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Peter Dinklage: ‘Who says beautiful white people own the rights to romantic stories?’

Actor Peter Dinklage talks about taking charge of his career, why diversity makes stories more interesting and playing the romantic lead in Cyrano.

Peter Dinklage is best known for his starring role as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones, but acting wasn’t always his bag. First it was literature, then theatre, then punk. But his skill and flair for storytelling and portraying the human experience would always shine through.

His new film, Cyrano, sees Dinklage take on the iconic role of Cyrano de Bergerac, an accomplished swashbuckler and wordsmith who believes his appearance is a barrier to winning the heart of the lovely Roxanne. In this week’s Letter To My Younger Self, the 52-year-old tells The Big Issue‘s Adrian Lobb that Hollywood’s idea of a romantic lead is slowly evolving – and he’s happy to be part of this overdue change.

Like a lot of teenagers, I fell victim to that spell where you go dark and get sullen and think you know more than everyone else. I was starting to get into Bukowski and Hemingway – all these darker male journeys, from the cowboys of Sam Shepard to Hemingway’s heroes, that had nothing in common with a kid from New Jersey. But somehow they still inspired me to live on the outside. I was at an all-boys Catholic prep school, which was an incredible education but I was on the periphery, socially. I had just a couple of friends and we put on plays.

I would definitely tell my 16-year-old self not to start smoking cigarettes. Because that’s when I started sneaking them from Dad’s ashtrays and from friends of mine – and it lasted way too long, deep into adulthood. Oh boy, and this was the ’80s. What a great haircut I had! It was feathered and fluffy and I’m also not sure about that gold chain I tried to rock for a few months, or the period where men’s cologne became a thing.

They say youth is wasted on the young but it’s truly not. The amoeba is forming itself, cells are dividing, everything is sorting itself out. At that time you are riddled with doubt but you also have an arrogance. It’s the time you’re supposed to make mistake after mistake and learn from them. I still wonder every day how many mistakes I will ratchet up, but as Beckett said: fail again, fail better. And there are no mistakes, especially in what I do for a living.

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Acting was not so inspiring for someone my size. So I thought, I’m not going to do that – I’m going to take creative control and write stories I want to see. Then you get a bit older, you meet actual writers and work with great writers and realise, ‘Oh, I wasn’t as good as I thought I was’. But I’m glad I tried my hand at it. Then you find your tribe of like-minded individuals, they start writing roles for you and say, “I know you don’t want to be an actor, but can you please act in this because I think we’d have fun? Let’s do this play downtown somewhere.” I was always a performer. And so they dragged me back into it. 

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I tried to be in a punk band for a couple of years but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. So it collapsed after a couple of fun, drunken years, playing CBGB and all that. My heroes were actors and writers. I have a lot of actor friends, men my age who really were inspired when they saw Sam Shepard’s True West with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise [in a production that ran off Broadway from 1982-84]. And I’m one of them.

It was theatre that spoke to me. It was anarchistic and poetic. There’s a reason why there’s a movie called Being John Malkovich, because he had this mysterious quality you couldn’t put your finger on. He was unlike anything I’d seen. It must have been like when Brando first came out and did On the Waterfront.

I like strong, not-giving-a-shit actors, the ones where you could tell they aren’t getting their hair redone after every take. Even though he didn’t make many movies, I was always a huge fan of John Cazale. Also Ruth Gordon, Daniel Day-Lewis, Gary Oldman, Heath Ledger. They have the common element of not giving a shit and going all in.  

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I would tell my younger self don’t wait till much later to have a sense of humour about yourself. And don’t take yourself so seriously. Take greater risks, don’t hide. But definitely take greater risks both in your career and in love.

If I could tell my younger self about my career, he would probably roll his eyes – he did that a lot – and say, really? Are we going to be an actor? But he would think Game of Thrones was pretty cool. He’d regret some of the decisions I made but I would tell him that’s part of life. You have to pay the bills one way or another.

Fame is an abstract thing. I’m glad it happened now I’m a bit older. I’m married with children and had been that way for a while before Game of Thrones made me very recognisable. I’d already had a long adult life and had confidence in who I was as a person, so it didn’t ever define me. When you’re younger, that can end up defining how people see you so I avoided the pitfalls of that.

Be more honest if you like someone. Don’t play it so cool. That’s what I would tell my younger self about love, but he wouldn’t believe that, because cool gets the girl, right? Being honest can be off-putting. It can scare people away. So I don’t know if I would take that advice or even give that advice. But the big one is probably, as Kenny Rogers said, know when to fold ’em. If you feel like you’re desperately falling for someone and it’s not being reciprocated, walk away.

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I’d warn my teenage self that there is a guy called Donald Trump and he is going to become president. He wouldn’t believe me. He’s going to laugh. “Isn’t that the guy who owns casinos?” But I’d tell him to always stand behind the right thing, the morally sound thing and never be afraid to speak your mind. Although some people make fun of you, because you’re an actor and what right do you have to speak your mind about anything political? Just don’t be afraid. Who cares who you offend? There’s right and there’s wrong out there – and you have always got to be on the right side of history.

If I could relive one day, it would be the birth of my children. That’s everything. It changes your whole life. So I’d say get ready, because it’s not about you any more. Even though you’re an actor, it’s not about you any more! And that’s hard for an actor. But for any of us, when we become a parent for the first time it changes everything. 

My father passed away when I was in Sweden about 18 years ago and I would love to have one last conversation with him. He was very sick but was holding on for a while. I said, “Dad, I have to go to Sweden but I’ll be right back.” I was only going for four days. He said, “Don’t worry, I’ll be here when you get back.” Two days after I got there, I got the phone call. It would have been nice to have been there when he left this mortal coil, just to give him a big hug and tell him I love him.

Dinklage stars as Cyrano de Bergerac, with Haley Bennett as Roxanne

Who says beautiful white people own the rights to romantic stories? Unfortunately, Hollywood has always done thatthrough the decades, but I feel like we’re opening up that box more these days. There are love stories outside that Hollywood box and it’s making movies more interesting. Writers are more diverse than ever and they are telling their personal stories. I’m just surprised it has taken this long. 

I wanted to play lead roles – romantic or not – because the lead gets to tell the whole story. To thread the needle from point A to point Z. It’s a real craft to keep the continuity of an entire film going if you’re the protagonist telling the story, as opposed to supporting parts that come in, chew it up a bit, then leave. That’s the real challenge. And, you know, usually the lead in most movies has romance in their life. And, being a romantic myself…

Cyrano opens in cinemas on January 14.

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