Peter Dinklage: Life After Game Of Thrones
Just a guy from Jersey changing Hollywood
By Jayne Jacova Feld

Peter Dinklage has defied expectations his whole life. The actor known to have rejected the kind of jobs that would have paid well early in his career – but typecast him to his size – credits his New Jersey upbringing for putting him on that path.

One of his earliest brushes with stardom, Dinklage recalls, was the thrill of nailing the starring role in his elementary school’s production of “The Velveteen Rabbit.” As the lovable stuffed bunny, the then fifth-grader carried the show – and was rewarded handsomely with multiple standing ovations.

“When you get your first solo bow,” Dinklage, 52, has said, “that feels pretty good.”

The hook was strong enough to get him through many lean years of living in poverty while turning away from casting calls for clichéd leprechauns and Christmas elves. It helped him overcome his own doubts that he could break through entrenched expectations of what a leading man looks like.

 

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in “Game of Thrones.” Photo: HBO

Dinklage was nearing 40 when he landed the star-making role in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” as Tyrion Lannister. And now, not only does he no longer have to fight for the kind of roles that showcase his talents, those jobs come to him. The title role in “Cyrano,” a new take on the play of unrequited love, was literally created with him in mind.

In the classical telling, Cyrano de Bergerac is a swashbuckling nobleman with an unusually large nose who helps another man woo the woman they both love by ghost-writing love letters to her. That role, Dinklage says, never held his interest. That is until his real-life wife, writer and director Erica Schmidt, reimagined Cyrano as a dwarf for a musical version of the French 17th-century play. After a successful off-Broadway run in 2018, Schmidt adapted it for the big screen.

In this retelling, the giant nose, which was played up for laughs through the centuries, has been jettisoned. It is Cyrano’s small size that makes the title character feel unlovable in this version, which Schmidt adapted for the movie that is expected in theaters later this month.

“Cyrano was always played by a handsome actor in a fake nose,” Dinklage says during a recent press conference about the film, which also stars Haley Bennett as Roxanne, the love interest, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. as his rival Christian. “I didn’t know my way into it until Erica stripped it down to bare essentials. She kept the heart and got rid of the nose. It just suddenly spoke to me.”

Schmidt says this version is more relatable to audiences coming off months of feeling the isolation and angst of pandemic restrictions. “The nose to me is like a conspiracy between the actor and the audience,” she says. “It allows you to laugh at what he finds painful.”

Peter Dinklage stars in the lead role in “Cyrano,” released in theaters this month. “Cyrano” photos: Peter Mountain © 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Dinklage’s Cyrano stirs up more complex emotion, adds Director Joe Wright. “The casting of Peter in that role has a kind of immediacy and authenticity,” says Wright, best known for directing “Pride & Prejudice” (2005), “Atonement” (2007), “Anna Karenina” (2012) and “Darkest Hour” (2017). “With other Cyranos you feel the actor, at the end of the night, can take off the nose, go to the bar and chat up Roxanne and whatever.”

Dinklage, who grew up in North Jersey, was born with achondroplasia, the most common form of short-limbed dwarfism. Raised by a music-teaching mother and an insurance-selling father, both he and his brother Jonathan were natural performers. While Jonathan became a professional violinist, Dinklage studied drama at Bennington College in Vermont and moved to New York in 1991 to make a name for himself.

In a 2012 commencement speech at Bennington, which went viral, Dinklage notes that his overnight success was years in the making.

“I didn’t want a day job,” he states. “I was an actor, I was a writer. I was a Bennington graduate. I had to get a day job. I dusted pianos at a piano store. I worked on the property of a Shakespeare scholar for a year pulling weeds and removing bees’ nests. I went on unemployment once but not for long, I couldn’t handle the guilt.”

“Eventually I was able to pay rent for a spot on the floor of an apartment on the Lower East Side. But my roommate had a breakdown and disappeared. He later resurfaced in a religious cult. I’m making this sound romantic. It really wasn’t.”

After 2 more years flailing around, Dinklage says he was tired of scrounging for money and took a fulltime job doing data entry. He hated it but clung to it for years.

“When I was 29, I told myself the next acting job I get no matter what it pays, I will from now on, for better or worse, be a working actor,” Dinklage said, noting that’s when good things started happening for him.

“The Station Agent,” a 2003 small-budget film in which Dinklage plays an introverted train aficionado who inherits a tiny depot building in rural New Jersey, is considered his breakout role that led to bigger and better parts.

 

Peter Dinklage with his 2015 Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series

Some 8 years later he was cast in GOT, where he won 4 Emmy awards and a Golden Globe. He is currently one of the highest paid actors on television, having reportedly earned over $1.2 million per episode for the final season in 2019.

With “Cyrano,” Dinklage says one of the welcomed challenges was the fact that it was a musical with songs written by The National, one of his favorite bands. He says he didn’t train specifically to tackle the songs and hadn’t done so for an audience since his high school production of “The Pirates of Penzance.”

“The key was not to pretend to be a singer and just sing from whatever soul you have and sing as yourself,” he says, noting that he could never sound like the National’s Matt Berninger. “I had to stop listening to him to stop doing an imitation of him. We all sound like Aretha Franklin in the shower, or Stevie Wonder or Freddie Mercury, but we’re not. When you come to terms with that, that’s what sets you free.”

 

February 2022
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