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When size is irrelevant

Peter Dinklage's ease with hefty roles, as in 'The Station Agent,' may be changing the image of elf-sized performers.

October 05, 2003|Dana Kennedy | Special to The Times

If Peter Dinklage had gotten the part of Mini-Me in 1999's "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," you can bet he wouldn't be pictured sitting shirtless on the edge of a bed next to a gorgeous topless model in a Variety magazine spread headlined "The New Sexy."

And it's doubtful that this month's issue of W would predict that Dinklage "may end up the first dwarf movie heartthrob." Thanks in part to missing out on the Mini-Me role, and what he cheerfully claims is a "lot of luck," Dinklage is reinventing the concept of the dwarf actor as a human punch line with his breakout role in the new movie "The Station Agent."

He plays a short, dark and handsome loner who tries to ignore the overtures of the locals when he moves to a small New Jersey town -- but ends up involved with both a troubled painter (Patricia Clarkson) and a nubile young librarian (Michelle Williams.) That role has positioned him as stud material, but he has two new movies in which he also plays against type.

In the independent film "Tiptoes," which is on the festival circuit but does not have a release date, he rides a motorcycle, sports tattoos and embarks on a steamy romance with Patricia Arquette. The character was written for the late Herve Villechaize and based loosely on his personality. In "Elf," which stars Will Ferrell and opens Nov. 7, Dinklage has a small role as a powerful and ferocious executive. Because short-statured actors have traditionally played elves, gnomes and similar whimsical creatures, Dinklage's role in "Elf" carries a trace of irony: He is the only official "little person" in the movie and he does not play one of Santa's wee helpers.

Dinklage, 34, who stands 4 feet, 5 inches, is not your father's dwarf. His first movie role was memorable. He played a rebellious actor hired for a dream sequence by a harried director (Steve Buscemi) in 1995's "Living in Oblivion," a deft satire of independent filmmaking.

Since then, Dinklage has escaped the cartoonish parts often offered short-statured actors, like the role of Tattoo on the 1970s TV show "Fantasy Island" that required Villechaize to bray "Da plane, da plane!" in every episode.

Against considerable odds, Dinklage's career is taking flight by virtue of the kind of dignified and nuanced roles that few actors ever get -- let alone those of his size.

He has also been featured in Michael Gondry's "Human Nature" (2002) and "13 Moons" (2002) with Buscemi, along with cameos in straight-to-video titles like "Bullet" (1996) with Mickey Rourke.

Tom McCarthy, the writer-director of "The Station Agent," directed Dinklage in a play called "The Killing Act" in which he played Tom Thumb.

McCarthy was inspired to cast Dinklage in "The Station Agent" after walking down the street with him one day and observing how he ignored the taunts and double takes from other people. McCarthy had envisioned the character of Finbar McBride as an isolated, alienated soul but had not thought to cast a dwarf until that moment on the street with Dinklage.

"He's like a big, legendary movie star who walks out in public not letting anyone in and ignoring all the attention," McCarthy says.

"Living in Oblivion" director Tom DiCillo said Dinklage changed his perception of short people.

"I was tired of seeing people of short stature being used as icons of weirdness in film," DiCillo says. "But I still thought that anyone who was short could play this part. I auditioned five or six short actors and was astounded by my stupidity. Just because you're short doesn't mean you're going to do a great job playing a dwarf. Then Peter came in and blew the part apart. He was brilliant."

During an interview at a restaurant in the TriBeCa section of Manhattan, Dinklage is both amiable and slightly guarded. He says he does not mind talking about his dwarfism but clearly is sensitive on the topic and says he would prefer to talk about his work.

"I'm not interested in being a spokesman for anyone or a role model for anyone. I just like to act," Dinklage says. "My main focus is on not being pigeonholed, so I can do a variety of parts."

Dinklage was born and raised in New Jersey, the son of normal-sized parents. His mother is an elementary school music teacher, and his father is a retired salesman. He attended an all-boys prep school and graduated from Bennington College in Vermont. After college, he moved to Brooklyn and attempted to start a small theater in a warehouse with a friend. The theater failed, but Dinklage began to get parts in small, off-off-Broadway productions.

Because of his East Coast bent, Dinklage never was part of the community of short-statured Hollywood actors who make a living in part by filling the industry's demand for novelty parts.

An actor's gotta eat, though, and he and many others auditioned for the role of Mini-Me in the second "Austin Powers" movie.

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