Peter Dinklage doesn’t consider himself much of a singer, and swordfighting is outside his usual area of expertise. But the opportunity to master those skills is precisely what appealed to him about the new movie musical “Cyrano,” which Dinklage leads as a crooning, jousting poet.
“I’ve got to be intimidated by it,” he said. “Anything that scares me gets my interest.”
The 52-year-old actor first tackled the material in a stage musical written and directed by Erica Schmidt, Dinklage’s wife, with songs written by members of the band The National. After an off-Broadway premiere in late 2019, Schmidt’s “Cyrano” has now been made into a lavish film directed by Joe Wright (“Atonement”), which finds the title character covertly courting his true love, Roxanne (Haley Bennett), in the form of letters sent by besotted soldier Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.).
Of course, that begs a very contemporary question: Did Cyrano de Bergerac invent catfishing? Although the new film retains the period setting of the 1897 Edmond Rostand play on which it was based, Dinklage detects many modern-day parallels. “It’s exactly what we’re doing today with online dating, where you’re putting up a profile of yourself out there that is not necessarily true to who you are,” he said. “We all pretend to be other people to varying degrees.”
But few pretend better than Dinklage, a four-time Emmy winner who played sly and short-statured Tyrion Lannister for eight seasons of “Game of Thrones,” culminating with its controversial finale in May 2019.
“‘Game of Thrones’ wasn’t really a TV show — it was like my life,” Dinklage said. “My family was there in Ireland six months out of every year, for almost 10 years. You dig roots down there, my daughter was going to school there. She developed an Irish accent because she was with little Irish kids all day long.”
Still, in a recent and wide-ranging conversation via video call, Dinklage told me that he has found life since “Game of Thrones” to be quite liberating: “You feel this void, but then you also go, ‘Oh, wow. I don’t have to do that, so what am I going to do next?’ That’s the exciting thing.”
Excerpts from the conversation.
Q: It’s my understanding that your wife, Erica, was fairly far along in adapting “Cyrano” before you read it and decided to star in it. What convinced you?
A: Yeah, she was commissioned to write an adaptation of “Cyrano,” and she had the great idea of stripping it down to its bare essentials, replacing the long monologues about love with love songs. Most importantly for me, I finally connected with it because she got rid of Cyrano’s most famous attribute, which is the obviously fake nose on the handsome actor’s face.
I’m an actor, I’ve worn prosthetics before, but the pretense of that didn’t jive with me. I’d always thought, “What’s the big deal? You get to take that off at the end of the show.” And then Erica removed it and I thought I had to play this part because now it’s about a guy who doesn’t know what to do in the face of love, who has nothing to blame but himself.
Q: What do you mean by that?
A: I think Cyrano is in love with love, and so many of us are, but we have no idea what it is. I always jump ahead and think, well, what if Cyrano really got what he wanted? Would he and Roxanne start to annoy each other? Because he keeps her on a pedestal, is that why he loves her? I think so many people do that. They don’t want to get too close. They want to know the good stuff without the bad.
Q: How did you feel about love when you were in your 20s? Were you in love with the idea of love?
A: Yeah, I think so. I think there’s a “Wuthering Heights” quality to all love when you’re younger, you know? “Romeo and Juliet” wasn’t written for 40-year-olds. I was guilty of always falling for someone where it wasn’t reciprocated, because keeping it at a distance is more romantic than bringing it up close. You fall for people you know aren’t going to return that, so it’s even more tormented, and you’re not interested in the people interested in you. That’s how my brain worked because I was a self-saboteur when I was young.
Q: How do you grapple with that?
A: You get a bit older and you realize that has nothing to do with anything. But it’s OK, because in your 20s, everybody should be a mess. I meet so many ambitious, professional young people in their 20s and they have everything together, and it seems like they haven’t made any of those really important mistakes, as opposed to when me and my friends were in New York in our early 20s and we’d go out drinking all night and smoke cigarettes and howl at the moon. We were all just fools, and it was fun.
Q: Do you remember the first time you met Erica?
A: Of course. It was about 18 years ago now. We were all at a friend’s house and someone said, “They’re walking the elephants through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel.” The circus was in town and it was snowing, and they were walking the elephants through Manhattan, a long line of them. It was like something out of a beautiful, fantastical, end-of-the-world, crazy, romantic movie. See? I always think about movies. So that’s the night we met, the night the elephants walked through Manhattan.
Q: By that point, had you been able to move past your tendency to torment yourself about love?
A: I don’t think you do that. I think other people do that to you. If anybody’s been lucky enough to experience love, it just grabs hold of you. You don’t control how you feel, but you can choose what to do with it.
Q: Which is part of the issue with Cyrano, who may feel unworthy of love.
A: I was raised Irish Catholic, so I totally feel unworthy of everything. That’s what hopefully this movie is speaking to, that unworthiness we all go through. When you meet somebody you love, they’re suddenly so important and so powerful that of course your go-to is, “I’m not worthy of this, because why would I be? This is so much bigger than me.”
Q: Do you think Erica removed the fake nose and reconceived Cyrano because she had you in mind for the role?
A: Subconsciously, perhaps, because we had worked together before and we’re partners in life. But I definitely think she wasn’t just replacing the nose with my size in terms of a physical difference of the character. She just wanted to unearth. It’s kind of what I do: Every time I approach a role, I’m not just approaching it as someone my size, I’m approaching it as a flesh-and-blood human being with many more complications to the character.
It’s so funny, just talking about this movie, I’m asked, “How does it feel to play a leading man?” That’s still part of the conversation because we’re still inundated by cliches. The domain of romantic leads has been beautiful white people for a hundred years now. That’s just what we’ve been served up, like Burger King, and then if we eat it, they’re going to make more of it. But my favorite filmmakers have been the ones who take risks, like Hal Ashby. I just worship “Harold and Maude” because look at who the romantic characters are. It’s a brilliant movie.
Q: In the ’90s, you gave an interview where you said, “What I really want is to play the romantic lead and get the girl.”
A: I think I was speaking more to the idea that they get to thread the whole narrative, and that’s sort of a joy. I had been playing a number of fun parts, but they were supporting parts. Behind the curtain of filmmaking, so much of it is continuity of character: If you come in for one or two scenes, you can just lay some dynamite, have some fun, and then you’re out of there, but there’s no real arc to your storytelling.
I think what’s fascinating about “Game of Thrones” and why a lot of actors are now drawn to television is because they get to do that slow burn. For example, if you take the character of Tyrion’s brother Jaime, he pushes a little kid out the window at the end of the first episode, but two seasons later, he’s a hero to the audience. It’s like, did you forget he pushed a kid out the window? It’s crazy the way you can just surf this narrative and take it wherever you want to go. I got to do that with Tyrion and you get to do that in the movie if you’re the lead, though you have to condense it a little bit more.
Q: What was it like to be famous at the height of “Game of Thrones” mania?
A: It’s myriad different reactions I get on a daily basis. People mean well, but when you’re walking down the street with your kid and people take your picture without asking, … I start to talk this way and then I stop myself, because for an actor to complain about that reflects poorly on you. Everybody is like, “You have a great life. What’s wrong with me taking your picture? You’re a performer, that’s my right.”
But it’s not about that. It’s more about just on a human level, I’m not a zoo animal. I’m a person. Let’s say I’m having a really bad day, or I just got off the phone and you’re right in my face. Am I supposed to smile for you? And why aren’t you actually communicating with me? More often than not, people take pictures without asking, and sometimes when I respond, even kindly, they don’t say anything because they’re almost surprised I’m talking to them. It’s really wild. If you’re a fan of what I do, why would you pay me back with that?
Q: So what’s your read on why they act that way?
A: I think a lot of people are totally removed from each other. Camera phones have become like fingers, an extension of themselves, and they don’t even think about it because that’s how everybody’s living. Much more famous actors than me can walk down Broadway if they hide themselves correctly, but I’m unable to do that, so it can be hard. I moved to New York City to be anonymous: “Who cares? Nobody looks twice.” And now, because of the technology, everybody does.
Q: George R.R. Martin wanted “Game of Thrones” to go on for two more seasons. Do you think it should have, or was that the right time to end?
A: It was the right time. No less, no more. You don’t want to wear out your welcome, although I’m not sure that show could have. But I think the reason there was some backlash about the ending is because they were angry at us for breaking up with them. We were going off the air and they didn’t know what to do with their Sunday nights anymore. They wanted more, so they backlashed about that.
We had to end when we did, because what the show was really good at was breaking preconceived notions: Villains became heroes, and heroes became villains. If you know your history, when you track the progress of tyrants, they don’t start off as tyrants. I’m talking about — spoiler alert — what happened at the end of “Game of Thrones” with that character change. It’s gradual, and I loved how power corrupted these people. What happens to your moral compass when you get a taste of power? Human beings are complicated characters, you know?
Q: I think some people really did want a happily-ever-after ending, even though “Game of Thrones” told us it was not that show from the very beginning.
A: They wanted the pretty white people to ride off into the sunset together. By the way, it’s fiction. There’s dragons in it. Move on. [Laughs.] No, but the show subverts what you think, and that’s what I love about it. Yeah, it was called “Game of Thrones,” but at the end, the whole dialogue when people would approach me on the street was “Who’s going to be on the throne?” I don’t know why that was their takeaway because the show really was more than that.
One of my favorite moments was when the dragon burned the throne because it sort of just killed that whole conversation, which is really irreverent and kind of brilliant on behalf of the show’s creators: “Shut up, it’s not about that.” They constantly did that, where you thought one thing and they delivered another. Everybody had their own stories going on while watching that show, but nobody’s was as good as what the show delivered, I think.