During eight seasons of “Game of Thrones,” the character Tyrion Lannister transformed from the depraved black sheep of a powerful clan to the show’s cunning, though often sorrowful, moral center. Viewers loved Tyrion for his wit, but also because he possessed the hard-won wisdom of a born outsider. That, and because he came in the redoubtable four-and-a-half-foot package of Peter Dinklage, who became world-famous as Tyrion after a career in downtown theatre and independent film. Dinklage, who turned fifty this June, was born in New Jersey and moved to New York in the early nineties to be an actor. From the beginning, he had a strong sense of what he wouldn’t do: no elves, no leprechauns. Instead, he found his breakout role in the 2003 indie film “The Station Agent,” and soon after played Richard III at the Public Theatre.
Now that “Game of Thrones” has finished its final season—somewhat divisively, if you haven’t heard—Dinklage has returned to his Off Broadway roots, playing the title character in the New Group’s production of “Cyrano,” a musical version of the classic French play “Cyrano de Bergerac,” by Edmond Rostand. The story, which has been adapted many times over, including in the 1987 Steve Martin film “Roxanne,” is about a man endowed with great eloquence—and a gigantic nose. Racked with self-doubt, he woos his beloved through a handsome yet tongue-tied soldier, ghostwriting his love letters and whispering romantic verses from the shadows. The new version has songs by members of the band the National, and Dinklage, a former punk rocker, delivers his ballads in a thundering baritone.
Before a recent show, Dinklage visited the New Yorker offices to talk about playing the romantic lead, life after Westeros, and the burdens of representation. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Why did you want to play Cyrano?
It’s a fantastic piece of theatre, the original. All the characters are very heightened and very theatrical, and that’s fun to play. I never felt a connection with the nose of it all. As a person who looks like me, whenever I would watch a version of “Cyrano,” I would just think, That’s an actor in a fake nose. What’s all the kerfuffle about? We wanted to really strip it all down and get to the core of what it really is about, which is everybody’s capacity to not feel worthy of love, whether you have a giant nose or not. Anybody can step into the shoes I’m wearing now, in terms of the part. They don’t have to be my height. We all have that insecurity—the desire for something that we don’t know if we’re worthy of, whether it be a woman, a man, or anybody’s affection. The adaptor and director, Erica Schmidt—
—years ago got in touch with the band the National, and it was such a natural fit, because their music is so romantic and filled with yearning. It’s not really a musical, and it’s not really the old story of Cyrano. It’s somewhere in between. The original—it’s a brilliant piece. But does it work now? It’s a lot of plumed hats and sword fighting, and it’s about five hours long.
It’s interesting how the show handles Cyrano’s nose. You don’t wear a prosthetic, but other characters refer to his nose, so we’re left to assume that they’re actually talking about his height.
Right. I’m not wearing a nose and I’m the height I am, so people are going—you can feel it, they’re a bit confused. But I think it’s O.K. to let them follow you down the rabbit hole. I don’t think it has anything to do with my height, either. Scott Stangland, who’s my understudy—he’s six feet tall or something, and he can play the part probably as good or better than I can.
Has he gone on?
No, not yet.
So we’ll never know.
I think this show could work with anyone in the role in terms of physicality. Again, I never really related to the nose. Being who I am, it made me think, What’s the big deal? Why didn’t Rostand, the original writer, take it a step further?
In 2000, you said, “I seem to play a lot of wisecracking, cynical characters, but what I really want is to play the romantic lead and get the girl.” Which sort of happens by the end of “Cyrano.” Was there an urge to play a great romantic character?
Oh, yeah. I’m a romantic. I think most people are. I’ve played my fair share of villainous roles. But there’s a real gift. I look at Cary Grant, who I think is one of the greatest actors we’ve ever had, but he just sort of played always this dashing, romantic guy. Or Harrison Ford—guys like that. There’s a real skill to it, without overplaying your hand. You don’t get all the attention like the villains do, but there’s such a beauty to doing that honestly and truthfully. I always approach each role with who my character is attracted to. Because that’s, I think, the basis of being a human being.
I went to “Cyrano” with a friend who’s an ardent “Game of Thrones” fan, and she observed that, while Cyrano and Tyrion are very different characters, they both seem resigned to being outsiders, and they both compensate with some skill or cunning or talent. Cyrano is a great writer and a great warrior, and Tyrion was probably the smartest person on the show. I was curious if you saw them that way, and if you saw yourself that way.
Both of them have a great deal of courage. But, then again, if you look at Cyrano, how courageous is it to woo a woman the way he’s wooing her, through another man, because he doesn’t have the regard for himself to think he’s worthy of her love? I don’t think Tyrion would do that. He would go straight up to that woman and go, “Hey! I think I’m in love with you.” Whether that’s something that I personally relate to, I think we probably all can. We all like to be the smartest person in the room. But it’s a bit lonely. I enjoy being around people much more intelligent than myself, because it makes you smarter. Why would you want to be the smartest person in the room?
“Cyrano” is a rock musical, and many people have probably not seen you sing before—
—Try to sing.
But you were in a punk band in the nineties, called Whizzy. Please tell me about your punk band.
We were punks, but we didn’t play punk rock. It was a couple of friends from Columbia and a couple of friends from where I went to school, Bennington, in Vermont. We got together, and we just drank too much and played the old CBGB’s. We had a following, but our following was, like, progressive rock. It was all guys. For some reason, just dudes came to our shows. I felt a little bit, like, what’s the point of being in a rock band if there’s no ladies?
Who came up with the name Whizzy?
I think our drummer, Jim. It was a lot of fun. Then we all went our separate ways. But I felt like I was being just a dilettante. They were all real musicians, and they still are. I was just slumming it, having fun, and I don’t think that’s fair. I guess for a front man, it’s a common thing—they have more fun than anybody else.
You didn’t escape unscathed. Don’t you have a scar from crowd-surfing at CBGB’s or something?
I think my friend kicked me in the head. It was O.K. The show went on. I was bleeding all over the place, but it’s rock and roll. You see pictures of those guys back in the day—Sid Vicious or whatever. It’s punk rock, man.
The fact that you have a scar from playing at CBGB’s does make you cooler than most people.
It’s right here. [He reveals a scar over his right eye.]
What were some of your songs called?
I think The New Yorker is too clean for the song titles.
No, it’s not.
Well, one was called “Dick of the Party,” about being a loser drunk at a party. So. I’ll leave it there.
You’re doing this Off Broadway musical directly after starring in the biggest show on television. Were you looking to do something less world-conquering?
I don’t really have an agenda. Whatever is inspiring to me, I go for it. Obviously, you don’t want to repeat yourself. I’m not going to jump into another show with dragons. When I first moved here, all we did was plays. That’s all you think you’re going to do when you’re young in the nineties in New York. You never think about movies or television, because TV: selling out. Movies: who does those? Movie stars. Nothing to do with me. So we just do plays. The older you get, it’s a little tricky, because it’s night life. It rules your day, because it’s the end of every day. And then the adrenaline kicks in at eight o’clock till midnight. I’m a morning person. It doesn’t bode well for theatre actors.
So, I am going to have rocks thrown at me if I don’t ask you about the finale of “Game of Thrones.”
Who throws these rocks? The New Yorker is such a peaceful magazine. The cartoonists? Do they throw pictures of rocks?
Peter, any thoughts on how “Game of Thrones” ended?
[He stares blankly.]
Let me ask you this: Did you follow the fan response?
No. Well, everybody’s always going to have an opinion, and that means an ownership. It’s like breaking up with somebody. They get upset. I can’t speak for everybody, but my feeling is they didn’t want it to end, so a lot of people got angry. I feel like what [the showrunners] Dave [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] did was extraordinary. This happens. Monsters are created. And you don’t see it coming. We vote them into office. You look the other way. So for everybody to get upset because they loved a character so much and they had so much faith in that person—there were signposts all along the way for that character.
You’re speaking, of course, about—spoiler alert—Daenerys Targaryen, who took a bit of a fascist turn.
Yeah. But that’s because of what was happening all along. It added up to something. There are people who’ve named their children Khaleesi. You’ve just got to maybe wait till the series finale before you get that tattoo or name your golden retriever Daenerys! I can’t help you! I’m sorry. She went mad. She was driven to that, and she’s a victim as well in terms of how she was treated. She went through it, and she came out angry, as a lot of us do.
Did you expect that Tyrion would survive through to the end?
No. None of us did. We were all nervous when we got the scripts.
This show took up a good ten years of your life. Looking back, did Tyrion evolve in a way that was connected to how you evolved as a person?
Not particularly. I just loved Northern Ireland, where we shot it. It became my second home. So I miss that life. I miss all of that. It’s pretty extreme things he went through. He killed his father and his girlfriend. I didn’t really progress along the same path as he did. But I did enjoy playing him.
You now have your own production company, and one of the things that you’ve done is the HBO film called “My Dinner with Hervé,” which came out last year. You play Hervé Villechaize, the French-born actor who played Nick Nack in the James Bond film “The Man with the Golden Gun” and is most famous for saying “De plane! De plane!” on the seventies show “Fantasy Island.” This project was fourteen years in the making, right?
Yeah. Sacha Gervasi, the writer-director, was a journalist who was flown to Hollywood to interview Hervé Villechaize, almost as a joke. And it changed his life. He was just as guilty as anybody with any sort of prejudice about this dwarf on an Aaron Spelling show. He was a serious journalist, but he was resentful of being sent on a puff-piece mission—until he met the man, who he realized was incredibly complicated. Hervé killed himself a couple days after Sacha said goodbye to him, so Sacha realized it was sort of a suicide note. Which is in true Hervé style. The man did nothing quietly. For a small man, he cast a huge shadow after his death. It was the first time I’ve ever played somebody who actually existed.
Not only did he exist but he was probably the most famous actor with dwarfism before you.
He wasn’t really an actor, to be fair. [Looks heavenward.] Sorry, Hervé, I love you. He was an incredible painter. He just enjoyed the life style of it all. We’re opposite in that way. I try to keep a lower profile, but I enjoy the work itself. Hervé liked to burn bright. He loved being the rock star that he was, and that got the better of him, because when you put fame in front of the work, what’s the work? That exists so much now in our culture, with the Internet and everybody just wanting to be famous. So he was guilty of that, because he was having a really good time and unapologetic about it. He railed against the idea that he couldn’t do certain things. Because he could, and he did. Like Cyrano, he was a romantic. He wooed and he won many women, which, because of his size, was treated in the press, like, “Wow!” That wouldn’t happen with anybody else who was regular size. It was a novelty that he was with women. Well, yeah. He was. Deal with it.
He was on TV when you were growing up in the seventies. What were your feelings about him, and about representation in popular culture of dwarfism in general?
When you’re eight years old, social justice is not really entering into your biosphere. I remember being aware that on “Fantasy Island” he was the sidekick. But nothing that really bothered me. As a kid, you don’t really care how you’re perceived. You sort of go head first into everything and let your parents pick up the mess. But then adolescence changes all that. If you live in a unique shape, you become hyperaware of the world around you and how it reacts to you and how you engage with it.
In 2003, you starred in “The Station Agent,” as a man who inherits a small-town train depot in New Jersey. He wants to be left alone—he’d be happier with no one paying attention to him, but people do. And there’s one scene where these two guys from town start heckling him, and one guy says, “De plane! De plane!”
I got that all the time.
And the other guy calls him Mini-Me, who was of course the “Austin Powers” character based on Hervé’s character in the Bond movie. It made me wonder if the stuff that Hervé did with his career ended up reinforcing stereotypes.
I myself am not always the most politically correct person in terms of my dwarfism. I don’t care, really. I think that can be damaging as well. For example, if I see a kid and he’s pointing at me, and the parent has him look the other way, what’s that kid going to grow up into? Somebody who can’t make eye contact with somebody who’s four and a half feet tall? That’s sad, to me. I understand it in the moment, because they don’t want to embarrass me. And, what, are we going to have an educational seminar walking down the street? There’s no time for that.
But those little things add up in our DNA in terms of how we see people who are physically unique, and that can be destructive. You have a front-row seat when you’re somebody like me, or anybody who’s physically different. And that’s really not the way. It’s O.K., though. I understand it. No, I’m not an actor to change the world in terms of how somebody my size is presented. I’m really not. Because that would be putting me before the work. It’s just bad writing to make that the dominant character trait. It’s not my dominant character trait. It has to be part of a complex portrait that informs other pieces of your personality.
This reminds me of many other actors who are part of an underrepresented ethnicity, or transgender actors who feel this tension over whether they should be pursuing characters who promote some good representation, or if they should just be eligible for any role, which in a way might be more progressive. In some of the projects you have coming up, it’s really a mix. You’re doing “Rumpelstiltskin”?
Possibly. That’s in the works.
Do you try to balance out the characters you play in how they relate to representation?
No. I’m aware of it only to the point of knowing what on the page makes me feel icky. And I don’t even get that stuff, because the people I work with are not going to allow me to even read garbage like that. I’ve just got to be proud of the work I’ve done. That’s not just post-“Game of Thrones.” I’ve always been like that, since when I had no money. I just said no. It’s important to say no as an actor.
Hervé, as you say, dealt with fame in a very different way than you do. He did a Dunkin’ Donuts commercial where he points to the doughnuts and says, “De plain! De plain!” Which I feel is something you would never do in a million years. But you must have to deal with an existence now where people are yelling “Tyrion!” at you.
Yeah, but I’m proud of Tyrion. I’m proud of “Game of Thrones.” The picture-taking is a little out of hand, because that’s an invasion of privacy—people are just taking pictures without asking. But it’s all usually from a place of goodness. You want, always, to be able to feel good about anything you do being yelled at you down the street. It’s when they yell at you just randomly—that’s just living in New York.
Can you tell me how you became an actor?
I don’t remember. I wish I had a story of following a pretty girl into an acting class, like some actors have. Children are actors—they really all are. Either you stick with it or you don’t. I still don’t know how I feel about it, to be honest.
What do you mean?
I wish I had the brain of a scientist. I don’t. It’s something that I found early, and I held onto. And then if you get any modicum of success with it, then you have to stick with it, because it’s working and you’ve got to pay the bills. What else am I going to do? Move to Seattle and become a botanist? That would be great. But I just can’t right now. That dream is over.
What were your earliest acting roles?
The funny thing is I’ve come full circle, because you’re not doing Eugene O’Neill in seventh grade—you’re doing musicals. You’re doing “Pinocchio” and whatnot.
What parts did you play in musicals?
I was always the villain. I was Jud Fry in “Oklahoma!” The misunderstood Jud Fry. That was my first big role, in the eighth grade, out in New Jersey.
Were there roles you played at Bennington that were important to you?
Yeah. That’s where you get a little more serious about it, and you really think you’re the bee’s knees. I was inspired by what Steppenwolf did and who John Malkovich was. I mean, there’s not an actor my age who wasn’t inspired by “True West,” the Sam Shepard play. That’s what made me really an actor. I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t have the skill set for it. I tried being a playwright because of that play, and I just did cheap imitations.
What was it about “True West”?
Oh, so visceral. Anti-theatre theatre. Just perfection. Full-blooded, sweat, and toast.
Yeah, there’s a lot of toast in “True West.” It’s a masterful play. Maybe more specifically for—I don’t want this to sound wrong—but for men. It’s a very male-driven play. And brothers. I have a brother. Very different relationship than the two characters in that piece.
When you moved to New York, in 1991, what was your plan?
Just to do plays. To scrape by. It was much easier back then to live in New York. I can’t imagine doing it now as a young person, with what theatre pays. But you get some roommates, you pay three hundred bucks a month, and you don’t eat as much as you should. You smoke too many cigarettes. We were just starving artists, but that’s how we wanted to portray ourselves, so it kind of worked.
What were your first apartments like?
Oh, they were dumps after dumps after dumps. They were just tiny and cold. But we were young, so I don’t know. It’s part of the struggle of New York City—the old New York that seems to be disappearing.
What were your day jobs?
I was in an office for quite some time, longer than I should have been. But I was terrified of not being able to pay the bills. And I was turning down acting roles, which weren’t really “acting” roles: commercials and stuff like that. So I just stayed in this cubicle for a few years.
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Data entry. I’d rather be doing that than humiliating myself.
Right. You had a rule: no Santa’s elves, no leprechauns.
Not necessarily a rule. Just nothing strictly for money. Obviously, we all have jobs to get paid, but, if you put money or fame in front of everything else, then it’s not really a path to happiness.
Were there moments where it felt like choosing between doing a Christmas Kmart commercial and not having money for groceries?
At certain points, yeah. They didn’t pay that well. Who’s to say what I would have become if I’d said yes to all those things? Would I be sitting here talking to you? I don’t know. Maybe not. Maybe I’d be unhappy. Maybe I would have given it all up. Yes, eating is important, very important. But not as important as one’s dignity.
The trajectory you were on didn’t necessarily lead to a hit TV show. Did you have trepidations about going into such a huge production?
It wasn’t at the time. It was a long road to get “Game of Thrones” on the air. So I didn’t know what I was entering into. I just knew it was something that inspired me. But you never know how it’s going to be perceived. A show about dragons? There was “Lord of the Rings”—but on TV? Isn’t it going to look cheap? I was just thinking of the character and how they told the character to me in a meeting.
Which was how?
Unlike anything I grew up with, watching people my size in the fantasy genre. They’re relegated to being creatures. They’re not really complex human beings. So I was not really interested in that.
I read that your one request was “no beard, no pointy shoes.”
That was a joke, but it speaks to that cliché. Who invented that cliché? Tolkien? I don’t know. But I don’t really want to fill those pointy shoes. Although I do have a very long beard right now. That’s just cause I’m lazy. And everyone has beards now—it’s really hip.
Now that the show is over, you have a certain amount of cultural capital. What do you want to do with it?
Actors come in in the ninth inning, after a lot of creativity has been sparked. I’m trying to rewind, and I’m producing now, and that inspires me, being on something from the ground floor. I’m acting perhaps much more selectively than I’ve been doing. That’s just a natural progression of getting older. Getting up at 5 A.M. in some strange location when you could be at home in bed—you really need a good project to get you there when you’re my age.
Any chance of getting Whizzy back together?
Sorry. Those days are behind me.
Article originally published by The New Yorker