How Peter Dinklage Became the Reluctant True Superhero of Little People

There are few kingmakers in popular culture as unlikely as Game of Thrones’ Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf noble rejected by his own family who is more interested in carousing than politics but ends up shaping the destinies of the Seven Kingdoms. Peter Dinklage’s brilliant portrayal of Tyrion’s inadvertent influence on the world around him has won him enormous acclaim and countless fans and, in the process, it has also placed him in a similar position to that of his on-screen counterpart. All Peter wanted was a chance to act, but now he has become a figurehead for dwarves worldwide, helping to change perceptions and attitudes toward little people; a reluctant but highly effective True Superhero.

How Peter Dinklage Became the Reluctant True Superhero of Little People
Peter as Tyrion Lannister

Tough times for a Brooklyn punk

Peter was born in 1969 in New Jersey with achondroplasia, the most common cause of dwarfism, although he was the only member of his family with the condition. His father was an insurance salesman while his mother taught music, and to begin with they tried to keep Peter and his older brother Jonathan away from the pernicious influence of television. They claimed not to have a television in the house until the brothers caught them surreptitiously watching a set that they had hidden in their bedroom closet. While Tyrion famously declared that “all dwarfs are bastards in their fathers' eyes”, this tale of deception is as close as Peter comes to being critical of his own parents, who strived to ensure their children had a comfortable and happy childhood, and both Peter and Jonathan - a violinist - went on to have successful careers in the performing arts. 

How Peter Dinklage Became the Reluctant True Superhero of Little People

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There are few kingmakers in popular culture as unlikely as Game of Thrones’ Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf noble rejected by his own family who is more interested in carousing than politics but ends up shaping the destinies of the Seven Kingdoms. Peter Dinklage’s brilliant portrayal of Tyrion’s inadvertent influence on the world around him has won him enormous acclaim and countless fans and, in the process, it has also placed him in a similar position to that of his on-screen counterpart. All Peter wanted was a chance to act, but now he has become a figurehead for dwarves worldwide, helping to change perceptions and attitudes toward little people; a reluctant but highly effective True Superhero.

How Peter Dinklage Became the Reluctant True Superhero of Little People
Peter as Tyrion Lannister

Tough times for a Brooklyn punk

Peter was born in 1969 in New Jersey with achondroplasia, the most common cause of dwarfism, although he was the only member of his family with the condition. His father was an insurance salesman while his mother taught music, and to begin with they tried to keep Peter and his older brother Jonathan away from the pernicious influence of television. They claimed not to have a television in the house until the brothers caught them surreptitiously watching a set that they had hidden in their bedroom closet. While Tyrion famously declared that “all dwarfs are bastards in their fathers' eyes”, this tale of deception is as close as Peter comes to being critical of his own parents, who strived to ensure their children had a comfortable and happy childhood, and both Peter and Jonathan - a violinist - went on to have successful careers in the performing arts. 

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Peter settled on his ambition of becoming an actor when still a teenager after seeing John Malkovich and Gary Sinise perform in the Sam Shepard play True West. He studied acting in college, then moved to a seedy apartment under the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn in 1991 to pursue his dreams. Times were tough; the apartment had no heating and the oven didn’t work “because it was filled with rats”, and when Peter tried to complain the landlord pulled a knife on him. Peter’s career path was made more difficult because he refused to accept the usual work offered to dwarf actors. No elves and no leprechauns meant a shortage of roles, and Peter struggled for many years but eventually built a network of like-minded friends with whom he would slowly build a career. It was during this period that Peter acquired his distinctive facial scar, although it was acquired in a different tough environment, singing with punk-rap band Whizzy at famous New York venue CBGB. “I was jumping around onstage and got accidentally kneed in the temple. I was like Sid Vicious, just bleeding all over the stage. Blood was going everywhere. I just grabbed a dirty bar napkin and dabbed my head and went on with the show. Now I have a pretty big scar that runs from my neck to my eyebrow.”

How Peter Dinklage Became the Reluctant True Superhero of Little People
Peter fronting his band Whizzy in 1994

Becoming Tyrion Lannister

One notable early appearance came in the 1995 indie comedy Living in Oblivion, where Peter plays a dwarf actor ranting about being asked to play a dwarf in a dream sequence, berating Steve Buscemi with the memorable line, “I don’t even have dreams with dwarves in them. The only place I’ve seen dwarves in dreams is in stupid movies like this!” Buscemi then recommended Peter to the director Alexandre Rockwell, and this led to more work and more success until, eventually, Dinklage was playing lead roles in films such as the critically acclaimed 2003 dramedy The Station Agent, a breakthrough role that brought him to the attention of a much wider audience. Before long, he was appearing in major studio pictures such as Elf, while still maintaining his principled stance; his character is a children’s author who is mistaken for an elf by Will Ferrell, who is then thoroughly beaten up by Peter’s furious character. 

How Peter Dinklage Became the Reluctant True Superhero of Little People
Peter charging at Will Ferrell in Elf

When casting began for Game of Thrones in 2010, showrunner David Benioff only had one name in mind for the role of Tyrion Lannister. He knew Peter socially, and the parallels between the sardonic but likable actor and the most popular character in George R.R. Martin’s epic universe were obvious. Dinklage was initially unsure about the role, as he had recently played the dwarf Trumpkin in a movie adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian and was wary of once again donning the ubiquitous and uncomfortable fantasy dwarf uniform of pointy shoes and a heavy beard. On learning more about Tyrion’s character (and outfits) he relented and accepted the part that would change his life. 

A reluctant figurehead

Peter’s scene-stealing performances in Game of Thrones immediately made him a global star, and now he was faced with a new problem. He was no longer expected to take exploitative roles that mocked his condition but was instead being asked to assume the role of a spokesman for all little people worldwide. When asked by The New York Times how he felt about this in a 2012 profile, he responded, “I don’t know what I would say. It would be arrogant to assume that I... everyone’s different. Every person my size has a different life, a different history. Different ways of dealing with it. Just because I’m seemingly okay with it, I can’t preach how to be okay with it. I don’t think I still am okay with it. There’s days when I’m not.” 

He was speaking soon after his first experience of life as a figurehead for an entire community. After winning the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor in Season One of Game of Thrones, he closed his acceptance speech with an impromptu remark about a story he had seen recently saying, “I want to mention a gentleman I’ve been thinking about in England. His name is Martin Henderson. Google him.” Henderson was an English dwarf who had recently been assaulted outside a pub in Somerset. An unnamed assailant came up behind him, picked him up and dropped him from a height of several feet. Henderson, who was celebrating his 37th birthday at the time, suffered leg, back and arm injuries, but the media jokingly ascribed his assault to a practice known as ‘dwarf-tossing’, which had originated in Australia in the 1980s and had recently been in the news following an alleged incident with the English rugby union team on tour in New Zealand. Dinklage’s sudden decision to highlight this case caused Henderson to trend worldwide on Twitter, an early demonstration of Dinklage’s newfound fame which would continue to snowball over the eight seasons of Game of Thrones

How Peter Dinklage Became the Reluctant True Superhero of Little People

Throughout that period, Peter has seemed uncomfortable with being a spokesperson for little people, seeking recognition for his talent rather than his stature. In addition to the many accolades he has won for his portrayal of Tyrion Lannister, he has also won acclaim and awards for performances in movies such as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and 2021’s Cyrano. Despite his reluctance, there are still occasions where he has felt compelled to speak out about Hollywood’s use of what he describes as “backward” tropes, notably on the WTF podcast where he lambasted Disney’s plans for a live-action remake of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. With typically sardonic and self-effacing humor, he demanded of host Marc Maron: “Have I done nothing to advance the cause from my soapbox? I guess I’m not loud enough,” causing worldwide headlines in the process. Whether he wishes to or not, Peter Dinklage - much like Tyrion Lannister - has successfully changed the perceptions and attitudes of millions of people for the better, and is certainly qualified as a True Superhero for little people worldwide.

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