Peter Dinklage: ‘Belfast was my home away from home. I miss it terribly’

The Game of Thrones actor on choosing roles, avoiding social media and his new film, Cyrano

When aspiring showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss pitched the idea of adapting George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones, they wrote their spec scripts with two actors in mind: Sean Bean and Peter Dinklage.

The latter, they noted, was “incredibly smart” and possessed a “core of humanity, covered by a shell of sardonic dry wit, [that] is pretty well in keeping with the character”.

The latter was also wary of playing “elves or leprechauns” – especially having recently made an exception to play the dwarf Trumpkin in 2008’s The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. Dinklage was soon persuaded that Tyrion Lannister was “a different kind of fantasy little person ... No beard, no pointy shoes, a romantic, a real human being.”

'Having played Tyrion for so many years, I feel like it's the biggest part of my life. It meant so much to me working on that show and living in Ireland'

Thus began a decade in which the actor read his scripts backwards just to check if he died at the end. Tyrion remains his personal favourite in terms of performance. With some caveats.


“I can’t watch myself on screen,” he says. “I am my own worst critic. I see the thing once through my fingers. Biting my nails. Just to have some closure to it. I feel that it’s important to see what the director has done, more out of curiosity than anything, because this is a director’s art form. You are in their hands.

“But you know, having played Tyrion for so many years, I feel like it’s the biggest part of my life. It meant so much to me working on that show and living in Ireland. It’s hard to delineate between the life of that and the role, and the show. So that definitely has had the most impact on me. Belfast was my home away from home. I miss it terribly.”

Game of Thrones is one of Dinklage’s happy exceptions to the rule. Early in his career, he swore off playing roles that were typically offered to people with achondroplasia; the most common form of short-limbed dwarfism.

He was even prepared to remain in a rat-infested New York apartment to prove the point.

He was equally keen to budge for such notable exceptions as Elf, wherein his irate children’s author gets to beat up Will Ferrell.

On the evening of the London premiere of Cyrano – a wonderful new musical in which Dinklage essays the title character as a man of smaller stature rather than a man of larger nose – the actor, who in 2012 joked that his ideal role is one in which “he gets the girl”, is just that. Albeit by proxy.

'I'm a non-singer in the traditional sense. So I do imitations of my favourite singers like Nina Simone or Freddie Mercury'

“It’s a beloved tale. And the nose has gone down in history as an attribute of a very important, beautiful character. However, once you remove the nose, for me, it was very liberating. Too often, Cyrano is a handsome actor and has a fake nose. And that sort of trips me out of it. Because I know the nose was fake and the actor gets to go home at the end of the day and take off his fake nose. And this film got to speak to me personally because, not having a big nose but being of the physical stature that I am, I got to make Cyrano my own.”

Inspired by the 1897 Edmond Rostand perennial Cyrano de Bergerac, Cyrano is a 2021 musical tragedy directed by Joe Wright from a screenplay by Erica Schmidt, as based on her 2018 stage musical of the same name. The film – which looks set to fill a Greatest Showman-sized seasonal hole – stars Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr, Bashir Salahuddin and Ben Mendelsohn. The songs are by The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner.

“I haven’t really done a musical since I was a kid,” says Dinklage. “I did a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan’s. That’s really the only time you get to be up on stage as a kid. You don’t really do Long Day’s Journey into Night or Streetcar. Although, that I would like to see. Part of the joy of what I do for a living is changing it up. Aaron and Bryce Dessner wrote the most beautiful songs and allowed me to basically sing them in my own voice from my own heart.

“I’m a non-singer in the traditional sense. So I do imitations of my favourite singers like Nina Simone or Freddie Mercury or Matt Berninger – the singer and lyricist of The National – because we have a similar baritone voice. I actually had to stop listening to The National for a little bit. Or I would have ended up trying to impersonate Matt in the film.”

Dinklage will tell you that he is not perhaps as swashbuckling as his tenure on Game of Thrones might suggest

"The actor processes huge affection for screen predecessors Gérard Depardieu (in 1990’s Cyrano de Bergerac) and Steve Martin in Roxanne. In common with these previous incarnations of the material Cyrano, sees the witty, articulate Cyrano (Dinklage) expressing his love for Roxanne (Bennett) through the handsome, inarticulate Christian (Harrison Jr)."

“The first time you swear around your parents, you are, you know, your words are very powerful things,” says Dinklage, who previously essayed Richard III and Rakitin, in a Month in the Country, before originating Cyrano off-Broadway.

“Or the first time someone says they love you, if you are lucky enough to hear those three beautiful words. I think we underestimate the power of words these days. I think we should be careful with them, especially in the political realm of things. Because words do have an effect, and they reverberate and have a consequence. I fancied myself a poet when I was younger, I still do occasionally. I love that aspect of this piece. I love the poetry of it.”

Dinklage will tell you that he is not perhaps as swashbuckling as his tenure on Game of Thrones might suggest. (One famous scene wherein he cuts a knight’s leg off required him to swing a blunt sword at a 70-year-old amputee.) He’ll also tell you that he grew up in a home where music was always playing. Growing up, his mother was a music teacher who “was always, always at the piano”, he says. His brother, who Dinklage characterises as “the real performer in the family”, is a violinist for the New York-based production of Hamilton.

His parents, he recalls, “loved theatre and the arts and were always very encouraging about anything I set my sights on; that should be true with all parents.” The scar on the side of his face dates to his punk years when, as the lead singer of Whizzy, he took a knee to the head on stage at CBGBs. Such details may make one think that Cyrano – a musical with swords – was written specifically for Dinklage. Indeed, it was. Both the original stage production and the film was written by Erica Schmidt, a theatre director and Dinklage’s wife of 16 years.

“I’ve worked with Erica on a number of stage productions at this point,” says the actor. “I think this is our fifth collaboration. So either I’m a glutton for punishment, or I really enjoy it. And it’s definitely the latter, because we have such a shorthand with each other, and it just creates such an ease in the work environment. It’s also 24/7. A lot of the actors that work with her have to go home after the show. But I get to go home and continue the conversation of the piece. I feel that I benefit from it. It’s a constant evolution.”

Schmidt and her husband are fiercely private people who keep their two children away from the cameras. He’s unnerved by the current pressure on young actors to live their lives through social media platforms.

“I think it’s really difficult,” says Dinklage. “I mean, I’m an older actor. I avoided all the trappings of the internet and social media. It sort of all scares me. I’m not on any of that. Because it’s really putting yourself out there. It makes you very vulnerable. And I think because it’s such a vulnerable place people build up this persona of who they are online, just to make sure they look good or sound good, or whatever it is.

“I think we’re trying to live up to too many people’s expectations and we’re setting profiles of ourselves up, especially online these days, trying to represent this best possible version of ourselves. And that’s not necessarily who we really are, and we shouldn’t be afraid of who we really are.”

There is, nonetheless, one member of the family that Dinklage is happy to talk about. While shooting Cyrano in Italy during the pandemic, he and his family were “living at the end of dirt road” where a stray mother dog had recently given birth to a litter of puppies. When animal rescue came, Schmidt was on hand to ensure one of the dogs would return chez Dinklage. A stray is a good fit for Dinklage, a lifelong vegetarian who has campaigned passionately for Farm Sanctuary, narrated a video advocating a vegan diet on behalf of Peta and pleaded with Game of Thrones fans to adopt dire-wolf-alike Huskies from shelters, rather than to buy from breeders.

“She is a year old now. We adopted her when she was just a pup a year ago. And she is healthy as anything. She’s my joy.”

The time frame of Dinklage’s career has not only sidestepped Instagram; it also dovetails with the great American independent scene of the 1990s. After studying acting at Vermont’s Bennington College, Dinklage collaborated with director Tom McCarthy on The Killing Act for Access Theatre in 1995; the pair would reteam for the latter’s much-lauded debut feature, The Station Agent, in 2003. Dinklage starred alongside Tupac in Julien Temple’s Bullet (1995) and worked for such early Sundance darlings as Tom DiCillo (Living in Oblivion), Alexandre Rockwell (13 Moons), Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman (Human Nature).

“Oh, it was a mad time,” recalls Dinklage. “People always say it’s reminded them of the 70s. More than any decade since we got back to the roots of independent guerilla film-making. I was lucky enough to start off with a great film: Living in Oblivion. That was a movie about independent movie-making. So it was sort of a great introduction into the world of movie-making with a great bunch of actors, and a great writer and director.

“I’ve been lucky enough to find a tribe of fellow artists, writers, directors, actors. We’ve all worked together quite a number of times back in New York and beyond. And I think that’s really important when you’re starting off. Don’t throw yourself to strangers. Go with creative forces and create your own pieces of work, rather than just wait[ing] for the phone to ring.”

Cyrano opens on January 14th

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic