Emmy winner Peter Dinklage says no to magical dwarf and other lousy roles

Game Of Thrones' Peter Dinklage takes on a lighthearted role in the science-fiction comedy Pixels

Actor Peter Dinklage at the premiere of the movie Pixels in New York on July 18.
Actor Peter Dinklage at the premiere of the movie Pixels in New York on July 18.PHOTO: REUTERS
Aliens take the form of arcade game characters such as Pac-Man (above) to attack Earth. Peter Dinklage (with his wife Erica Schmidt) says he has never had trouble turning down acting roles he was not interested in.
Aliens take the form of arcade game characters such as Pac-Man (above) to attack Earth.PHOTOS: REUTERS, SONY PICTURES

Peter Dinklage can pinpoint the moment he realised Game Of Thrones - the acclaimed fantasy series that has become one of the most talked-about show on television - is a cultural phenomenon.

"I was walking my dog and he was sniffing another dog, as dogs do. And as dog owners in New York are wont to do, I said, 'What's your dog's name?'

"She sort of looked down at the ground and went, 'Tyrion'," says the actor, who in 2011 won a Golden Globe and an Emmy for his role as Tyrion Lannister, a nobleman spurned by his family for being a dwarf.

"Then I met another woman who had named her daughters after the characters Arya and Sansa, not based on our show, but on the books by George R.R. Martin.

"So, yes, you know when it's become a zeigeisty thing."

Peter Dinklage (with his wife Erica Schmidt) says he has never had trouble turning down acting roles he was not interested in.

However, while he is one of the biggest breakout stars of the show, his sensitive and witty portrayal of the character singled out for praise, he downplays his contribution to its success.

"That's completely beyond my control, I had nothing to do with that. I think that's all the storytelling and the skill of George R.R. Martin, TV network HBO and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss," he says.

Dinklage, 46, is making hay while the sun shines, though - he is the latest Game Of Thrones star to make the jump to the big screen as he appears in the science-fiction comedy Pixels, which opens in Singapore tomorrow.

When you're a kid, you see Star Wars and all these things and you don't even think you could be part of something like that - even though you're doing school plays and everything.

Actor PETER DINKLAGE on why he never thought he would be in a Hollywood blockbuster

  • Cast take a trip back to the 1980s 

  • Mullet hairstyles, stirrup pants and video games you could play only on coin-operated machines - these were some relics of the 1980s that the cast of Pixels found themselves revisiting.

    While Adam Sandler and his co-stars are happy to leave behind some of their more questionable fashion choices, they say they still have a soft spot for those old arcade games.

    Speaking at a press event in Cancun, Mexico, Sandler and castmates Kevin James, Josh Gad, Michelle Monaghan and Peter Dinklage talk about recreating the era for parts of the film, a comedy about aliens invading Earth after misinterpreting images sent into space in the 1980s.

    Footage of arcade games was seen as a challenge to fight, so the aliens take the form of these games' characters - including Pac-Man and Donkey Kong - to attack the planet.

    Sandler, Gad and Dinklage play former championship gamers called on by the President of the United States (James) to dust off their skills and save the human race using arcade-like weapons designed by an army specialist (Monaghan).

    Asked about their own memories of the 1980s, the cast laugh and cringe as they recall that time.

    James, 50, admits that he wore the ridiculously wide-legged, billowy pants that became popular after they were seen on rapper MC Hammer in his music video for the hit song U Can't Touch This.

    "Do you remember the wide pants? I still have them, but they don't fit like they did then," quips the star of the Paul Blart: Mall Cop movies (2009 and 2015).

    Monaghan, 39, says she was "really big into stirrup pants", also known as riding pants or jodphurs.

    "I loved that feeling of elastic around the bottom of my foot," says the Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011) actress with a laugh. "And I didn't stop with one perm. I didn't learn my lesson. I think it was like four or five later that I came to my senses and fried my brain a bit."

    Dinklage, 46, says he "went from parachute pants to a black velvet cape I wore for a while".

    "That was the time when I didn't talk to many people," deadpans the Game Of Thrones actor, whose character in Pixels sports a mullet hairdo throughout the movie.

    At this point, Gad - who was the voice of snowman Olaf in Frozen (2013) - cannot resist pointing out that at 34, he is younger than the others.

    "I was in diapers in the 1980s. I wore my hair like a baby would. Soft and delicate and to the side. I believe I wore a onesie that said, 'I belong to this mommy'. That's all I remember."

    Sandler, 48, admits that the older computer games featured in the film are the "only ones I'm comfortable with".

    "I'm not great at anything new," says the star of The Wedding Singer (1998) and 50 First Dates (2004). "Josh is the newer breed, he knows what's happening. I play Minion Rush with my kids. Or the ones on the iPhone where you just have to tilt it left and right - I can handle that. That's about it."

    Gad says he enjoys newer games, but he stopped gaming after his children were born.

    "But I would say that I enjoy the simplicity of the games that I grew up with. Pac-Man, to me, is still one of the greatest games. Tetris is the most addictive game of all time. Still, I think there's a reason that Candy Crush Saga is so great. It reminds people of that game. So, yeah, I definitely play both, but I prefer the older ones," he says.

    Some of the actors recall how going to the arcade was a social event - something that was lost when online gaming let people play alone from the comfort of home. "It was more about the time out," says James. "It was like an event, it was like a nightclub, going to an arcade - a separate building - to play these games.

    "That's where the girls were and there was music playing and I had only so many quarters for the night. I remember that. So I had to play sparingly."

    Dinklage concurs, saying: "It was a social atmosphere. Even when the home consoles came up and I was still a teenager, they were expensive and there were only one or two of them in town, so you had to go to your friends who did.

    "I feel bad for all the kids who have to play alone now."

    Alison de Souza

Along with Adam Sandler and Josh Gad, he plays a championship arcade gamer whose unique skillset is the world's only hope when invading aliens assume the form of 1980s video games to launch an attack on Earth.

Speaking to Life and other reporters at a press event in Cancun, Mexico, Dinklage says after grappling with a heavy drama, it was a welcome change to do something completely different.

Game Of Thrones "has been my job now for five or six years and it's a pretty serious show".

"It's such a joy to mix it up. I don't want to bore anyone, least of all myself, in terms of repeating roles," he says.

"The last thing you want to do when you do Game Of Thrones is to do something Game Of Thrones-like. You get a lot of those offers and you're like, 'I'm good,'" says the drily witty star.

"I do a good version of that genre, so I don't need to do Beastmaster during my time off," he quips, referring to the 1982 B-movie and subsequent fantasy series.

"So when something like this comes along, it's a no-brainer. And working with these guys, you know, it's all right,'' he says of his Pixels co-stars and director Chris Columbus (Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone, 2001).

While he is known primarily as a serious dramatic actor - first impressing critics with the award-winning independent movie The Station Agent (2003), where he played a man who, like himself, was born with dwarfism - Dinklage says the only reason he never thought he would be in a Hollywood blockbuster was that he did not think it was possible.

"When you're a kid, you see Star Wars and all these things and you don't even think you could be part of something like that - even though you're doing school plays and everything.

"I wasn't ambitious enough to link the two together like, 'I could do that, I want to do that.' I was just happy riding my bike.

"Then you start doing theatre and small movies and then suddenly, boom, you're in some big stuff," he says.

"Big or small, it's all about the material. And the biggest movies, they don't work unless there's a good story, like Star Wars. It's all about the writing, you know?"

For a long time, there was another consideration when Dinklage chose projects and that was his determination to not fall into the stereotypical "magical" dwarf or elf roles, or play characters just there to provide cheap comic relief.

The 1.35m-tall performer, who appeared in the comedy Elf (2003) as a children's author Will Ferrell's character mistakes for an elf, has been vocal about how literature and films such as the Lord Of The Rings series dehumanise dwarves by presenting them as other-worldly.

"I love those Lord Of The Rings books and movies," he says, but the dwarves in them "are another creature, like elves - they're not human in those".

Elves and centaurs are mythical, while dwarves are real, he points out. Martin's Game Of Thrones novels and the TV show they inspired are one of the few popular stories to acknowledge this.

"It's nice to be humanised in fiction for once, especially in the fantasy genre," says Dinklage, who is married to 40-year-old theatre director Erica Schmidt. The couple have a daughter.

"George was clever enough to make a dwarf a fully fleshed-out human being and that's the only thing I'm drawn to."

Despite often being held up as a role model for actors and other people with physical challenges, he insists he is "not out to change people's perception".

"I'm just out to create fully drawn characters and whatever comes out of that good stuff."

Even when he was not as big a star and there were even fewer substantive roles for actors with dwarfism, Dinklage says he has never had trouble turning down parts he does not believe in.

"It's easy. You say, 'No, thank you.' It's getting easier to say it. Not early on, maybe, when you're struggling, but it's good to say no. Because you do have control.

"A lot of actors sometimes feel like they're drowning a bit and have to do things that they don't want to do.

Not that the parts were always rolling in - they weren't, but I was a snob. I was selective early on and I don't know if that worked or not, but I just worked a lot of other jobs to pay the bills.

"I didn't want to do anything with acting that I felt icky about, you know? I wanted to be happy when I woke up in the morning.

"That said, I've made some mistakes," he says with a smile.

"Nobody has a crystal ball."

Asked if he still feels like an underdog despite everything he has achieved, the actor replies without hesitation: "Every day. Because you cannot rest on that at all. Come on, there are people out there trying to cure cancer. We're just entertainers and I am a part of a huge puzzle, especially with Game Of Thrones.

"It's a big moving thing and I'm just a screw in a wheel."

  • Pixels opens in Singapore tomorrow
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2015, with the headline 'Cast take a trip back to the 1980s Playing an arcade gamer a no-brainer'. Subscribe