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An ArtsWORK Exclusive by Ethan Crough
Because he made it a point to refuse the stereotypical roles offered to him, actor Peter Dinklage now makes thank-you speeches at the Emmy awards. There are lots of actors I know who wish they could say the same. The tricky part is that saying no to these roles sometimes means no acting job and not having money to pay your bills. But you can be like him. It takes guts to create a career path in the performing arts that you can live with.
During this year’s Emmy award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series, the two presenters opened with a word of caution. They warned that winning an Emmy can cause swollen egos, shortened tempers with assistants, and complete and total forgetfulness of all the “little people” who helped along the way.
They then announced the nominees and the Emmy went to the dwarf actor Peter Dinklage for his supporting role in the HBO miniseries “Game of Thrones.” My wife and I were pleased and wondered if the writing for this particular award introduction had been intentional.
I met Peter Dinklage twice while I was living in New York City as an actor. The first time was at a commercial audition for a Swedish company. All of the dwarf actors were competing to be the “little bill” of savings – the promotion of the ad – that gets pulled out of a mailbox. It was not a glamorous role and required little talent other than being very small, but I was still very unsure of how to manage my career in the performing arts.
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It was surprising to see him there, considering the credentials he already had as an actor and the role we were auditioning for, so I asked him, “What are you doing here?”
The striking face that looked up at me was clearly meant for Emmy awards, movies, Hollywood, New York City – all of the above – not for being pulled out of a mailbox, and he knew it. “My agent sent me,” he said. With that, he glanced at the script and then walked back out the door.
My friends have been telling me about Peter Dinklage for years. He starred in a movie, about making independent movies, called “Living in Oblivion.” It was made in 1995 when I was twenty-two years old and has a one-of-a-kind scene in it for any actor who has ever been asked to play a part simply because of what they are, not who. My friends felt that I was meant to be in the performing arts and that these were words to live by.
Tito: Why does my character have to be a dwarf?
Nick: He doesn’t have to be.
Tito: Then why is he? Is that the only way you can make this a dream, to put a dwarf in it?
Nick: No, Tito, I...
Tito: 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? No! 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! "Oh make it weird, put a dwarf in it!” Everyone will go "Woah, this must be a f*****’ dream, there’s a f***** dwarf in it!" Well I’m sick of it! You can take this dream sequence and stick it up you’re a**!
Instead of living by these words – and being a few years older – I stayed at the audition that day and tried out for the part in the mailbox. My heart wasn’t in it and at that point I didn’t want to go to Sweden for filming. It was not an enjoyable experience but the worst was yet to come. After an audition like that they never call to tell you bad news – they just don’t call. Your phone simply doesn’t ring.
So the next morning at 8:30 when my phone did ring, I thought twice before picking it up. It was my mother. My parents lived in New York City too and now she was excited. While out walking her dog on the Upper West Side she talked to someone in the business of show business who knew someone that was casting a commercial with a part for someone like me. The Swedish bill!
My mom went on about how I should get down there and see about the part, how good of an opportunity this might be, and then she said, “All the dwarfs they saw yesterday were terrible.”
What?!? Whoa. You mean in addition to not wanting to audition for the part, my own mother is calling to echo the words that have been following me around since “Living in Oblivion?” My other reaction was disappointment at not having the guts to walk out of the audition like I should have. Then I smiled and said, “Mom, I was at the audition yesterday.”
The end result of this is very good. That morning got me to see my path in the performing arts more clearly. I’m not a serious, brooding actor who stars in movies or miniseries. Nor am I a comedian who is willing to sell his size as a stereotype for success. But I’ve done well giving speeches. In the years since that audition my upward climb in the performing arts has changed several times but remained on the same trajectory. I am now getting paid again to speak in public for a month of presentations and writing some as well.
Everyone in the profession of acting is going to come up against and possibly be offered roles that challenge our belief in self, integrity, and independence. We must trust the best decision to be our guide, so that we can wake up and be ready to answer the phone in the morning.
Years later, after I stopped acting like an actor and became a guide, I ran into Peter Dinklage on a train. This time I said, “I know what you’re doing here and think it’s great.” It’s certainly not anything he’ll thank me for in a speech. Maybe I’ll thank him. After all, we have to be satisfied with the roles we choose to pay our bills.
Ethan Crough is Vice President of Membership for Little People of America Inc., a library assistant, a public speaker, licensed middle school teacher, and a stay-at-home parent. His articles have appeared in The Republic (Columbus, Indiana) and the San Francisco Chronicle.
In addition to acting Crough has been a park guide for the National Park Service, a tour guide in NYC, and an environmental educator in San Francisco.
See profiles of a few of the many accomplished individuals working in diverse fields of the arts who also have a disability.
Go to People in the Arts
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