in conversation

In Conversation: Peter Dinklage

The actor on his Hervé Villechaize movie, the weirdness of fame, and the fate of Tyrion Lannister.

Photo: Bobby Doherty
Photo: Bobby Doherty

In a hotel room high above midtown Manhattan, Peter Dinklage is discussing, among other things, his present — that’d be HBO’s My Dinner With Hervé, in which he plays the late Fantasy Island star Hervé Villechaize. (Based on a real-life encounter between Villechaize and writer-director Sacha Gervasi, the TV-movie premieres on October 20.) And on the sidewalk down below, a group of fans is waiting, clutching mementos of his past. That is, they’re hoping the actor will sign their Game of Thrones memorabilia when he leaves. (The show, in which he plays Tyrion Lannister, wrapped shooting its final season this past summer.) “I take more of an issue with fame than Hervé did,” says the 49-year-old Dinklage, who’s aware of the ways in which Villechaize’s celebrity was a precursor to his own. “It’s a dance, but one you can never really control. As an actor, the best you can do is try to bring some honesty into your parts and hope people will follow.”

What did Hervé represent to you when you first became aware of him?
Well, Hervé and I had nothing in common but our height, but I remember thinking, He’s underused. I’d become aware of him around the same time everybody else did: I saw Fantasy Island. It was a wild show, like a combination of The Twilight Zone and The Love Boat. And I’d seen The Man With the Golden Gun. Later, when I became a teenager, my thinking about him got translated with a bit more anger, like he was being used a certain way because of his size. But the funny thing is, I think I minded that much more than Hervé did, because he seemed to have genuine joy in being on Fantasy Island. And who was I as a young person living in New Jersey to judge that? Hervé was complicated, and this was the first time I’d ever played someone who’d been a living, breathing person. It challenged my judgments.

What were those judgments?
What’s the saying? “Walk a mile in someone else’s moccasins?” It’s funny talking to a journalist. No offense, but I’m really only here because I believe in this project and I want people to see it. But I think Hervé loved this ethereal idea of fame. And what is that idea? It’s an abstraction. Children are asked, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” And they say, “I want to be famous.” They don’t have a concept of, well, famous for what? And when that desire [for fame] becomes bigger than the work itself, it’s very dangerous. Hervé was this incredible painter; he could have had the most incredible career. But because of his size, he was spotted and given this comfort zone of fame and being in exotic locations with beautiful women. I’m being careful with what I say because I speak from my heart with genuine love and affection for this man. I worked on this role for 14 years, and I never figured Hervé out. He’ll always be out of my reach.

From a technical acting standpoint, how difficult was it to handle the aspects of your performance that involved impersonation? No one else on earth had Hervé’s voice.
For the first time ever, I worked from the outside in. Hervé and I have a similar nose, but everything around our nose is different. And if you have the same nose, you don’t have to do as much to the rest of your face. So we did “less is more” with the makeup. We just tweezed some eyebrows and put cheek-plumpers in because Hervé had big, round cheeks. The voice was more complicated, because even if you don’t know who Hervé was, you know what “ze plane, ze plane” sounds like. I knew if I couldn’t get that then I shouldn’t play the role. It was important to me to get it, and it eventually came.

What you were saying about Hervé’s idea of fame and its relationship to his gifts as a painter — can you talk a little bit more about the tension between fame and nurturing one’s talent? And I mean both in Hervé’s experience and your own.
I think perhaps fame was controlling Hervé. You have to be in charge of yourself and tune everything else out. It’s getting harder to tune things out because of social media and everybody knowing everything about everyone. Growing up, I didn’t know anything about my favorite actors. Marlon Brando, Meryl Streep, Alan Arkin — I didn’t know what they had for breakfast. But now it’s like, “Look what I had for breakfast!” And you don’t really want to know because it chips away at the magic of the character they’re portraying.

Do you really think so?
For sure. Not knowing about the actor helps in believing in their performance. I worry about actors revealing what’s behind the curtain. Yes, I’m talking to you here, but we’re talking about a project. I wouldn’t even imagine beginning to talk about my personal life. It’s no one’s business. That’s my life. You lead yours. Hopefully that won’t kill your questions six through seven.

I do have some questions about you, but not about your family. I’m hoping you can answer them.
So it’s questions 6 through 19! [Laughs.] But fame is about other people’s idea of you. Much like Hervé did with [Fantasy Island’s] Tattoo, I had the honor and privilege and joy of playing a very popular character for many years. I just finished that. When I leave here today, by the time I get home, I’ll get something yelled at me ten times: something from the show [Game of Thrones], my character’s name [Tyrion Lannister]. All things considered, ten is not that much, given that there are millions of people outside on Fifth Avenue. And for the most part, it’s done with joy. But it’s this thing of that’s what you are. That’s what Hervé was: Tattoo. “Ze plane, ze plane.”

What’s the line that you get?
“I drink and I know things.” It’s strange: There are tattoos of Tyrion. But Tyrion is also me, so people have tattoos of my face on them. It’s like, “Oh, okay. You made that choice. It has nothing to do with me.” Sorry, I think I got off track.

No, that was all on track. I remember reading the New York Times Magazine article about you, and in it you referred to people following the “white balloon” of fame and money. So how conscious are you of not doing the thing that Hervé arguably did, which is pursuing things that would get him money and fame at the expense of his true gift? What’s the calculus for that?
It’s a great question. I don’t know what that compass is. Personally, I just love a great script. Box office is out of your control; you’ll never please everybody, and I’m attracted to works of art that divide people. If everybody loves something, are you doing something right? I mean, everybody loved the Beatles, but it doesn’t always work that way. Actually, not everybody loves the Beatles — there are like three people who don’t, and they’re just being contrary. I know we’re going to keep talking about fame, but it’s the theme of the film [My Dinner With Hervé], so it’s very important to grapple with. As soon as you feel hurt on a personal level because people whom you don’t know don’t like you anymore, that’s a tragedy.

There’s an interesting book about Hervé by a guy called Scott Seldin, who wrote about their friendship and living the bohemian life together in New York in the early ’70s. Reading it, you never get the impression that Hervé’s goal was to be an actor.

So was it just circumstance that got Hervé into acting? And I was curious about how you got into it because —
It’s about owning who you are. Hervé had ownership about his size. He was going to wear it brightly. And becoming an actor, that’s probably one of the reasons I do it: I get to command it [people’s attention] a bit more, and be in control of it through characters — stand in front of it. You know, for most of the movie, I wear a T-shirt that says “bionic midget.” That’s such a complicated shirt. Hervé walks into the room and you go, “Hey, look, he’s wearing that shirt. Cool. He’s having a sense of humor about it.” He’s beating you to it. But it’s also a really fucking angry shirt.

Were you aware as a teenager of the idea of acting as a way to own the attention you were getting? Or did you only realize that later?
I think probably I was aware of it. Not wanting unwanted attention but commanding it on my terms. I don’t know. It’s hard to trace back the psychology. What goes through a kid’s mind? But it’s about having your hand on the dial. You’re turning it up when you want and turning it down when you want. As an actor, you can do that. And for someone the least bit physically different, I guess you want to be in control of that dial. But as a kid, I just loved the creative joy of acting and, yes, the attention — on my terms.

I read the commencement speech that you gave at Bennington.
Oh, God.

It was lovely.
Most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. I had never been asked to give a speech before.

There are parts in that speech where you talk about the lessons you took from your immediate postcollege life, when you were in New York and struggling to be an actor. It’s clear that you’ve figured out what those lean years mean for the larger story of your life. I’m curious if you have any sense, now that you’re done filming, of what the Game of Thrones years mean for you and your path?
Even though it’s only been a couple of months since we finished, I would like to think that I already have some capacity to look back on it. I’m glad the show happened in my life when it happened. I’m glad I wasn’t much younger or older. I’d done a lot of work before getting the show that I think informed what I wound up doing on Game of Thrones, and, hopefully, I still have a lot of work left in me, which will be informed by Game of Thrones. The show was a beautiful experience — doesn’t happen all the time. But it was such a long shoot, so it’s hard to separate the TV show from my life.

Tell me more about that.
It was my life, far away in Ireland. People think I’ll miss the TV show — yes, of course I’ll miss it, but I also lived in a foreign country for many years and developed deep roots. That’s a big part of me, and suddenly it’s just like, Yep, that’s over. Back home now. Wait, what? Really? Actors do these things and then we move on or go back home. You keep in touch — or lose touch — with the group of people you were very close with. It’s strange. I wonder how healthy that is. Probably it’s unhealthy.

How did you find being an American in Europe over the last few years? Did people keep asking you to explain our politics?
Oh, sure. They basically have the opinion of “what’s wrong with you people? What’s up with you people and the guns?” My experience is that people have nothing but love and respect for our country — a lot of them dream of coming here and working here, especially in the film community — but gun culture is a big question mark. The longer you stay away from America, the more it can look like the Wild West.

But as far as the arc of your career, you’re not in the part of it where you’re trying to establish yourself and —
That’s still happening.

Is it?
I think so.

I guess my question is if, after having once-in-a-lifetime success like Game of Thrones, do you feel like you’re playing with house money for the rest of your career?
No. I’m always going to be searching for the next great piece of cinema that I can help create. I’m shifting my focus into that: less acting and more on the other side. I started a production company a couple of years ago. Hervé is one of the things we’ve done, and I’m enjoying that creatively a lot more. Acting is a lot of fun, but you’re coming in late in the game after so much work has already been put into place. I like to be there on projects from the beginning, like I was on Hervé and I Think We’re Alone Now, which is a beautiful film. It’s much more gratifying that way. It’s like the difference between making dinner and serving it to friends or going out for a meal. Going out is great, but watching your friends enjoy something you’ve made is so gratifying.

Do you see your path leading to a place where you don’t act anymore?
No, no. If somebody like Jonathan Glazer or David Fincher or Spike Jonze calls up, I’ll be there in a heartbeat. But for the most part, I’d like to help create from the beginning.

What you were saying before about the strangeness of saying good-bye to the people with whom you’ve worked so intensely — when you were wrapping on Game of Thrones, how emotionally conscious were you of the experience coming to an end?
On a personal level? With the character?

Both. How did you say good-bye?
It’s always anticlimactic for the character’s last day. Nothing is shot chronologically, so you don’t get some big mountaintop scene or anything. It’s just, “That’s a wrap on Peter Dinklage.” But as anticlimactic as it was, my last day was also beautifully bittersweet. A lot of people whom I love were on set that day. Even if they weren’t working, they came to set, which was beautiful. I tried to do the same thing when other [Game of Thrones] actors were wrapping out. If it was their day, you would go to set to say good-bye. It was really hard. I won’t say their name or their character’s name, but one of the young people on the show wrapped this past season and everybody was a wreck. This person had grown up on the show, you know? They were a child and now they were an adult. And then they’re done. It’s like we were witnessing this person saying good-bye to their childhood. I know Game of Thrones is just a TV show, la-di-da, but it was our life.

What about Tyrion? Was it hard to say good-bye to the character?
I don’t know if I’m [a] Method [actor] in that way. I was a little Method with Hervé — staying in that voice. But you can’t really be Method for nine seasons of a TV show. You’d go nuts. And there’s a difference between being Method and indulgent. You can smell that ego thing a mile away. It’s good to stay in the zone, but if it’s about showing off your peacock feathers, I’m not buying it. Acting is a trick. I wouldn’t say it’s difficult. Elements of it are. For me, the fame thing is. But the work itself — we’re not digging ditches for a living. I think acting is one of the professions where everybody who’s doing it wants to be doing it. That’s not true for every job.

I know this is a cliché, but if you can find consistent enjoyment in your work, you’ve solved one of the keys to life.
Yeah, that reminds me of the Jim Jarmusch film, Night on Earth. Gena Rowlands plays this high-powered Hollywood executive, and Winona Ryder plays her cab driver from the airport. At the end, she offers Winona Ryder the lead in her movie, and Winona’s character is like, “No, I’m not interested.” “What? Everybody wants to be a famous actress.” “I like being a cab driver.” I think about that. How beautiful is that?

It’s easy to pursue the shiny thing.
People think acting is shinier than it is. People only see actors in the bright, shiny lights. We don’t walk around our living rooms on a red carpet. I live a very quiet life.

But to go back to the character question: Now that your work with Tyrion is done, what’s your perspective on his trajectory?
He certainly developed a deeper sense of responsibility over the course of the show. He was a pretty irresponsible character to begin with. He used his position as the outcast of his family like an adolescent would. He pushed it in their [the Lannisters’] faces. The beauty of Tyrion is that he grew out of that mode in a couple of seasons and developed a strong sense of responsibility. Not morality, because he always had that, but what to do with his intelligence.

Without giving anything away, how did you feel about where Tyrion is left at the end of the series?
I feel very, very — I’m trying to find the right word. I think he was given a very good conclusion. No matter what that is — death can be a great way out.

Winning an Emmy was obviously a nice thing, but what specific value do you give it? Was it validating?
It’s really nice. [Laughs.] I don’t know. That’s all I can say: It’s really nice. And I say it’s nice because, all kidding aside, I love Tyrion, I love that show, and I love everything about being on that show. But that doesn’t mean it was going to be recognized artistically. I’ve been involved with projects that I felt passionate about that nobody saw and didn’t win any awards. I don’t know exactly what it was that people chose to reward Game of Thrones for, but I know it’s not about the dragons. I think it’s about these beautifully drawn characters and the work that [showrunners] David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] have done on those characters. So yeah, the Emmy was nice. It was hard to get it home on the airplane. It’s a very big award.

You could’ve checked it in a bag.
Nah, I have to get in and out of airports. I don’t like waiting — especially in airports. Oh, boy, I gotta keep moving.

Just randomly: What’s a TV show or movie or book that you’ve been into lately?
Rick and Morty. That’s the greatest show in the last I don’t know how many years. It speaks to so many things. David and Dan turned me onto it while we were over [shooting Game of Thrones] in Ireland. I started watching and fell deeply in love. You can dismiss it at first glance, much like people dismissed Hervé, but that show runs deep.

I know My Dinner With Hervé is about a very specific moment in his life, but how much did you want to nod to the fact that Hervé ultimately committed suicide? Did you wrestle with how to acknowledge that?
In the context of our film — and this is when it gets tricky talking about Hervé the man and Hervé the character — Hervé knows what he’s ultimately going do. But I don’t know if Hervé the man knew. I can’t speak to anybody’s pain. I don’t want to go near that pain. You don’t want that pain to enter your life if it doesn’t have to.

Have your feelings about being an actor changed over time?

How so?
One of the best things I can say about being on a TV show is that it makes you a better actor. It takes away the preciousness; it makes you see acting as work. You’re getting up, you’re delivering, you’re telling a story, you’re a piece of a whole, and it’s not about some self-involved process. It’s about being prepared, saying your lines, and stripping away all the bullshit artifice. It’s like acting as carpentry: Put that beam up; put that nail in. I love that approach.

How far into your career was it when you felt like the work you really wanted to get was attainable? Did it take until The Station Agent?
I had done a bunch of small parts and things before The Station Agent, and maybe I thought those kinds of parts are what I’d always do. But when Tom McCarthy wrote that film, it was the first time I got to be front and center. Maybe I was limiting myself, but I’d never thought about doing that before. The movies that I was raised with, as much as I loved them, they didn’t ever have somebody quite like me — my size or whatever — as the lead. Now that’s changed for me, hopefully based on whatever modicum of talent I have rather than my size.

It’s still very rare to see films starring people of your size. Is that disappointing? Do you have a sense of why there hasn’t been more progress?
Oh, I have a great sense of why that is. It’s because the odds are that a writer is not writing for someone my size. One in 30,000 people or whatever has this condition, and writers are just writing characters that they know from other movies. Whether that’s continuing a stereotype or challenging anything — it is what it is.

In your film, Hervé wrestles with trying to understand why he is the way he is physically. His thinking about that has something to do with the way his parents treated him and —
But that’s an assumption, isn’t it? Sorry, I don’t want to put you on the spot, but aren’t you making an assumption about how his parents treated him? Do we fully know based on what Sacha [Gervasi] presents in the movie? Because it’s one specific moment. I don’t mean to put you on the spot, David, but what causes you to make that assumption? Parents get blamed for a lot of things.

Often for real reasons.
For sure: Mommie Dearest. As a parent, this is interesting to me because parents are often the first go-to to blame for the child’s pain.

But that’s not coincidental. I’m thinking of the way in the film that Hervé’s parents try to rationalize the way he was, which could lead someone to grow up thinking that they were the result of a mistake or a miracle or just something other than natural. But the question I have that relates to this is how much you related to Hervé’s thinking about the way that he was?
In terms of?

In terms of dwarfism.
Of course, yeah. Often times, when I was younger, I’d think in negative terms: What the fuck did I do? Without believing in reincarnation I’d think, What did I do in my past lives to deserve this scarlet D on my chest? Because a lot of the time it sucks. But we all have our issues — physical, emotional, spiritual, mental. You just have to stay on top of that stuff or else it will eat you alive.

Does staying on top of it get easier as you get older?
I think everything gets easier as you get older. It sounds weird to say, but everything matters less. Like, I only subscribe to one magazine, National Geographic, and one of the biggest reasons I subscribe is because that magazine makes you feel insignificant. When they’re talking about something like shifting glacial plates in the Pacific Northwest that are going to wipe out everything from Alaska to Wyoming in a couple hundred years, and the tsunamis and the quakes that are going to hit, you just go, “Yeah” — we’re so insignificant. When you’re young your ego is so strong. Then you get older and you get freed from yourself. Maybe it’s having children that does it. You know what I speak of.

I definitely do.
Although with kids you mean more in a way because they depend on you to take care of them. But you’re not who you were before having kids. And when you’re young, you think you’re going to change the world. Then when you get older you’re like, “The world’s not going to change.” You can only carve out your little corner, make an impression, do good work, and be kind. But that’s about all you should want out of this world.

This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.

*A version of this article appears in the October 29, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Villechaize, born in France, and Dinklage, a New Jersey native, have backgrounds that are far more different than alike, but they do share experience with a particular variety of fame. Much like Dinklage does now as one of the stars of a TV phenomenon, Villechaize carried the personal and professional weight of being a pop-culture icon during his run on ABC’s Fantasy Island, which lasted from 1977 to 1982. The Aaron Spelling–produced show ran for seven seasons on ABC, beginning in 1977. In it, Ricardo Montalbán played the enigmatic Mr. Roarke, who lords over the titular island where pleasure seekers could pay to enact their fantasies. (Andy García plays Montalbán, to excellent effect, in My Dinner With Hervé.) Villechaize played Roarke’s assistant, Tattoo, who at the beginning of each episode rang a bell to announce the arrival by plane of the island’s new guests. As he did this, Tattoo shouted “Ze plane! Ze plane!” which quickly became a pop-culture catchphrase. Dinklage and theater director Erica Schmidt have been married since 2005. The couple has two children. Dinklage is a proud alumnus of the Vermont school, from which he graduated with a drama degree in 1991. A big chunk of Game of Thrones is filmed in Northern Ireland, a fact that, should you be a fan looking to plan a vacation, the local tourism authorities have taken good advantage. I took what Dinklage was saying here not as a suggestion that Tyrion dies, but rather his attempt to leave open the possibility that the character might meet that fate. Which is a fictionalized account of a strange 1993 encounter between Villechaize, then nearing the end of his life and at a low point in his career, and Gervasi, who was working as a journalist and had been sent on assignment to Los Angeles to interview the actor for Britain’s Mail on Sunday magazine. (In the film, Gervasi’s character, played by Jamie Dornan, is renamed Danny.) Villechaize committed suicide by shooting at his home in Hollywood in September 1993. It’s believed that his decision to end his life was due to his despair over the chronic pain from which he suffered as a result of multiple medical conditions. Prior to his starring role in 2003’s The Station Agent, Dinklage’s cinematic high point was probably his work in director Tom DiCillo’s sardonic 1995 comedy Living in Oblivion. And before Game of Thrones debuted in 2011, Dinklage made his deepest impression on TV audiences with a recurring role on Ryan Murphy’s Nip/Tuck. On stage, Dinklage turned in an acclaimed performance in the title role in Richard III, at the Public Theater in New York in 2004.
Peter Dinklage on Fame and the Fate of Tyrion Lannister