AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. And this is "Game of Thrones."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GAME OF THRONES")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (as character) Kill him. Kill all of them. I command it.
PETER DINKLAGE: (as Tyrion Lannister) You kill me, your brother's a dead man.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) You're right. Take him alive. Kill his men.
CORNISH: The popular HBO series, adapted from the books of George R.R. Martin, is one blood-soaked power play after another. But in a world where brute strength is often the difference between life and a slow death, the show's strongest character stands less than five feet tall. His name is Tyrion Lannister.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GAME OF THRONES")
DINKLAGE: (as Tyrion Lannister) Let me give you some advice, bastard. Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like honor and it can never be used to hurt you.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What the hell do you know about being a bastard?
DINKLAGE: (as Tyrion Lannister) All dwarves are bastards in their fathers' eyes.
CORNISH: That's actor Peter Dinklage. He got his big break in 2003 in the critically acclaimed film "The Station Agent." He followed that with memorable roles in "Elf" and on "30 Rock." Though Dinklage has never had a showcase like "Game of Thrones," he admits he was leery at first of playing Tyrion Lannister.
DINKLAGE: When I first read the role, I told my grandmother about it - and she's no longer with us, sadly, but she was an amazing woman - but she misunderstood me and she thought I said interior banisters. And she was quite confused by that, so it got off to like sort of a clunky start. I hadn't read the books, so I wasn't too familiar with it, but I knew David Benioff and Dan Weiss and they sort of set me straight about this character, because I had some severe reservations about going into the realm of fantasy.
DINKLAGE: I don't know. My own silly prejudice, I guess, against the genre in terms of someone my height. Usually it's a bit - how do I say this politely without offending anybody else's work in amazing things? It's bearded and pointy-shoed. And this character, Tyrion Lannister, isn't that way at all. I was very...
CORNISH: We should mention your height is under five feet. Correct?
DINKLAGE: Yes. Four and a half feet. I am a dwarf, and what immediately attracted me to this - any actor will tell you the same thing no matter what part it is - it just has to be very well-rounded, and this character is.
CORNISH: He seems to walk the line between self-preservation and empathy in a world that, of course, is just incredibly brutal and violent, and there's one scene I'm thinking of in particular - I think it's in the first season - where your character offers the gift of a horse saddle to a young boy who's lost the use of his legs. And we have that clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GAME OF THRONES")
UNIDENTIFIED BOY: (as character) But how will I be able to ride?
DINKLAGE: (as Tyrion Lannister) You will. On horseback you'll be as tall as any of them.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) Is this some kind of trick? Why do you want to help him?
DINKLAGE: (as Tyrion Lannister) I have a tender spot in my heart for cripples, bastards and broken things.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) You done my brother a kindness. The hospitality of Winterfell(ph) is yours.
DINKLAGE: (as Tyrion Lannister) Spare me your false courtesies, Lord Stuck(ph). There's a brothel outside your walls. There I'll find a bed and both of us can sleep easier.
Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho. Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho. Yeah. He does have a soft spot in his heart.
CORNISH: And a lot of humor. I feel like he's, in a way, the most modern character in his sarcasm and in some of his lines.
DINKLAGE: Yeah. I mean, that's just, as you said, it's his sort of survival mechanism at work. He knows he has no skills with a sword, so he sort of beats people to the punchline.
CORNISH: But he's not the joke, which I think is one of the things that makes it...
DINKLAGE: No. He tells the jokes.
CORNISH: ...someone you can root for. Right. I mean...
CORNISH: And I wondered about that, because obviously, the physicality is such a major part of the role. I mean, he's nicknamed the imp and you talked about your reservations there of kind of playing a character that could be subject to...
DINKLAGE: Well, I don't have a problem playing those characters as long as it's told intelligently. It would be stupid if he wasn't addressed as an imp or something in this world, given the surroundings. It does address the size issue, but it doesn't knock you over the head with it, because you don't really need to.
And I find all the scripts that I get that I'm not very interested in, it's a constant reminder, every single page. Almost every single line is geared towards your height. And I just, in my day-to-day life, and any person who is my size's day-to-day life, it happens, but it's not a constant.
CORNISH: At the same time, your career, when I look at some of the roles you've had in the past, the breakout role people describe as being in the movie "The Station Agent" a while back, even a big budget film like "Elf," where you played a very sort of pugnacious children's publisher, if that is an accurate description...
CORNISH: ...it seems like you've managed to find the roles that upend whatever those stereotypes might be.
DINKLAGE: Yeah. Well, I try to. You know, and I'm not always successful at it. You do have to make a living and I do not fault anyone else who makes choices to play characters that they wish they hadn't agreed to do, because at the end of the day, none of us are happy with our jobs all the time.
But I just sort of - I had some perseverance in terms of what I wanted to do and what I didn't want to do, and I think no is a very powerful word in our business that is very hard to use early on in your career. But I also think I was pretty arrogant when I was younger, so I used that word maybe too much, but it also helped me with finding roles that I did like.
CORNISH: What was the first time you stood on stage and thought, I want to act and this is the only thing I want to do?
DINKLAGE: Oh, it was so many years ago, I don't remember.
CORNISH: Oh, you're a baby. Give me a break.
DINKLAGE: Oh, I think a lot of us are just little hams when we're children and it just starts that way. You know, my mom's a music school teacher and kids would come in - it was a revolving door policy at our house growing up in New Jersey, where piano lessons were given all day throughout the day. And my brother and I would be putting on puppet shows down in the basement and constructing these elaborate sets and putting on these shows for all the octogenarians of the neighborhood. They were kind enough to pay a nickel.
CORNISH: So the arts was sort of - this was something in your background already?
DINKLAGE: It just came at an early age. Yeah. I don't know when it starts. When you trace it back to when you were like a little child, you can't remember this big moment. I think it's a lot of little moments that build up into something that just forms who you are, your need to be an actor.
CORNISH: I was reading in my research for this interview, there was an article in which you talked about wanting to reach the point in your career where you could be the lead, quote, and get the girl. And looking at "Game of Thrones" and your character and sort of where you're moving in your career, do you feel like you're reaching that point or reaching the point where you're being offered parts that aren't about your height, that are more about the character?
DINKLAGE: Yeah. It's always a struggle. It'll always be a struggle, I think, with any actor. The leads are often the boring part, though. Maybe I'll have to take that back. I like playing the guy on the sidelines. They have more fun.
CORNISH: Well, we're having a lot of fun watching you, so good luck with the rest of the season.
DINKLAGE: Thank you very much.
CORNISH: Actor Peter Dinklage. He currently stars in the HBO series "Game of Thrones." Thank you so much for talking with us.
DINKLAGE: Thank you, Audie.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.