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A Giant Among Us — “Game of Thrones” Star Peter Dinklage Turns 45 Today

dvd revI fell hopelessly in love with Peter Dinklage’s sexy dwarf, who is a schemer but a noble one by Lannister standards.

—Maureen Dowd

Like Maureen Dowd, who gave a shout-out for Game of Thrones in her April 6 New York Times column (“Bring Me My Dragons!”), I came to the HBO phenomenon reluctantly. Besides being generally indifferent to the fantasy genre, I’d heard nothing about the series to suggest that it would become as addictive as Breaking Bad was last year.

There was a moment in the saga of Walter White when he went over to the dark side as surely as though a bell had tolled his passage, and we began to care less and less about what happened to him even as we continued, fascinated, to follow him to his fate. With Season Four of Game of Thrones approaching its final episode, we’re caring more and more about Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister, who was born on the dark side and is staying there, as he tells the love of his life when explaining why he can’t abandon the Lannisters: “These bad people — it’s what I’m good at, out-talking them, out-thinking them.” Now that his fate is in the hands of his father and his sister, who both loathe him, viewers have reason to wonder if Tyrion will survive the season, especially in view of what’s happened to other seemingly indispensable players in the series. While it’s true that the word of mouth about last season’s penultimate shocker, Red Wedding, brought many new viewers into the fold, it isn’t gore alone that’s lifting HBO’s Game of Thrones above mere sports events in the cable ratings, it’s the ongoing mortal threat looming over this witty, snarky, supremely articulate dwarf. If anyone is carrying the series these days, it’s the show’s most diminutive character, its imp genius, bastard prince, and most charming rogue.

The June 11 Club

Peter Dinklage will celebrate his 45th birthday today, June 11, 2014. While other members of the June 11 club are an illustrious lot that includes the likes of Ben Jonson, John Constable, Richard Strauss, and William Styron, Dinklage is happening here and now, a man of the moment coming into his own as an actor and a star, and if that weren’t enough, he’s a New Jersey native, born in Morristown. From all indications, Dinklage’s Tyrion is a Renaissance man who belongs in the company of his great birthmates. Given his talent as an actor, his mastery of abusive phrasing, he could do wonders with Ben Jonson’s comic invective. As someone who conceived and drew up the plans for an apparatus to make it possible for the crippled son of a rival family to ride a horse, he might have more in common with DaVinci than with Constable, although since he’s a man of vision and imagination with a gift for the grotesque (witness his disquisition on beetles in a recent episode), he might have more in common with Hieronymous Bosch. As for Strauss, who else but Tyrion is capable of an opera based on the Lannisters?  And in the unlikely event that he lives to a ripe old age, imagine the novel he could write (call it Tyrion’s Choice), he who when asked why he’s always reading a book, says that his brother, Jaime, has his swords “and I have my mind. And a mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone.”

Saver of Lives

Match Jaime’s warrior’s heart with Tyrion’s cutting-edge mind and nimble tongue and who knows, they may well prevail against odds in the latest crisis. You could lose count of the number of times Tyrion has saved his own life with his wit and cunning, but then he’s already saved more than his share of lives in Game of Thrones. Besides saving various members of that despised rival family such as Ned Stark’s bastard son Jon Snow and wife Lady Catelyn Stark, he rescues Ned’s sweet, virginal daughter Sansa from torture at the hands of the monstrous boy-king usurper Joffrey; saves his own bodyguard the sellsword Bronn; he even saves his horrible nephew, father, and sister by shrewdly and heroically (in his own bizarre way) commanding the defense of King’s Landing against the army of Stannis Baratheon. Though he may whore and drink and discourse obscenely and outrageously, even at the point of death (as he does with devastating effect in the first of two trumped-up trials), all in all, he’s a true knight.

Tyrion’s secret, as he confides to Jon Snow, is to be himself. “Let me tell you something, Bastard. Never forget what you are, the rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor and it can never be used to hurt you.” When Jon asks him what he knows about being a bastard, Tyrion replies, “All dwarfs are bastards in their father’s eyes.”

Quite a Large Man

The essential ironic dynamic of Game of Thrones is that its largest character is a dwarf. Dipping into the first volume of George R.R. Martin’s epic, which I may yet actually read, I found a passage where Lord Tyrion is visiting the Night Watch at the Wall, showing off his wit to the point where some members of the Watch think he may be mocking “their noble purpose.” After saying “We all need to be mocked from time to time,” Tyrion asks for more wine; when someone observes that he has “a great thirst for a small man,” Aemon Targaryen, the ancient blind maester of the Watch, declares that Lord Tyrion “is quite a large man … a giant come among us here at the end of the world.” Surprised, Tyrion says he has been “called many things, but giant is seldom one of them.” Looking in the direction of Tyrion’s voice, Master Aemon repeats, “Nonetheless, I think it is true.”

Aemon only says what he hears, and he hears a man who can out-talk and out-think (and out-act) anyone.

If Tyrion is a giant among those playing the Game, Peter Dinklage is becoming a giant among actors, with both a Golden Globe and an Emmy to his credit. True to Tyrion’s advice to Jon Snow, Dinklage wears the fact of his stature proudly, which means that in the course of his career he’s turned down dwarf-for-dwarf’s-sake roles and crass career moves (no leprechauns need apply); in his first screen role, in Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion (1995), he vents on the subject. Cast as a blue-suited, blue-top-hatted dwarf in a dream sequence for the film-within-a-film being directed by Steve Buscemi, he goes after the harried director: “Have you ever had a dream with a dwarf in it? Do you know anyone who’s had a dream with a dwarf in it? I don’t even have dreams with dwarfs in them. The only place I’ve seen dwarfs in dreams is in stupid movies like this!”

On the Way to Tyrion

The most significant role Dinklage played on his way to Tyrion Lannister was Finbar McBride in The Station Agent (2003), directed by fellow New Jerseyan Tom McCarthy, and set, where else but in Newfoundland, N.J. One feature of this film likely to catch the attention of seasoned cable viewers is that, like Dinklage, the actors playing Fin’s friends Olivia and Joe had HBO in their future, Patricia Clarkson as Ruth Fisher’s hippie sister in Six Feet Under and Bobby Cannavale in an Emmy-winning performance as the mad mobster Gyp Rosetti in Boardwalk Empire. Fans of AMC’s Mad Men will also notice John Slattery/Roger Sterling’s brief but vivid turn as Olivia’s estranged husband. A star-in-the-making lighting up the film is Michelle Williams as a pregnant librarian with an obnoxious boyfriend.

The first third of The Station Agent is dominated by Fin’s somber unsmiling presence. I was tempted to say “dwarfed by”  because it’s more than gimmicky wordplay when you turn that noun into a verb; the double meaning perfectly describes the scope of Dinklage’s cinematic presence. McCarthy plays on extremes of scale by balancing long shots of the tiny figure trudging purposefully along the railroad track with nuanced close-ups of his remarkably expressive face. As determined as he is to keep to himself, remote and closeted in the abandoned depot he inherited, the film won’t leave him alone; the camera loves his face, much as the close-up cameras of Hollywood’s golden age loved Garbo and Bogart and James Dean. All Dinklage has to do is cast his eyes moodily upward and you’re seeing a star who could hold his own in a love scene with any actress anywhere, including Michelle Williams’s needy librarian, who is already clearly falling for him, thus the kiss when she comes to visit and chastely spends the night.

The upside of Fin’s grimly resolute withdrawal from the world and his grudging resistance to the friendship offered by Joe and  Olivia is the beauty of the moment when he finally smiles in spite of himself at Joe’s joyously uninhibited way of going at life. In this warmly human film, Dinklage’s first smile is an event, like a sunset breaking through a cloudy sky.

The same expressive power is in force in Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister. For Fin the definitive coming out — the moment that finally releases the tension created by the cumulative effect of days of being a one-man freakshow under the community gaze — is when he gets drunk and climbs up on the bar, turning this way and that, both arms extended, displaying himself, and yelling to the bar crowd that had been gawking, “Here I am! Take a look! Take a look!”

The way Dinklage growls the last “Take a look” may remind Game of Thrones viewers of Tyrion’s passionate “confession” in Season 4, probably the actor’s most intense, unguarded, Emmy-worthy moment so far; wounded and infuriated by the betrayal of his lover Shae, he dispenses with the cynical persona, confessing that he’s guilty only of being a dwarf: “I’ve been on trial for that my whole life.”

Viewers who would like a sample of what Peter Dinklage and Game of Thrones are all about will find a strong selection on YouTube, which features several compilations of Tyrion’s Best Moments. The Station Agent, a feel-good classic, is available at the library, as are DVDs of previous seasons of Game of Thrones. Also on YouTube, you can see Dinklage addressing the graduating class at his alma mater, Bennington College, where he deliveres a free-form commencement address that has the class of 2012 cheering as lustily as the armies of King’s Landing when Tyrion rouses them to action.

 

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