TORONTO, Oct. 2 — Peter Dinklage will not pretend that size doesn’t matter. He just counters people’s curiosity over his height with humor.
“What do you mean? I’m a dwarf, man?” the 4-foot, 6-inch actor wails, staring down at his stubby legs and flailing his hands in mock horror. “Oh, my God! Whoa! I thought it was a part I played! I thought he was the dwarf, not me! I was acting, right?”
Dinklage wryly slips into aloof acting-coach mode, droning instructions to “act more dwarf.”
He was not always so easygoing about stares or comments over his size.
“When I was younger, definitely, I let it get to me,” Dinklage, 34, said during a recent interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, where his new movie “The Station Agent” played. “As an adolescent, I was bitter and angry, and I definitely put up these walls. But the older you get, you realize you just have to have a sense of humor. You just know that it’s not your problem. It’s theirs.
A veteran off-Broadway performer, Dinklage has found some meaty roles on stage, where height is less of an issue than in Hollywood. His size has marginalized his movie opportunities, which have consisted mostly of bit parts and oddball fringe characters.
Until “The Station Agent” came along. A surprise charmer at last winter’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won the award for audience favorite, “The Station Agent” hurls Dinklage into leading-man’s shoes as an unsociable, train-obsessed dwarf who inherits an abandoned railway depot and takes up residence there.
The well-mannered drollness with which Dinklage’s character, Fin McBride, fends off human contact makes for one of the year’s best performances. It’s delivered with serene heart and humor as his defenses dissolve amid budding friendships with a grief-stricken artist (Patricia Clarkson) and a lonely coffee peddler (Bobby Cannavale).
Writer-director Tom McCarthy “saw a golden opportunity to take a great actor who unfortunately is marginalized and bring him into the mainstream, bring him into a leading-man role,” Clarkson said. “Because Peter is such a leading man. What he lacks in height he makes up for in everything else.
“He’s one of the sexiest men I’ve met, I’m telling you. I just adore him.”
Playwright McCarthy had the general story idea of an emotionally disconnected character living in a train depot. He knew he had his man when he met Dinklage, whom he cast as Tom Thumb in his off-Broadway play “The Killing Act.”
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McCarthy was undeterred by Dinklage’s height or his relative inexperience in movies.
“There were a lot of questions about whether this guy can pull it off,” McCarthy said. “He was like a secret weapon, because I knew how good he was. His performance is so understated. Like the way he just says, ‘Yeah.’ It’s like an exercise in great acting, a hundred different ways to say, ‘Yeah.’”
McCarthy wrote the three principle roles in “The Station Agent” specifically for Dinklage, Clarkson and Cannavale, longtime comrades in New York theater circles.
As the script developed over the years, the four would periodically regroup for readings, an extended rehearsal process that shows results with the comfortable camaraderie the actors capture in the film.
“We had been living with the script for so long, and we were determined to make this film, but we weren’t going to make it if one of the pieces of the puzzle, one of us, were missing,” Dinklage said. “People have been telling Bobby, Patty and myself that they love the relationship between the three of us. There is something to be said for the fact that we are so close friends, we had so much fun making the movie. I guess that showed through.”
The film addresses Fin’s size matter-of-factly, with characters doing double-takes when first encountering him, as people might in real life, then forgetting about his size.
McCarthy said he did not want to make a mushy “coming-of-height” story, and Dinklage was happy the film never turned to movie-of-the-week sentimentality.
Some of Fin’s mannerisms were borrowed from Dinklage’s own experiences in deflecting unwanted attention over his size, which he usually tries to ignore. He does encourage curious children to ask questions about his dwarfism, though.
“Tom incorporated some of that into the movie, the stuff with the kids,” Dinklage said. “That sort of openness, that sort of, ‘You a midget? You’re an adult, but you’re my size. What’s up? What grade are you in?’ There’s nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t come from a cruel place.
“I had a kid here yesterday, he was looking at me, thinking, is that, is that a little man or a kid? It was just so cute. Is that a little kid? He’s trying to put the pieces together.”
Dinklage grew up in New Jersey, half an hour away from the rural town where “The Station Agent” was shot. Growing up, he acted in school plays, then studied drama at Bennington College before pursuing stage work in New York City.
Before “The Station Agent,” Dinklage’s most memorable movie role was in 1995’s arthouse hit “Living in Oblivion,” his debut film. Other credits include small parts in “Human Nature” and this fall’s upcoming holiday comedy “Elf,” in which Dinklage plays a snobbish children’s book author who beats the tar out of star Will Ferrell for mistakenly calling him one of Santa’s elves.
Dinklage said he has found a “trickle, a little drip” of fresh scripts coming his way, including some lead-role prospects, since “The Station Agent” premiered at Sundance.
“Somebody asked me, ‘Is this the role of your lifetime?’ I go, ‘Well, for now,’” Dinklage said. “The next one will be when I work again with Tom, Bobby and Patty. I’m sure that’ll be the next best experience of my lifetime."