Peter Dinklage is a 4-foot-5-inch dwarf. There's no point beating around that bush -- and Dinklage wouldn't want us to. ''I like to be open about that stuff,'' he says over coffee at a Manhattan burger-and-beer joint. ''If a kid points to me and a parent grabs them, I'm just like, Oooh, that's so wrong. That kid's going to grow up to be,'' -- he shields his eyes -- ''don't look, don't look!''
So, yes, Dinklage is short. But more importantly, he's an actor, and a very good one. The latest proof is The Station Agent, a movie that entered this year's Sundance festival as a punchline (pre-fest press described the film as being about ''a dwarf living in an abandoned rural New Jersey train depot who becomes involved in the lives of a local artist and hot-dog-stand owner'') and left with a $1.5 million deal from Miramax as well as the screenwriting and audience awards.
But while festivalgoers raved about his costars Bobby Cannavale (the hot-dog vendor) and Patricia Clarkson (the local artist), it was Dinklage's performance -- warm, heartbreaking, and hilarious -- that made him an at-altitude celeb. It had been awhile coming: The 34-year-old New Jersey native has been working since 1991, after he graduated from Bennington College and moved to Brooklyn. His first screen role was in Tom DiCillo's well-received Hollywood parody Living in Oblivion, a movie he flat-out stole with a monologue about indies, dwarfs, and dream sequences. (''Do you know anyone who's had a dream with a dwarf in it? No! I don't even have dreams with dwarfs in them!'') More often, though, he'd play such roles as the ''loony guy or homeless guy,'' he adds. (A trip to the video store, where you can catch Dinklage in everything from Bullet to Human Nature, more or less backs this up.)
So who could have guessed that a part as Tom Thumb in an Off Broadway play called The Killing Act, by Tom McCarthy, would lead to a star turn as isolated train enthusiast Finbar McBride? ''The more I got to know him, I was like, He's just a pure leading man,'' says Agent writer-director McCarthy. ''I think we were all incredibly pleased at how great he was in the film. He's like Gary Cooper up there.''
''I'm sure my size limits my roles,'' says Dinklage. ''Sometimes people are like, 'Do you ever want to play a role that's not a dwarf?' And, well, obviously I am a dwarf. How could I play somebody who's not?'' He offers a laugh that waltzes through the room. ''But that's what's great about Tom's movie. It's addressed, and then it takes a backseat.'' And with any luck, he'll never have to star in a dream sequence again.