The Station Agent directed and written by Thomas McCarthy, produced by Robert May, Mary Jane Skalski and Kathryn Tucker, with Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale. 88 minutes. A Next Wednesday Productions/SenArt Films release. Opens Friday (October 10). For review, venues and times, see First-Run Movies. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
When Peter Dinklage was offered his first movie role, he hung up on the director. "I thought it was a joke," he shrugs, chin in hand. "I have a couple of friends who are always playing jokes on each other. We do things like call each other and pretend we're somebody else.
"So I'm working this office job and I get this phone call. 'Hi, Peter, this is Tom DiCillo. I'm directing this movie called Living In Oblivion. I was wondering if you could come in and read for it.'
"And I went, 'Oh, I'm sorry? Leave me alone - I'm kind of busy right now. But thanks anyway - you sound really cool. Bye.' And I hung up. And then I went, 'Wait, that didn't sound like somebody I know!'"
He got the part anyway, as Tito, the beleaguered actor who memorably flips out on Steve Buscemi.
In general, his pals have been good to him. His latest film, The Station Agent, sounds like it was a big ol' huggapalooza to make. His role was written for him by his good friend Tom McCarthy; the other two principal characters are played by old friends "Patty and Bobby" - that's Patricia Clarkson (Far From Heaven) and Bobby Cannavale (Oz) to you - and even the extras were all buddies from the Brooklyn theatre scene Dinklage calls home.
Dinklage plays Finbar McBride, a solitary trainspotter who inherits an abandoned railway station from his employer and only friend. He moves in, planning to spend a self-sufficient retirement puttering and thinking about trains, but his solitude is thwarted by a gregarious Cuban hot-dog vendor (Cannavale) who shares the property, and by a fetching but emotionally damaged artist (Clarkson). The slow, grudging, on-and-off unfolding of their lopsided three-way friendship makes up the rest of the film. It's true to life, gentle and remarkably sweet.
Oh yeah, and Fin's a dwarf, and so is Dinklage. The first third of the film is mainly about that. It shows his life as an endless string of minor humiliations: objects that are built the wrong size, cashiers who ignore him, strangers who take his photo without asking.
He's constantly battling the warped perceptions of strangers. In one scene, he gets hosed in a bar and stands up on the stool, inviting everyone to stare at him. It's powerful and upsetting.
It's tempting to see the film as a sort of dwarf Dancer In The Dark, minus the musical numbers - a film about how much it sucks to be different. But not according to Dinklage. McCarthy wanted to write a script about loneliness and the need for human contact, and working with Dinklage suggested a possible angle.
"He just thought, because of my size, that the unwanted attention Fin receives could be one of the reasons this character disconnects from people."
But not all Fin's problems are invented out of whole cloth. "Tom and I would talk late into the night about the day-to-day things that would happen to me. Walking down the street together, he'd notice things, especially the way children react to my size - little kids have that open, wonderful, honest reaction - and he used those things in the film."
Fin reacts to the constant attention paid his size by becoming cold and reclusive. Dinklage has tended to do the opposite, although Fin's response isn't entirely alien to him.
"I have this sort of self-preservation thing that's built into me. I'm always like" - he mimes paranoia, looking warily around the room - "'Where's this person coming from?' Now, though, the older I get, the more I just let things slide. I have a sense of humour about life. But when I was younger.... I mean, everybody goes through a 'screw the world' stage when they're teenagers, so I could identify with that."
He adopts a mock-pedantic tone for a moment.
"But the film tells us that's not healthy, because you shut out both the bad and the good when you do that. Sometimes people just want to be your friend. And that's the great thing about this role, because, yeah, I'm a dwarf, and the movie addresses that, but it's actually universal because everybody can identify with that need to connect."
And they do identify. The Station Agent won the Audience Award at this year's Sundance festival, and the buzz is effusive. People respond to the film's laid-back pace and warm, easy intimacy. Even more, they respond to its hero.
That almost never happens. Most roles for actors who don't fit into that Hollywood mould range from lame to humiliating. Consider The Wizard Of Oz. Or Mini-Me. There are rare exceptions, most of them involving Dinklage. I ask him whether he actively seeks out unconventional characters.
"I try to be careful about the roles I take. A lot of them are a little flat - they're sight gags, they don't have too many layers. I'm a human being. I'm complicated, just like the next guy. That's true of any actor, though. You've got to be attracted to something in the script that challenges you. I'm not a spokesperson or an activist for dwarfism in acting. I just know when I've got a good script."
email@example.com Short shrift Though Oscar has honoured short people (Linda Hunt's a winner, Michael Dunn was a nominee), Peter Dinklage is not too impressed with other movies featuring short people. In particular, he says dwarfs never get the chance to be sexual. "Snow White And The Seven Dwarves ruined it for the rest of us. What group of seven guys living in the forest allows the handsome prince to steal the beautiful girl away? What's wrong with these guys? We're sexual, we have feelings. "Then there's the myth that we're the ones with the wisdom, like in The Lord Of The Rings. We don't have more wisdom than the next guy. It's that asexual entity of the sage: -I'll impart this wisdom upon you, and then you can leave and frolic with the handsome prince.'
"And that's not far from the modern way of thinking, you know. I'm a huge Lord Of The Rings fan, but why doesn't Frodo fall in love with the elf princess? Why does Aragorn have to get the lady?"