Drawing parallels between actors and the characters they play is usually a futile endeavour that invites squirming interviewees to roll their eyes. In the case of Peter Dinklage, however, I plough right ahead.
We're sitting in a five-star hotel in Cancun, Mexico, and, thankfully, the air conditioning is blasting away the flush of embarrassment that accompanies my question. I'm also bolstered by the knowledge that one of the showrunners on Game of Thrones has already made the comparison: co-creator Dan Weiss claimed that both Dinklage and his character, Tyrion Lannister, are blessed with "a core of humanity covered by a shell of sardonic wit". Does Dinklage agree with this poetically phrased comparison?
I await the eye-rolling, but Dinklage slowly nods his head. "Sure, I can understand that," he says in his deep, rumbling tone. He has a beautiful voice. "I think Tyrion can be the most relatable to the modern sensibility because he's not a hero and not a villain. He has a sense of humour even in the worst of times. Who relates to Ned Stark? Is he anybody sitting at the dinner table? But Tyrion is one of the dinner party."
Dinklage then pauses and pushes back his slouchy beanie hat. "Although Dan is probably talking about mine and Tyrion's shared love of drinking and has just veiled it in a writerly way!" There you have it - Dinklage, like Tyrion, is all humanity and wit.
Though we must not push the comparisons too far - Tyrion, after all, is inclined towards prostitutes and patricide - their shared assets have paid dividends for Dinklage. Admittedly Tyrion gets many of the show's best lines, but the actor delivers them with unwavering excellence and displays beneath the bravado an aura of deep melancholy. No one knows how Game of Thrones will end - top-line characters are killed off with unerring regularity - but most fans will hope that Tyrion survives.
The character's brilliance has not only changed Dinklage's life but has also helped shift expectations of what is required to succeed as a leading man.
Dinklage was born with achondroplasia, the most common form of short-limbed dwarfism, and stands at 132cms (4ft 5in) tall.
"There is a different definition of the leading man now," he says. "It's fantastic. You look at the leading men of the past and they are very different. Hollywood is finally opening the door wider to more realistic portrayals of who people are. It's not just about beautiful Hollywood stars."
He says he owes the Game of Thrones author, George R.R. Martin, a debt of gratitude. "I loved The Lord of the Rings as books and movies but, like elves, dwarves are presented as another creature. They are not humans in those stories. We don't have elves walking around, but we do have dwarves like myself. We are real. So it's nice to be humanised in fiction for once, especially in that genre. George R.R. was clever enough to make a dwarf a fully fleshed-out human being."
When Game of Thrones launched in 2011, Dinklage became a household name, and he has fought hard to retain as much anonymity as possible. He is notoriously press-shy, but is in Mexico to promote Pixels, a sci-fi kids' film with an all-star cast including Adam Sandler and Sean Bean. And a few days in Cancun with his family aren't such a bind - in between interviews he and his daughter play happily in the pool. When he arrives, wearing jeans, grey T-shirt and that baggy hat, I sense that he'd rather still be in the pool.
His work on Thrones takes up three months of each year and gives him the financial security to take on smaller, independent projects. He recently shot the German movie Taxi with director Kerstin Ahlrichs, and will star in the dark thriller The Thicket, which he and his long-time manager David Ginsberg will produce.
"Lower-budget films are very important because people are not there to make money but to create things for other reasons," he explains. "I always appreciate that. It keeps me in touch with the earlier part of my career."
The earlier part of his career runs in two halves, starting with his memorable debut in 1995's Living in Oblivion and running up to his breakout 2003 performance in The Station Agent. This was a period defined by impecuniousness; in his 20s he shared a tatty Lower East Side apartment with rodents. "I wouldn't call it rat-infested, but we definitely found one rat."
Then there were the years leading up to Thrones, taking in the likes of Nip/Tuck and Death at a Funeral - both the British film in 2007 and the US remake three years later - which saw his star rise.
During the first portion of his career he refused roles that he felt cast dwarves in a cliched manner and, like his character in Living in Oblivion, railed against stereotyping. I remind him of a dream sequence with Steve Buscemi in the film, in which his character rants, "Is that the only way you can make this a dream - put a dwarf in it? Do you know anyone who has had a dream with a dwarf in it? No! I don't even have dreams with dwarves in them!" Dinklage smiles. "I can totally relate to it," he says of his character's diatribe. "That was my first movie; I was kick-started with that rant and I have been living by those words ever since."
He grew up in Brookside, New Jersey, raised by a music-teaching mother and an insurance-selling father. In spite of his happy home life, he found adolescence "tricky". Performance, however, came naturally, as it did to his brother Jonathan, who is a professional violinist. Dinklage studied for a drama degree at Bennington College in Vermont and moved to New York, where he dreamed of starting a theatre company.
"I was a little bit harder on myself in terms of the choices I would make when I was younger," he says. Cute elves and buffoonish leprechauns were generally
off the menu. He would go on to appear in Elf in 2003 and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian five years later, but didn't feel as though either film compromised his integrity. "I had a code that I lived by and knew the things that made me uncomfortable, and that I was not going to take them. There are a lot of other jobs that pay the rent and I wasn't going to just see acting as a way to pay the bills, because it really didn't."
It wasn't until he approached the age of 30 that he was able to make a decent living from his craft. It all changed when he played Tom Thumb in Tom McCarthy's vaudevillian stage production. McCarthy recognised Dinklage's leading-man potential and asked him to star in his film The Station Agent, which told of a railroad-lover who moves to an abandoned train station in a bid to find solitude. Instead, he finds friendship. The film was an indie hit, winning the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and igniting the careers of both actor and director.
"That was a movie made with friends for very little money, back in a time where you could actually do that. I would like to think that you still can do that. That was a great time in all our lives. Tom has gone on and done incredible things." Has Dinklage changed much in the intervening years? "I look a lot older, but I am still the same person," he says, as he sups on a detox smoothie. "Paddling hard to keep my head above water."
He is now 46 and his head is definitely above water, though he looks back fondly to when he was slipping under. "It was a lovely relationship of being an actor when I was young," he says, "and my heart goes out to actors who get a lot of fame and money early on when they are kids or teenagers. If I'd had a nice bank account when I was 20, the damage I would have wreaked on myself and other people around me, boy. I wouldn't have been responsible, but now I feel I can be more responsible."
In fact, responsibility is a must. Dinklage has a young family to support. He married theatre director Erica Schmidt in 2005 and the couple have a young daughter (who, contrary to what's reported online, is not called Zelig). "Let me tell you right now: her name is not Zelig. But it's hilarious that that's a fact in Wikipedia." Doesn't he want a correction made? "I don't care!" His wife, he says, is "brilliant. She loves theatre. Unlike a lot of other people in our profession where film is the ultimate goal, theatre is sacred to her. It's not entertainment; it's art."
The couple worked together earlier this year in an off-Broadway production of Turgenev's A Month in the Country. "She's very inspiring. She's definitely the artist of the family." And he's not? "I am just the TV actor who pays the bills."
He is paying the bills while working in TV's golden age. "Now is a great time in TV because advertisers are not running cable. HBO, for example, has complete artistic control. You can swear, show nudity, which is nice, and what is most important is that it gives writers permission to do what they really want to do."
He is in demand on the big screen as well. He turns down a lot of fantasy projects that he feels are too close to Thrones. "The last thing you want when you do Game of Thrones is to do something Game of Thrones-like. I do a really good version of that genre, so I don't need to do Beastmaster on my time off."
Dinklage has a number of studio pictures in the pipeline, including O'Lucky Day, an R-rated comedy about a con man who tries to convince people he's a leprechaun, while he also has a supporting role in the forthcoming Melissa McCarthy movie, Michelle Darnell. In addition, he signed a deal with Sony Pictures and will star in two of their upcoming movies, voicing the role of Mighty Eagle, a one-time ornithological hero who's really let himself go, in an animation based on the wildly popular game Angry Birds. But before that comes Pixels, in which aliens attack using creatures from iconic 1980s arcade machines like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong.
The reviews from America, where Pixels opened a few weeks ago, have been weak, though Dinklage has attracted some praise for his performance as a mullet-wearing former arcade champion, Eddie, who is recruited by the government to stave off the alien assault. "It was a very common look back in the 80s where I grew up in New Jersey," he says of his character's retro fashion sense. "You still see guys like that. Sometimes people keep a fashion long after it's dead. Eddie has the giant mullet and has a habit of taking the sleeves off everything that he wears. I guess he's insecure about the back of his neck, but not about his guns."
Are his decisions to star in these two films, which skew slightly younger, informed by his young family, I wonder. His daughter might be able to watch Angry Birds when it comes out next year, or even Pixels, while presumably she does not even visit the set of Thrones. "No, she does not," he says. "I am so protective of everything that society has to offer, especially if I am in it. Maybe one day she'll watch Thrones. She is still very young - she's 3 - so she is not going to the cinema to see Pixels just yet.
When you do movies, people stop and go, 'Hey, weren't you in that thing I saw a few months ago?' and you have to list your resumé. But with Game of Thrones it's like, 'My God, you were in my f***ing living room last night!'
"She has been to the cinema once and she lasted about half an hour." What did she see? "It was Miyazaki's My Neighbour Totoro, which we have now on DVD, and she is satisfied. I think she was a little too young. I think Dada was projecting on to her because I love Miyazaki so much. I jumped the gun on that one."
The family live in New York, where Dinklage can feel almost anonymous. "People see actors at red-carpet events and think that applies to my whole life, but it really doesn't. I live in New York and I have a little place in the woods where I tend my garden. I like privacy and all this [media] is not my thing. I'm not jetting off to another fancy place after this."
Starring in Game of Thrones has, of course, tempered his anonymity, even in New York. "I would give anything to be an actor back in the day when people would see you and go, 'Oh, I wish I had a camera.' Now everybody has a camera. Any time someone asks me, 'I love your work, can I have a picture?' I will do it - but it's the sneaking of the photo I don't like." He pauses, a little exasperated. "It's hard when you have your kid with you and you feel everyone is just spying and not really living in the moment. Nothing is private any more, especially with the younger generation. I feel like they are recording everything they're doing and sending it to their friends. They're writing on Facebook everything they had for breakfast that morning. It's like: 'Who the f*** cares?'" He breaks into a smile and looks a little bashful. "It definitely is a bourgeois problem because there are people who work and have a much harder time than I do. But it is a little strange and Game of Thrones has definitely caused that. When you do movies, people stop and go, 'Hey, weren't you in that thing I saw a few months ago?' and you have to list your resumé. But with Game of Thrones it's like, 'My God, you were in my f***ing living room last night!'"
How long Tyrion will keep appearing in our living rooms, only the Game of Thrones creators know. Dinklage, on the other hand, will be around for a long time to come.
Pixels opens at cinemas on September 24.
- Canvas, Observer