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The actor: Stage and screen star Peter Dinklage, best known as the lead in The Station Agent. He was recently seen as the villain in Underdog, he's playing Trumpkin in the upcoming Prince Caspian, and from now until December, he's appearing onstage in The New Group's Things We Want, the Off-Broadway directorial debut of Ethan Hawke.
The Station Agent (2003)—"Finbar McBride"
Peter Dinklage: It was written and directed by one of my good friends, Tom McCarthy. We'd been trying to get that movie made for a while. Which was really nice. Tom sort of wrote it for the three leads: Bobby Cannavale, Patricia Clarkson, and myself. So whenever we were available, we'd get together in somebody's living room and just read through the latest draft. Eventually it paid off—it took us a little while to get the money, so Tom was able to rework the script a number of times, based on our readings. And then when the money fell into place, it all happened sort of quickly. Suddenly we were at Sundance. [Laughs.]
The A.V. Club: How much input did you have into either the character or the story of the film?
PD: It's 100 percent Tom's script. The funny thing is, a lot of people thought it was my story, that it was biographical, or that I co-wrote it. I find that a little amusing—I think it has a lot to do with my size. I found it peculiar that people would immediately assume it was my story or that I co-wrote it, but it was neither. I never lived in an abandoned railroad station. I did a play with Tom years ago, four or five years before we shot the movie, and we just loved working together, and Tom thought it would be a good idea to make me that character, I guess.
AVC: A bunch of your roles directly address issues surrounding dwarfism. Do you get that a lot, the assumption that you're playing yourself, or speaking through your characters?
PD: I try not to make it too didactic. It is who I am and all of that, and there it is. But I'd rather not clock people over the head with it, because… Really, in my day-to-day life—maybe because I live in New York, where everybody has a peculiarity about them—it hasn't become a defining trait of my person, you know.
Mostly, people don't make that assumption. But for some reason, with that film in particular, they thought that. Maybe because it was my first leading role, I'm not sure. I guess it's basically a compliment in the end, because we all got pretty close to those characters—we'd been with them for a few years. But no, I think that was the only movie where that was an issue.
AVC: You pointed out that you wound up in this film because you were in a play with the director—do you find that film work and stage work often lead to each other, or is that rare?
PD: Well, that's why I live in New York. I'm doing Things We Want right now, and I love going back to theater. I think it really sort of grounds you, and keeps you alive. Keeps you active. I mean, It's a shame how a lot of actors use theater as a stepping stone to film and television work; I think it shouldn't be treated that way. Maybe it's narcissism or something. I think we should always go back to it. I try and do a play a year, and I think that's really helped me.
Living In Oblivion (1995)—"Tito"
PD: That was my first film. I was working an office job at the time, and I get a call from this guy named Tom, and I thought it was one of my friends playing a practical joke on me. Because I picked up the phone in my cubicle—it was a cubicle temp job—and this guy says "Hi, my name is Tom DiCillo, and I was wondering if you could come in and do a read for me for this movie I'm directing called Living In Oblivion." Oh no, at the time, it was called Scene Six Take Three, or some working title. And I was like [Heavy sarcasm.] "Yeah, sure, I'll be there tomorrow," then some expletive or something, and I hung up on him. About five minutes later, he calls back and he's like, "Um, no, it's really—hi, my name is Tom and, uh, I'm really making this movie." I felt really bad. So I was very close to hanging up on my first film job. But it was great. I came in and read for him, and he gave me the part right after I read. I couldn't have been luckier, that being my first film. I've always been a huge fan of independent films, and that was independent and then some, and with amazing actors. I had just started to really discover Steve Buscemi and his films, and Catherine Keener, so I was pretty excited to do that one. And it was great. It was a good time.
AVC: You play a very difficult, angry actor who refuses to cooperate with the director. Was that ever an issue, starting off a career where the only image people would have of you was as someone intimidating and hard to work with?
PD: I think that because it was a comedy, people understood. Have I ever been in the position that that character was in? Sure. Where it's just driven me crazy. But I sort of learned to not accept those roles, where I'm playing a sight gag and stuff. Maybe after I did that performance, people who thought about offering me those roles weren't going to any more, which is fine by me. But who knows? I can't speak for anybody else who was terrified by the blue tuxedoed dwarf. Hopefully it didn't scare anybody away too much.
AVC: If you didn't seek out your first film role, how did you go from there to a film career? Did you get the bug, or did more things come to you as a result of that first film?
PD: No, it was slow going. Living In Oblivion I got right after I got out of college. And a lot of actors think their first big break—like, they'll get a movie or a TV show or something, and they're set for life. But you know, I did that movie, and then I went back to my day jobs and temping and doing shitty work to pay the rent. And other little projects came, but they don't pay a lot of money, you know? You can't really survive off of doing one of those every once in a while. No, it was slow going at first. It took a good five years to get going. Until, finally, I could say "I make my living as an actor." It's not what you'd expect.
PD: Lassie was amazing. I didn't have any scenes with humans. There's a couple little bits, here or there, but mainly just me and my horse and a couple of dogs in the Isle of Man. [Director] Charles Sturridge, I grew close to. He's an incredible person. We ended up doing a production of Endgame two years after the film as part of a Samuel Beckett 100th birthday celebration. We still keep in touch. I really enjoyed that experience. He's an amazingly intelligent, creative person. I would love to work with him again.
AVC: W.C. Fields famously said you should never work with animals or children.
PD: It is hard working with animals, I've got to say. We did the same thing with Underdog. Your pockets are filled with bacon, there's meat dangling above your head so the dog looks like it's looking in your eyes, there are trainers standing by who have to shout commands before you say your lines. It's slow going. That's what they say: "Don't work with children or animals." I've done a couple of movies where I've done both, and, especially with the animals, it's slow going. But the end result has worked out somehow.
Nip/Tuck (2006)—"Marlowe Sawyer"
PD: I was unemployed, I had an apartment in L.A. that I was not utilizing that my wife and I had started renting just a few months before, so my manager called and said "Would you like to do this show called Nip/Tuck for two months, like eight episodes?" And I really wanted to go to L.A. I wasn't interested in doing television, because I'd done a series that got cancelled called Threshold, and I just wanted to get back to film and theater work. But I don't know. They caught me at a weak moment. [Laughs.] Not to say that doing TV is a weak moment, but the timing of it worked out. I had never actually seen the show before, because I didn't have cable or anything, but I liked the people involved, and I met with Ryan Murphy, the creative person behind that show, and he sort of inspired me to do it. Because he's a pretty smart individual. So I said yes. By the end of the meeting, I agreed, and I'm glad I did it.
AVC: Strictly from an acting standpoint, do you have a preference between film, stage, and TV?
PD: No. It all has to do with the material and who you're working with. I've learned the older I get—I'm closing in on 40 now, and one thing it's taught me is to really have no preconceived notions of what you're going into because your hopes are so high, because you think a project's going to be great. But it could be disastrous, and vice versa. So you've gotta keep the options a bit open. It really all comes down to who you work with. I like to mix it up, to go from one thing to the next. It's sort of the joy of being an actor. Being on television, playing the same character for many years, for me, I think that would get a little tedious. But if you have a great role—it just depends on the individual.
PD: That one's impossible to find. Shit, Gary Oldman is one of my all-time favorite actors, so when I heard he was in it, and I'd get to play his delinquent best friend, I immediately said yes. I thought it was a really interesting idea, about dwarfism and genetics and all that. Too bad it sort of fell apart. That's one of those things where it's out of the actors' hands. I had a great time making it. I got to work with Patricia Arquette again. She was there with me at the audition. I thought it was going to be great, and it was great. But then it sort of—I don't know what happened after we all left, but I heard various stories about the post-production business, and it's a real shame. That's one of the things about theater vs. film—with theater, actors have a little more control, and one of the disappointing things about films is that once you're done shooting, anything can happen, you know? They can make a tragedy into a comedy. And things can fall apart, like I guess this movie did. It's a shame. That movie could have been great, but something bad happened and c'est la vie.
AVC: Did you see the finished product?
PD: Yeah. I did.
AVC: Do you tend to watch your own films?
PD: I try to. I've been working quite a bit lately, so I had a couple movies out this summer, Death At A Funeral and Underdog, and I haven't seen them because I was in Prague and we didn't get any movies over there. And by the time I got back, they had already left the theaters. So I haven't seen those. I cringe when I see myself onscreen—sometimes I close my eyes—but I do watch my films out of sheer curiosity, to see how the director finished it up. I've seen most of 'em.
Underdog (2007)—"Dr. Simon Barsinister"
PD: Six weeks in Providence, Rhode Island, which I didn't know had a large history of crime. But it's three hours outside of New York, so I would get to come home on the weekends, and it was fun. It was the first time I've been under some serious prosthetics, which is interesting in and of itself. And it piqued my interest, playing a character that physically transformed me. It was fun. I think the kids enjoyed it. I got to play a villain in a movie based on a cartoon so, you know, the normal rules don't apply. You get to have a little fun.
Death At A Funeral (2007)—"Peter"
PD: That was great. [Laughs.] Frank Oz is—you know. Yoda. He's tremendous. That was about a month in London. I was one of the few Americans in the cast. I just loved it. It was hard to get through some of those takes. We were laughing quite a bit on that set. We had a really good time. And I haven't seen the movie yet, but hopefully that sort of showed. Because people have said that about The Station Agent, they felt like it showed that everybody on the film cared about each other and got along. I think sometimes that shows through. And I'm sure it showed through in Death At A Funeral, because we had a grand old time.
AVC: We actually interviewed Frank Oz in conjunction with Death At A Funeral and he was very prickly.
PD: Was he? Oh no!
AVC: He was fascinating, he was just surprisingly aggressive.
PD: Did he say—he hated me, right? It was going fine until you mentioned my name, and then it went south.
AVC: [Laughs.] He was prickly about just about everything, which really fascinated readers, because they think of him as Yoda, or Miss Piggy, basically. What's he like on the set? Is he a very demanding director?
PD: No, he knows exactly what he wants, but he loves actors, I gotta say. Being a performer himself. He gets it, and he doesn't steamroll over things. He really lets you do your thing. No, no, no. It was so much fun working with him. He's a foul-mouthed, wonderful man. It's always fun to hear Yoda say "Fuck!" But that diminishes him as a director, calling him Yoda. I think he's tremendous.
Elf (2003)—"Miles Finch"
PD: Uh… [Pause.] Will Ferrell is a very quiet person? Everybody asks me about Will Ferrell, because I knew him for about three days. But he's extraordinarily funny, and he's quiet between takes. I thought that was interesting. I think a lot of great male comic actors are introspective, quiet personalities, which I really admire. But they are really able to turn it up when the camera's on. I really enjoyed that movie, and the final result that Jon Favreau made was really entertaining. I had a good time. And it's shot in Vancouver, which is a very pretty city.
AVC: Did you find with Jon Favreau, or with Ethan Hawke in Things We Want, that actors make better directors? Worse directors? Different directors?
PD: I can't say, because my wife is a theater director. She used to act, she's not an actress anymore, and she'll kill me if I say actors are worse directors. But it really depends. I think because they've been on the other side of the camera or been onstage, they know what that's like, and they can know what to throw out—what worked when they were the actors. But I've worked with other actors directing before, and they were terrible. It works both ways. It does provide a bit of insight into how to work with actors, but it doesn't necessarily make the direction better or worse.
AVC: You mentioned independent films. Looking over your filmography, there are a lot fewer big Hollywood products like Elf or Underdog than films like Little Fugitive. Do you actively seek out smaller films?
PD: To make a crazy generalization, a lot of the larger films are made in commerce. Not art, but commerce: a moneymaking machine. And a lot of machines don't have that much interest in artistic worth. I try to lean toward something that will make me proud of what I accomplished. I guess I have the luxury of being a working actor, and being able to say that and choose what I'm in. I guess I gravitate toward interesting stories. And I guess that the more interesting stories don't get a lot of money to be made. That's bad, but it's the truth in the film industry. That's what I gravitate toward, but, shit, there are a number of big-budget movies that I've loved, with artistic integrity, and I'd gladly do any of those. But I just am a little picky. [Laughs.] And don't want to be involved in crap.
AVC: Can you talk about some roles you've been offered that you've turned down?
PD: No, because I think that's disrespectful. I've read interviews where people have done that, and I think it's pretty disrespectful for the people who eventually play the roles. It sort of takes something away. So I don't really like to talk about that. Suddenly, people are picturing you in that role, and thinking "That would have been great." I just think that the people who play the roles should get all the credit.
Jail Bait (2004)—"Lindo"
PD: I really hated that title, because it sounds like a porno. That was a film made by a guy I met through a friend who lives in L.A. He told me about the story, and he wanted me to play this part. We shot about 15 minutes of footage, funding fell out from underneath him, and we had to abandon the project. That was an interesting little time. I kind of saw it happening, maybe, because of the way the process was going on. He didn't get all the funding in place, but he was already shooting it, and that's a little dangerous. But if that's the way you want to work, than that's the way you want to work. And I was glad to do it. It's another one of those stories where things fall apart because, unfortunately, you need more than $20 to shoot a movie.
Surviving Eden (2004)—"Sterno"
PD: That one was completed. I never actually saw Surviving Eden, and don't really know how to get hold of it. I was away working when it was screening. But that was fun—my friend Michael Panes was the lead, and he got me involved in it. A couple of days in L.A. with my friends; it was fun. I had no idea what the end result was going to be. Sometimes I'll get involved with projects based on friendships, which I don't mind doing. I should read the entire script before getting involved. I'm trying to be a little more careful, because you do have to watch friends going "Hey, can you come in? Do a cameo?" But why not?
The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian (scheduled for release May 2008)—"Trumpkin"
PD: We just finished shooting the principal photography about a month ago. We were in New Zealand, and then we were in Prague, Poland, and Slovenia. It was a really long shoot. I had never worked on a movie that long. It was about eight months. There's so much to do. There are so many characters, and so much makeup, and so many creatures and special effects. I guess it takes that long to shoot these things. I got homesick, of course, but those were long days, and I was under a lot of makeup. Three hours of makeup every morning. Sometimes the long days got the better of me. Looking back, it's an invaluable experience, and I'm really glad I did it. But it's really cool. I'm going to have a toy—I'm going to have an action figure. You can't really have an action figure with an independent feature. [Laughs.] It's a little sad to say "I'm going to have an action figure!" while looking back at the movies that I've done—it sounds like my priorities are messed-up. But it was a good experience.
AVC: Were you a fan of the books beforehand?
PD: I wasn't really familiar with the books—I knew of them, back then, but I was more of a JRR Tolkien fan, Lord Of The Rings and stuff. But when they were interested in me for the role, I read the first few books. I enjoyed them, and I saw the movie they made, which I also enjoyed.
It's a little strange, and I don't mean for this to sound like a criticism of these movies—I am involved in them, but let me turn it around for a second. What do you think of these amazing works of children's literature being turned into movies? Does it leave room for imagination? When kids read the Harry Potter books, they must think of the actors now, and not think up their own characters. It's a little tricky, that issue. Do you think it's healthy? I guess I might be being a little hard. But I have to admit, I admire J.D. Salinger for never wanting to sell the rights to Catcher In The Rye, for holding his own.
AVC: What's your favorite role that we haven't covered?
PD: Didn't we cover everything?
AVC: It probably feels that way, but we haven't.
PD: My favorite role is being myself when I'm not working, when I am at home with my wife and my dog. But ask me in a few years, and I'll get back to you on that.