The popular HBO series Game of Thrones, adapted from the books of George R.R. Martin, is one blood-soaked power play after another. But in a world where brute strength can be the difference between life and a slow death, one of the show's strongest characters stands less than 5 feet tall.
The shrewd and resourceful Tyrion Lannister is portrayed by actor Peter Dinklage. Dinklage spent his early career in New York — in an unheated apartment — turning down roles that would have made a joke of his height. His breakthrough finally came in 2003 in the indie darling The Station Agent. But Dinklage, now in his second season on Game of Thrones, has never had a showcase part like Tyrion, a role for which he's won an Emmy and a Golden Globe.
When he first read the role, however, Dinklage had reservations about acting in a fantasy. Dinklage says his prejudice against the genre stems from how it often casts those of his height.
"Usually it's a bit ... 'bearded and pointy-shoed,' " Dinklage tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "This character, Tyrion Lannister, isn't that way at all. ... What immediately attracted me to this — any actor will tell you the same thing, no matter what part it is, it just has to be very well-rounded."
In the quasi-medieval world of the show, Tyrion is a member of a wealthy family, afforded luxuries but treated as a second-class noble due to his stature. Dinklage says the way Tyrion responds to his limitations — with wit, humor and cunning — is his survival mechanism at work.
"He knows he has no skills with the sword," Dinklage says, "and this is a world that is really deeply violent. Military rules. He would not be able to survive in that world, given his own strength. So he beats people to the punchline — he's entertaining."
Dinklage points out that Tyrion tells the jokes, but the character is far from one. And while the physicality of the character is part of the role, Dinklage says, it is not its defining feature.
"It would be stupid if he weren't addressed as an 'imp' in this world, given the surroundings," Dinklage says. "It does address the size issue, but it doesn't knock you over the head with it. Because you don't really need to."
Dinklage says that distinguishes this role from others that he's not interested in — the ones that make height their focus.
"It's a constant reminder," Dinklage says. "Every single page, almost every single line, is geared towards your height. In my day-to-day life, in any person who is my size's day-to-day life, it happens, but it's not a constant."
Dinklage says he's tried to find roles that upend the stereotypes given to actors of his height, appearing as a pugnacious children's author in Elf and as a man grieving the loss of a friend in his breakout role in The Station Agent. But Dinklage says he's not always been successful.
"You do have to make a living," he says. "I do not fault anyone else who makes choices to play characters that they wished they hadn't. ... Because at the end of the day, none of us are happy with our jobs all the time."
Still, Dinklage says he knew what he wanted to do and what he did not.
"I think 'no' is a very powerful word in our business, that is very hard to use early on in your career," Dinklage says. "But I also think I was pretty arrogant when I was younger. ... I used that word maybe too much, but it did help me with finding roles that I did like."
Having found more exposure with Game of Thrones, Dinklage may have a greater variety of roles to choose from in the future. Although he once said in an interview he wanted to reach a point in his career where he could be the lead and "get the girl," Dinklage may be rethinking that.
"The leads are often the boring part," Dinklage says. "Maybe I'll have to take that back. I like playing the guy on the sidelines. They have more fun."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. And this is "Game of Thrones."
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CORNISH: The popular HBO series, adapted from the books of George R.R. Martin, is one blood-soaked power play after another. But in a world where brute strength is often the difference between life and a slow death, the show's strongest character stands less than five feet tall. His name is Tyrion Lannister.
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CORNISH: That's actor Peter Dinklage. He got his big break in 2003 in the critically acclaimed film "The Station Agent." He followed that with memorable roles in "Elf" and on "30 Rock." Though Dinklage has never had a showcase like "Game of Thrones," he admits he was leery at first of playing Tyrion Lannister.
: When I first read the role, I told my grandmother about it - and she's no longer with us, sadly, but she was an amazing woman - but she misunderstood me and she thought I said interior banisters. And she was quite confused by that, so it got off to like sort of a clunky start. I hadn't read the books, so I wasn't too familiar with it, but I knew David Benioff and Dan Weiss and they sort of set me straight about this character, because I had some severe reservations about going into the realm of fantasy.
: I don't know. My own silly prejudice, I guess, against the genre in terms of someone my height. Usually it's a bit - how do I say this politely without offending anybody else's work in amazing things? It's bearded and pointy-shoed. And this character, Tyrion Lannister, isn't that way at all. I was very...
CORNISH: We should mention your height is under five feet. Correct?
: Yes. Four and a half feet. I am a dwarf, and what immediately attracted me to this - any actor will tell you the same thing no matter what part it is - it just has to be very well-rounded, and this character is.
CORNISH: He seems to walk the line between self-preservation and empathy in a world that, of course, is just incredibly brutal and violent, and there's one scene I'm thinking of in particular - I think it's in the first season - where your character offers the gift of a horse saddle to a young boy who's lost the use of his legs. And we have that clip.
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CORNISH: And a lot of humor. I feel like he's, in a way, the most modern character in his sarcasm and in some of his lines.
: Yeah. I mean, that's just, as you said, it's his sort of survival mechanism at work. He knows he has no skills with a sword, so he sort of beats people to the punchline.
CORNISH: But he's not the joke, which I think is one of the things that makes it...
: No. He tells the jokes.
CORNISH: ...someone you can root for. Right. I mean...
CORNISH: And I wondered about that, because obviously, the physicality is such a major part of the role. I mean, he's nicknamed the imp and you talked about your reservations there of kind of playing a character that could be subject to...
: Well, I don't have a problem playing those characters as long as it's told intelligently. It would be stupid if he wasn't addressed as an imp or something in this world, given the surroundings. It does address the size issue, but it doesn't knock you over the head with it, because you don't really need to.
And I find all the scripts that I get that I'm not very interested in, it's a constant reminder, every single page. Almost every single line is geared towards your height. And I just, in my day-to-day life, and any person who is my size's day-to-day life, it happens, but it's not a constant.
CORNISH: At the same time, your career, when I look at some of the roles you've had in the past, the breakout role people describe as being in the movie "The Station Agent" a while back, even a big budget film like "Elf," where you played a very sort of pugnacious children's publisher, if that is an accurate description...
CORNISH: ...it seems like you've managed to find the roles that upend whatever those stereotypes might be.
: Yeah. Well, I try to. You know, and I'm not always successful at it. You do have to make a living and I do not fault anyone else who makes choices to play characters that they wish they hadn't agreed to do, because at the end of the day, none of us are happy with our jobs all the time.
But I just sort of - I had some perseverance in terms of what I wanted to do and what I didn't want to do, and I think no is a very powerful word in our business that is very hard to use early on in your career. But I also think I was pretty arrogant when I was younger, so I used that word maybe too much, but it also helped me with finding roles that I did like.
CORNISH: What was the first time you stood on stage and thought, I want to act and this is the only thing I want to do?
: Oh, it was so many years ago, I don't remember.
CORNISH: Oh, you're a baby. Give me a break.
: Oh, I think a lot of us are just little hams when we're children and it just starts that way. You know, my mom's a music school teacher and kids would come in - it was a revolving door policy at our house growing up in New Jersey, where piano lessons were given all day throughout the day. And my brother and I would be putting on puppet shows down in the basement and constructing these elaborate sets and putting on these shows for all the octogenarians of the neighborhood. They were kind enough to pay a nickel.
CORNISH: So the arts was sort of - this was something in your background already?
: It just came at an early age. Yeah. I don't know when it starts. When you trace it back to when you were like a little child, you can't remember this big moment. I think it's a lot of little moments that build up into something that just forms who you are, your need to be an actor.
CORNISH: I was reading in my research for this interview, there was an article in which you talked about wanting to reach the point in your career where you could be the lead, quote, and get the girl. And looking at "Game of Thrones" and your character and sort of where you're moving in your career, do you feel like you're reaching that point or reaching the point where you're being offered parts that aren't about your height, that are more about the character?
: Yeah. It's always a struggle. It'll always be a struggle, I think, with any actor. The leads are often the boring part, though. Maybe I'll have to take that back. I like playing the guy on the sidelines. They have more fun.
CORNISH: Well, we're having a lot of fun watching you, so good luck with the rest of the season.
: Thank you very much.
CORNISH: Actor Peter Dinklage. He currently stars in the HBO series "Game of Thrones." Thank you so much for talking with us.
: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.