How Peter Dinklage refused to be stereotyped: A look at Emmy winner's struggles before he was Tyrion Lannister
Dinklage worked odd jobs until he could get his career off the ground. Success may have found him sooner but the actor refused to take parts that mocked dwarfism
When ‘Game of Thrones’ premiered on HBO on April 17, 2011, few people knew who was Peter Dinklage. Playing Tyrion Lannister, the Imp, the intelligent, alcoholic dwarf in the George RR Martin fantasy series changed his life. The role won him the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series a record four times. It also won him a Golden Globe Award in 2011 and a Screen Actors Guild Award in 2020.
Dinklage has since become a household name. But the man was an actor much before that. And before Tyrion Lannister happened, he had more than his fair share of struggles. And there was a big reason behind it – he refused to be stereotyped.
Born in New Jersey in 1969, Dinklage first caught the theater bug after performing in a production of ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’ and discovered that he thrived on the stage. After he graduated from Bennington College with a drama degree, he moved to New York in 1991 with his friend and classmate Ian Bell, with visions of building a theater company modeled on, as per the New York Times, the famous Steppenwolf in Chicago.
But Dinklage struggled to find work. He worked odd jobs until he could get his career off the ground, including cleaning pianos and answering phones. Success may have found him sooner but the actor has staunchly refused to take parts that mocked or diminished him and his dwarfism.
In an interview with The Talks, Dinklage spoke about being picky with his roles. He said, “It’s tricky, but it’s important to say no – especially earlier in your career – because life is short and you want to be proud of things that you have done, not ashamed of them. I thought I was going to be eating canned soup for the rest of my life and I worked a variety of other jobs to supplement my income, but I’d rather be doing that than working on certain acting jobs. I loved acting, so I didn’t want to tarnish it with bad experiences. You just want to feel comfortable with who you are at the end of the day if you can. I was always attracted to great writing and storytelling and the stuff for people my size was limited.”
He added in the same interview: “My size does not define me. It’s just part of who I am, so why would it define a character? The roles I choose, it’s part of who they are but it does not define them. Especially nowadays, a black actor doesn’t play a black actor. He plays a character, who also happens to be black. It doesn’t define you; it’s just part of you.”
In a 2000 interview, Dinklage said, “I haven't had to audition for theater for a long time. I was recently background for an argument scene in Tom Fontana's ‘The Beat’. My agent knows better than to send me up for a K-Mart spot as Santa's helper, which explains why I'm poor. But that's the choice I've made.” For Dinklage, his dream roles then would have been to “play the romantic lead and get the girl.”
His first film role came in 1995 with Steve Buscemi’s indie comedy ‘Living in Oblivion’. Following that the New York-based film director Alexandre Rockwell cast Dinklage in his comedy ‘13 Moons’. Then Tom McCarthy of ‘Spotlight’ fame met Dinklage when the actor portrayed Tom Thumb in a play McCarthy directed and co-wrote.
One day McCarthy and Dinklage ran into each other on a Manhattan street corner and McCarthy thought that Dinklage might be perfect for a script he was working on, ‘The Station Agent’. “We never imagined,” McCarthy told the Times, “that conversation would alter both of our careers.”
But life since has been better for Dinklage. He’s appeared in several films and in critically acclaimed roles. He plays characters. Not dwarves. He is soon to appear in ‘I Care A Lot’, a Netflix black-comedy thriller starring Rosamund Pike and Chris Messina, among others. The film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 12, 2020. ‘I Care A Lot’ will premiere on Netflix on February 19.