August 14, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

Ah, friends. What would we do without them? If you’re Bobby Cannavale, Patricia Clarkson, or Peter Dinklage, you’d be out a seriously good part. Actor-filmmaker Tom McCarthy spent two and a half years writing ”The Station Agent” — the quirky tale of a gregarious hot dog vendor, a loopy artist, and a train-obsessed dwarf united by loneliness — and crafting the leads specifically for these actors.

”I didn’t have a dwarf in mind for the lead,” says McCarthy, who saw his directing debut sell to Miramax for $1.5 million at January’s Sundance Festival. ”Then I ran into Peter [who is 4 feet 5 inches tall] on the street and I thought, ‘Here’s a guy who has a reason to disconnect!’ Because you walk down the street with Peter and people would stare and whisper. But for everyone else I wrote it without talking to them first.”

”He was very sneaky. He called and said, ‘I’m writing and I need to know the name of a Cuban dish,”’ says Cuban-American Cannavale, whom fans may know from TV’s ”Third Watch.” ”And I said, ‘Why?’ I finally pried it out of him and I would call every day and say, ‘Are you finished yet? What about now?”’

The Killer Moment Behind the wheel of an SUV, Clarkson nearly runs Dinklage over. Twice.

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