Peter Dinklage and Thomas McCarthy: A small wonder

The actor and the director talk to Leslie Felperin about their highly unlikely hit movie
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The Independent Culture

It seemed as if Peter Dinklage, the star of The Station Agent, was at every single party I went to in January 2003 at the Sundance Film Festival, and that was quite a few parties. Every time he passed, often accompanied by the film's writer-director Thomas McCarthy or his co-star Bobby Cannavale, someone would point him out, in the same way that you would point out any rising star. At this point I hadn't seen the film, but there was no mistaking him: how many 4.5ft, devilishly good-looking dwarfs could there be in Park City, Utah? And whenever Dinklage and co walked by, it seemed as though there was always a film buyer standing next to me clutching a cocktail. No matter who it was, the following conversation would ensue:

It seemed as if Peter Dinklage, the star of The Station Agent, was at every single party I went to in January 2003 at the Sundance Film Festival, and that was quite a few parties. Every time he passed, often accompanied by the film's writer-director Thomas McCarthy or his co-star Bobby Cannavale, someone would point him out, in the same way that you would point out any rising star. At this point I hadn't seen the film, but there was no mistaking him: how many 4.5ft, devilishly good-looking dwarfs could there be in Park City, Utah? And whenever Dinklage and co walked by, it seemed as though there was always a film buyer standing next to me clutching a cocktail. No matter who it was, the following conversation would ensue:

Film buyer: "Have you seen The Station Agent yet?"

Me: "No, is it good?"

Film buyer: "Yes, it's wonderful! So lovely! Completely uncommercial, though. We can't risk buying it. It's a little movie, in which almost nothing happens, starring a dwarf!" Then they would shake their heads sadly, clearly pained by the brutal realities of the business that dictates that "little" movies starring dwarfs just do not make money.

By the end of the festival the film had won several prizes, including the audience award, and had been picked up by Miramax for a rumoured $1.1m (£600,000). Six months ago, Miramax released it in the US where it made five times its production costs. More importantly, The Station Agent has been lauded at nearly every festival it's attended, winning all sorts of awards, including the Bafta here in the UK, where it snatched the prize for best original screenplay from Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation.

Its success is fitting, given that the movie is about a man who just wants to be left alone, but finds friendship thrust upon him. Dinklage plays Fin, a railway enthusiast who inherits an abandoned railway station in rural New Jersey. Naturally taciturn, but also withdrawn after a lifetime of deflecting strangers' stares at his small size, Fin finds his isolation breached first by talkative hotdog-stand owner Joe (Cannavale) and then by an artist called Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), who is grieving over the death of her son. The three mismatched characters form a bond through shared strolls, marijuana and companionable silences, depicted by McCarthy without an ounce of treacle.

When I meet the film's director and star, I tell them about my Groundhog Day experience - repeatedly having the same woeful conversation with buyers at Sundance. The youthful McCarthy, an experienced stage and screen actor, smiles, looking just a bit bitter as well as triumphant.

"People have been telling me ever since I wrote it that it wasn't commercial - just try raising money with a script like this, with a dwarf in the lead," he says. "Friends who were independent producers who were saying, 'Do yourself a favour, write another script. Who wants to watch a dwarf for an hour and a half?' And I'd go, 'True, it's like watching a retarded murderer, like Sling Blade.' "

He's referring to the Billy Bob Thornton-directed film that eventually made $24m (£13m). "And they'd go, 'Yeah! No! This is different!' and I'd say, 'Why was that different? No one knew who was Billy Bob Thornton was when he made Sling Blade.' And I knew Peter was a great actor and that he was handsome and magnetic on screen, and I knew this would work. I think American audiences are thirsty for stories that take their time and find people who fall between the cracks a little bit."

McCarthy originally crafted the part for an average-sized person, but rewrote it for Dinklage after they worked on a play together and he saw what the actor was capable of. Size doesn't matter to the story's effectiveness: it's about loneliness and disconnection.

"Tom wrote the script about a character who is isolated," explains Dinklage, nursing a minor hangover after some carousing the night before. "And then we were out one day together, because we'd become friends, and he saw how I deal day to day with the attention I get from people because of my size, be they kids or teenagers showing off in front of their friends, or be they people trying not to look. He saw how I react by not reacting, because it happens every day. I used to sometimes challenge it, but I don't any more, because it becomes tiresome."

Very delicately, I ask Dinklage if his size has been a help or a hindrance in his career. After all, though there may not be many parts written for dwarfs, there can't be too much competition for the few that exist, either. "I'm the cream of the crop of dwarf actors!" he laughs, putting on a funny voice before turning serious. "Even though there's only, like, four of us. The thing is, how can I play a character who's not a dwarf? In a way, it's the same with any actor of any minority or any difference, but I guess with African-American actors it's more of an everyday thing, so easier to not address in the script, to have colour-blind casting. But you don't see a dwarf every day. So there I am, I am a dwarf. It's a matter of how it's addressed."

He continues, well used to the subject by now. "The lovely thing about Tom's movie is that, yeah, it is addressed, but it's not the overwhelming thing that the movie's about. It's about these three characters and the dwarf thing sort of gets lost in the shuffle. I don't talk about being a dwarf every day, and it's not like 'dwarf this, dwarf that'. A lot of parts written for characters of my size are not complex. They're either mystical people or they're fools or they're cranky. In other words, they're either Doc, Sneezey, Dopey, Grumpy or whatever the other ones were, but this character is complex. And all the other characters that I want to play are also flawed, complex, and romantic, which is a big thing that's lacking. I mean, we do have romantic needs."

Dinklage does indeed play the romantic lead here - his character has a budding romance with Michelle Williams. After shooting The Station Agent, he made Tiptoes with Gary Oldman, a surreal fable in which Oldman plays a dwarf and Dinklage his "insane best friend, his bad influence. Which was great, because he had to play the straight guy. I was like, 'Shouldn't he be doing this, because he's so much better at it than I am?' " Patricia Arquette plays his girlfriend.

McCarthy is now working on another script, hoping he'll have a bit more money that will allow him to spend time "getting those moments that people eat up, those smaller comic moments", which he thinks are crucial and make a film such as The Station Agent such a crowd-pleaser. "Hopefully I'll have a chance to do that on the next one, with a richer story, but not necessarily a bigger one."

The interview finishes and a few days later I run into the two of them at yet another party and we exchange pleasantries. Then Dinklage goes back to chatting up the pretty girl he was talking to, Tom to schmoozing a high-ranking film executive. Just before I leave I speak to a film-industry friend about the movie. She loves it. "Isn't it great?" she says. "I think it's quite commercial."

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