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Sitting in the lobby of the Public Theater during a rehearsal break from Richard III, Peter Dinklage seems far too nice to play one of Shakespeare's nastier butcher kings. Though a little fatigued from his theatrical labors, he still exudes friendliness. Acknowledging company members with an outsize smile, he flashes a two-fingered peace sign to an exiting pal. Even the goatee he's sprouted for the role has a genial effectat least, that is, when he's holding forth on the Bard in what appears to be his girlfriend's Vassar T-shirt.
To dispose of the obvious: Dinklage, the world's most famous dwarf actor, stands no taller than your average fourth-grader. Once you get past that (give it about two minutes of conversation), you can't help observing how well-adjusted he is, how normal. By theater standards, he's off-the-charts normal. To tell the truth, it's a little unnerving. (Celebrities typically wear their neuroses on their sleeves.) But Dinklage's laid-back energy is positively contagious. There's nothing awkward or self-conscious about him, nothing defensive or sinister. He's the last person you'd cast as a villain, yet he's clearly mastered the art of transforming himself. How else to explain a four-foot-five guy rising so high in a profession not known for overlooking physical differences?
"I've done a bunch of Shakespeare, but mainly the comedies and supporting character roles," he says, after ordering only a garden salad for lunch (one of the few signs that he's become something of a Hollywood commodity after his breakout film last year, The Station Agent). "I've seen Richarddone at the Royal Shakespeare Company in London and the Olivier film. There's always this twirling-mustache quality that we've been calling the Snidely Whiplash syndrome. I really wanted to dig deeper and explore why this man is who he is. Is he truly evil, and if so what created him? It's a question that will always be in need of an answer, but it's what makes it fun to explore."
Richard, the humpback tyrant, tends to be played as a vicious caricature by an actor wearing creepy makeup and occasionally a prosthetic withered arm. Adopting the Tudor party line, Shakespeare turns Richard's 15th-century quest for the throne into a melodramatic bloodbath that must have given envious shivers to Christopher Marlowe, the star purveyor of Elizabethan slashers. The part requires an actor to embrace villainy with a comic gusto that turns sickeningly depraved. (There's something completely over-the-top about the way Richard turns the audience into his willing accomplice.) By the end, laughter is the least appropriate response to the rancid high jinks.
Generations of scholars have debated the root cause of Richard's malignancy. Surely his famous opening soliloquy attests to what William Hazlitt diagnoses as cruelty rooted in nature: "And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover/To entertain these fair well-spoken days/I am determinèd to prove a villain." The play is in fact strewn with references to deformity"poisonous bunch-back'd toad," a "bottled spider," a "hedgehog," an "elvish-mark'd abortive, rooting hog"epithets that hint at the protagonist's small, if not midget, stature. A case could be made for this being the Napoléon-complex prototype.
Dinklage was intrigued by the prospect of rendering the character's disability not as a cartoon, but as a harsh, fixed reality. "With me being a dwarf, the difference is already there," he says. "There's no need to play up the deformity. I can experience it from the inside."
"Unlike other actors, Peter doesn't have that middle step where he has to learn what that psychology is," says the production's director, Peter DuBois, who from the beginning wanted to cast someone grappling with a real physical challenge. "It's immediate. He was able to question the character from his own personal perspective."
Yet DuBois hastens to add that "though Peter's height was the first and most obvious appeal," he considers him to be "one of the greatest actors of his generation." Comparing him to Philip Seymour Hoffman for "his surprising, dynamic choices onstage," DuBois says he'd have no hesitation about casting him as Hamlet.
Dinklage, however, knows that not everyone is willing to take such risks. "Sure, I could ask myself why am I playing Richard and not Romeo. But I really like to delve deeply into who I am physically, deconstruct it in an honest way, and hopefully at the end of the day I will have made it human."
What does it mean to live in a body that marks you as an outsider? "Richard's a man who knows what he is," Dinklage says. "He's bitter about it, but he's prepared to use it to his advantage. People discredit him because of his appearance. They just see him as a crazy deformed warrior. They don't expect things from him or take him seriously enough, and they don't realize what's happening until everybody's dead."
"Peter once talked about how we're taught not to stare at those who are different," DuBois recalled. "He says this is why dwarves and people in wheelchairs make the best shoplifters. Others are being watched by Richard, but they don't want to watch him, which in a sense makes him more dangerous."
Dangerous in both criminal and sexual terms. Probably the most memorable scene in Richard III is theinfamous seduction of Lady Anne, the widow whose husband and father are both murdered by Richard. Yet the malformed "homicide" still manages to lure her to his bedchamber as she conveys the corpse of her father-in-law, Henry VI, another of Richard's victims, to burial. ("Was ever woman in this humor woo'd?" Richard himself asks in fiendish astonishment at his own success.)
"So often you see a Richard who's so physically grotesque that it's hard to buy the seduction," says DuBois. "With Peter the scene is very organic. He's incredibly sexy, and so has no problem activating that aspect of the character. He has almost a romantic, leading-man quality. You start to find him hot."
Google Dinklage and you'll find chat rooms of young female fans who unabashedly find the diminutive blue-eyed actor irresistible. One of the things that made The Station Agent unique, beyond the intriguing yoking of misfit characters, was the way it didn't shy away from its star's masculine allure. "Producers were reluctant at first to give us money for the film," Dinklage recalls. "They were like, 'There's never been a movie with a dwarf as the lead.' Now that audiences have favorably responded, a door has been opened."
A lot of doors, actually. Dinklage has had to turn down theater opportunities (like the part of Toulouse-Lautrec in Martha Clarke's upcoming Belle Epoque at Lincoln Center and last season's Mabou Mines dollHouse). After the box office success of Elf (in which Dinklage beat up Will Ferrell for confusing him with one of Santa's helpers), scripts have been steadily streaming in. Amid everything, Touchstone has been developing a character-based series for him.
Still, getting a classic role like Richard has been a dream for Dinklage, who studied theater at Bennington College and has been plugging away in New York since he graduated in 1991. But he did have reservations. After George C. Wolfe told him he wanted to build this production around him, Dinklage raised concerns about someone his height playing an English king. "I mean, back then I would have been left on someone's doorstep or had bells on my hat like a jester," he said. "I wasn't sure if we could pull it off. But George said, 'Well Peter, this is theater. We can get away with things, you know, because of imagination.' I thought, 'Oh yeah, this is why I love what I do for a living.' "