Interview

From Tyrion to Cyrano: Why Peter Dinklage is always “the smartest person in the room”

In Joe Wright’s musical retelling of the classic play, Dinklage shakes off Game of Thrones in dramatic fashion.

Peter Dinklage is a bona fide movie star.

Charismatic, cunning, and armed with a caustic wit, his best-known characters — from Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones to the titular figure in this month’s Cyrano — turn their words into weapons and their anguish into armor.

Disillusioned yet debonair and deceptively gallant, they could never survive solely on strength. Instead, these characters beat every enemy to the punchline, concealing vulnerability behind a ferocious intellect that keeps them several moves ahead. And Dinklage, with his heavy-browed good looks and fervent presence, manages the miracle of conveying all their inner conflict without displacing the defenses they’ve erected to keep the world out.

In Cyrano, now in theaters, Dinklage delivers what may be the definitive portrayal of a character first introduced 125 years ago by the French dramatist Edmond Rostand. As a poet-soldier who yearns for the radiant Roxanne (Haley Bennett), the actor lays bare the tortured soul of a sharp-tongued savant who cannot express his heart’s one desire.

“He’s a complicated guy,” Dinklage tells Inverse. “He’s a poet. He’s a showman. He’s a performer. He’s brave in every other aspect. From the beginning, he’s just putting on a show for everybody, and everybody loves him. And he’s very confident with the sword and with his wit. But he’s a coward when it comes to love.”

In Rostand’s original play, Cyrano’s outsized nose marked him an outcast. In this version, first adapted as a 2018 stage musical by writer-director Erica Schmidt (also Dinklage’s wife), the prosthetic nose is no more. With Dinklage in the role, his height becomes the physical difference that Cyrano perceives as standing between himself and his beloved. (The actor was born with achondroplasia, the most common form of short-limbed dwarfism, and stands at four-and-a-half feet.)

“When I had seen other productions of Cyrano, on a theatrical level — being an actor, perhaps being someone of my size — I was like, ‘That's just a handsome actor in a fake nose,’” recalls Dinklage. “There was some pretense to it that I never really could fully connect to on a visceral level.”

Haley Bennett and Peter Dinklage star in Cyrano.Peter Mountain

Schmidt’s alterations unlocked the story for Dinklage. “She made it more universal,” he recalls. “When you get rid of the nose, what are you left with? Suddenly, for me, it was that you’re left with the heart.”

Cyrano is ultimately a tragic figure — especially once he learns of Roxanne’s affection for Christian (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), a handsome but inarticulate new cadet in Cyrano’s regiment. Convinced that society would never accept his and Roxanne’s pairing, Cyrano instead conspires to woo her by pouring his soul out into love letters for which Christian can claim credit. This way, Cyrano decides, he can live out the romance vicariously.

“I don’t know if Tyrion can sing.”

Dinklage first played the role on stage and reprises it in this lavish film adaptation by director Joe Wright (Atonement), with a screenplay by Schmidt. He’s spent enough time with the character to point know him deeply — and to push back on the idea of him as a true romantic.

“I don’t know if he even knows what love is because he’s known this woman for so long, and he’s now hiding behind the persona of another man,” Dinklage reflects. “Cyrano is in love with this idea of love, but is that truly what love is? Because it’s not lying. I liked the fact that he was almost naive.”

In this respect, Cyrano is nothing like Tyrion Lannister. Though he evolved dramatically across Game of Thrones, Dinklage’s palace schemer was both a cynic and a cad, indulging in wine and women rather than pining in secret for a lifelong love.

“They’re both quite often the smartest person in the room, Tyrion and Cyrano, but they’re very different,” says Dinklage. “Fundamentally, they have very different agendas. Tyrion is pretty fearless when it comes to love; he’s ravenous and doesn't mind telling the person he is ravenous for. Then again, he can’t wield a sword so well. And I don’t know if Tyrion can sing.”

A New Song of Ice and Fire

Peter Dinklage and Haley Bennett star in Cyrano.Peter Mountain

Dinklage, however, can sing. Long before his breakout role in 2003’s The Station Agent, the actor had been known under the rap moniker Popcorn Pete and fronted a New Jersey rap-rock group called Whizzy. A not-insignificant part of Cyrano’s continued appeal to the actor has been that both stage musical and film showcase this hidden talent; Dinklage’s deep, sonorous vocals allow Cyrano to express the full measure of his wounded pride and longing. (Somehow, Game of Thrones got around to stunt-casting Ed Sheeran but never mined this side of its biggest star.)

In adapting the play, Schmidt enlisted members of rock band The National to provide the songs and score. Their brooding low-register ballads enabled her to craft a more achingly intimate type of musical. Dinklage remembers first hearing The National in Ireland while filming Game of Thrones. He was sitting in the makeup trailer when the opening strains of High Violet made their way to his ears, all reverb-tinged guitars and bruised baritone.

“How fitting that the first song I heard from The National was ‘Terrible Love,’ which is what we’re talking about in Cyrano,” Dinklage remarks. “It's terrible, love — beautiful, but just terrible. And it’s not going to have a happy ending.”

The National contributed a somber cover of “The Rains of Castamere” to Game of Thrones’ second season, but their collaboration with Schmidt proves even more fruitful. Inspired by the sense of love and regret palpable in the band’s music, she wrote to frontman Matt Berninger, hoping he could provide a few songs for her musical. He turned to twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner, the band’s guitarists and multi-instrumentalists. Before long, they were composing an entire songbook, with Berninger and wife Carin Besser co-writing the lyrics.

“What Matt writes about with Carin is so beautiful, poetic, yearning, and heartbreaking,” says Dinklage. “It was a perfect fit.” The band was involved before he was, though Dinklage’s adoration of Berninger factored into him deciding to read for the lead role — at which point all involved realized that another perfect fit had been hiding in plain sight.

A lover and a fighter, Dinklage’s Cyrano often finds himself in the heat of battle, though wordplay is his preferred form of swordplay. He’s first heard before he’s seen, unleashing a devastating critique of the evening’s entertainment at his local theater before descending into view and running the target of his scorn off-stage.

The crowd is generally on his side, but a sneering noble (Joshua James) mocks Cyrano as a “freak” and challenges him to a duel. Cyrano accepts and, over the percussive beat of swords clanking, delivers a blistering spoken-word tirade that responds to the original insult. (Sample: “Yes what you’ve heard is true: I’m not a rumor/ I’m living proof that God has a sick sense of humor”).

“I had the end of 8 Mile in my head with that first spoken-word performance,” Dinklage reveals. “It’s what Eminem does: he goes first, and he tells us everything that the guys are going to say about him that's dismissive. He beats them to it. Cyrano basically says, ‘Yeah, I’m a freak. I know it. I get it. I’ve been laughed at my whole life.’ So, he doesn’t give the guy a chance. He owns it. And I love that ownership.”

The Thrill of a Challenge

Peter Dinklage and Kelvin Harrison, Jr. star in Cyrano.Peter Mountain

Behind the camera, Wright’s long lenses, flares, and blooming bokeh blurs make Cyrano an expressionistic whirlwind of a musical. The passions of its characters are amplified by ardent flourishes of filmmaking as much as by the songs they performed live on set. Massimo Cantini Parrini and Jacqueline Durran’s costume design, currently Oscar-nominated, adds to the film’s opulent aura. The camera especially loves Roxanne, which makes sense given that Wright and Bennett are real-life romantic partners.

“If it’s what the characters are going through, then you really feel it.”

The director often centers the film’s love triangle in Renaissance-style tableaux, and he stages sequences of song and dance with the same bravado that electrifies the film’s action setpieces. In one swashbuckling nighttime scene, Dinklage’s hero is ambushed by a fleet of assassins, who draw their blades and prepare to run him through. With Wright conceiving the sequence as a single fluid take that darts, dodges, and parries along with Cyrano, the actor spent months training with fight choreographers and stunt coordinators.

“One of my favorite sequences in movies is in Children of Men: Julianne Moore and Clive Owen and their cohorts are in the car together, and they get chased,” Dinklage says. “That's one take, because you're in the car with them, and you can’t be let off the hook. As soon as you cut away from it, you're off the hook subconsciously. Those one-take sequences have to be used intelligently and for good reason. You can smell it a mile away, if it's cinematic showing off. But if it's what the characters are going through, then you really feel it.”

Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, and Kelvin Harrison, Jr. star in Cyrano.Peter Mountain

Dinklage is conscious that theater purists may take issue with some of Cyrano’s modernizations and that the film’s musical stylings won’t be for everyone. “Films that adhere too closely to a source material, like a book or play, can suffer from that if they don't embrace and explore the difference in the art forms,” he says.

“If the filmed version of a novel is exactly like the novel, why don't I just read the novel?” Dinklage continues. “I would rather read the novel because then I can come up with my own characters in my imagination. If you keep the heart, but you challenge the original novel cinematically, then I'm interested.”

“[Game of Thrones] challenged the original source material quite often.”

Dinklage, of course, has experience in this area. Though Game of Thrones drew criticism in later seasons for rushing through its endgame, it had been diverging from George R. R. Martin’s book series long before that, condensing some characters and storylines while bypassing others entirely. The show’s third season is generally considered a turning point in this regard, though Season 2’s penultimate “Blackwater” did, for example, allow Dinklage’s Tyrion to keep his nose after taking an ax to the face during the episode’s central battle. (Martin was not so merciful.)

“That’s another cinematic work that challenged the original source material quite often,” Dinklage agrees. He doesn’t go into detail on reception to the series’ final season but reflects that Game of Thrones had proven controversial to some audience members before a single episode aired.

Peter Dinklage stars as Tyrion Lannister in the Game of Thrones episode “Blackwater.”HBO

“Early on, there was a lot of backlash about the original casting choices — because everybody has an opinion, especially online where everybody's anonymous, and they can say whatever they want,” he says. “Everybody's a journalist; everybody's a critic. It was funny to see, as we started doing the show, they got quieter and quieter about the casting — which was nice because it meant they started to eventually like what we were doing.”

(For the record, one fan criticism of Dinklage’s casting was that he was far too handsome to play Tyrion, whom Martin had described as unattractive on the page. He was also too tall.)

Dinklage was widely acclaimed for his performance on Game of Thrones, each season of which earned him Emmy recognition. He was also the only Emmy winner in the cast, a feat he accomplished the first time he was nominated. But after playing Tyrion for a decade, Dinklage says he was ready to let him go. “You don’t want to get too locked into one character, as much as you love that character,” says the actor. “You want to shake it off in your offseason.”

Don’t expect to see him become a high-fantasy fixture, either. “As much as I loved Tyrion, I’m not interested in a Tyrion knockoff or a character similar to Tyrion,” he says.

Instead, Dinklage’s next two roles will find him pushing into less familiar territory. In American Dreamer, a black comedy adapted from a This American Life segment, he’ll play an adjunct professor who agrees to purchase the sprawling estate of a lonely widow (Shirley MacLaine) at a suspiciously low price. And in The Toxic Avenger, a darkly comic remake of the Troma classic, he’ll portray the title character, a man turned into a mutant freak after being shoved into a vat of toxic waste.

Peter Dinklage stars in Cyrano.Peter Mountain

For now, though, he’s still savoring the afterglow of Cyrano, an intimately romantic project that allowed him to collaborate with Schmidt and a few other sets of partners: Berninger and Besser, Wright and Bennett, and — “definitely the longest partnership of all of us” — the Dessner brothers.

“Not only is it a familiarity or a friendship, but you know how the other works,” he says. “You know their tics and experience a rhythm with them. That’s why great directors work with the same actors over and over again, from Preston Sturges to Martin Scorsese. They don’t want to talk about the weather. They don’t want to small talk, to get to know each other. They just want to get straight into the work.”

That suits Dinklage just fine. “Work and life are one and the same,” he says of his approach to acting. “I don't work in an office. My work is very abstract. And it requires a lot of me. And so to constantly collaborate, 24/7, with people close to you is a thrill.”

Cyrano is now in theaters.

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