the world, but I’m fascinated by him. He was quite outrageous. My friend the movie director Sacha Gervasi has been working on the script for a while, basing it on an interview with Hervé he did when he was a journalist. A magazine hired him to do a puff piece, but they ended up talking for hours. At one point Hervé pulled a knife on Sacha. He was like a pirate, an incredible character. Hervé killed himself about a week later, so Sacha realized the interview was actually a suicide note. It’s a terribly sad tale, but there’s something fun about getting into the skin of a guy like that, pretending to be him for a few months.
Villechaize preferred to be called a midget. Do you consider the word offensive?
It’s like the N word among short-statured people. The etymology of the word is not good, but some of us have made it our own. We add an e with an accent at the end, so now it’s midgeté—sort of a French version. I have a friend—not a dwarf—who’s an alchemist of sorts. He concocted a men’s cologne that he calls Midgeté Midgeté. He gave me a bottle as a gift. I was thinking, We should totally put this on the market. You know how Jessica Simpson and Beyoncé have signature perfumes and make a mint? I’m thinking this cologne could be my ticket to fortune. When this Game of Thrones thing winds down, Midgeté Midgeté could be my next thing.
What does Midgeté, Midgeté smell like?
I have yet to use the cologne, because the bottle is too beautiful. I just can’t. It’d be like taking a Star Wars toy out of the original packaging. But I have my suspicions. I think it smells like the hollow of a tree. You get me? You get me there? It smells like only the part of a stream that goes under a bridge.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the May 2013 issue of Playboy magazine.)