In the early 1980s, Hervé Villechaize was a trailblazing star, an actor who overcame discrimination and incredible odds to land major film roles, and became a household name thanks to a fantastical hit TV drama. He was the most famous actor with dwarfism in the country — and most people couldn’t name a second.
Nowadays, that same description could apply to Peter Dinklage, the Emmy-winning actor who portrays Villechaize in an upcoming HBO movie, My Dinner with Hervé, and who couldn’t personally be more different from the hard-partying Villechaize, who committed suicide in 1993 after a downward spiral of diminishing roles and chronic physical pain.
The Game of Thrones star spent years trying to get My Dinner with Hervé made along with writer-director Sacha Gervasi, who as a young journalist (played by Jamie Dornan in the film) spent three wild days with Villechaize just before the actor’s death. The film chronicles Villechaize’s final hours, with flashbacks from throughout his turbulent life.
Below, Dinklage discusses the film for the first time in a relatively rare interview (“I only talk about projects that are dear to me,” he notes), tackles a “whitewashing” claim about the film as well as talks about the progress (or lack thereof) of dwarf actors in Hollywood.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your impression of Hervé when growing up?
PETER DINKLAGE: I knew who he was from Fantasy Island and the James Bond movie. He’s the guy in the white suit saying, “The plane, the plane” on a show I didn’t really get to watch because my mom and dad didn’t have a television — they were those kind of parents. And he’s the guy being stuffed into a suitcase by Roger Moore in The Man with the Golden Gun. That’s all. When Hervé passed away in 1993, I was young and didn’t really explore him as much as I should have. But I caught up.
I was particularly impressed that he got fired from Fantasy Island after demanding equal pay with his costar, which is such a current issue in Hollywood. That was pretty bold move in the early 1980s.
Yes, oh my gosh. And we address that in the film. All of us have times where we feel slighted and he was a huge reason why that show was successful. He would walk down the street and he would get [fans yelling] “the plane, the plane!” 24 hours a day. I know that feeling. Being a dwarf, we tend to stand out in a crowd. I think that probably got to him after many years and felt like he deserved as much as his costar and I completely understand that. But how it’s handled is the trick.
I read that he had a business card which said, “I am not available for Santa’s helper, baby New Year, elves …Thank You” — which reminds me of that story about you turning down a K-Mart Santa’s elves commercial despite being penniless early in your career.
Yeah, it’s funny. Why humiliate yourself for something you love doing? I didn’t want to be miserable doing what I loved. To be fair, Hervé lived in a very different time than I lived in. Hopefully, in 20 or 30 years we will be more enlightened as a society, especially from the time we’re living in right now, which doesn’t feel all that enlightened. There are people who break molds, break stereotypes, and in a strange way I feel like Hervé did that. He didn’t take any prisoners. He knew who he was and embraced it fully.
There are a couple pictures of him wearing a T-shirt that I actually wear in the film — not the exact same shirt but it says the same thing. The shirt says “Bionic Midget.” “Midget” is sort of like the n-word if you’re a small person [especially] if you’re hearing it from somebody who is using it derogatorily. I can say the word. It’s not a great word. But he beat people to the punch with the word, and he had a big middle finger up to anyone who tiptoed around any issues they had. Which I also respect. Sometimes I think we tiptoe around the issue so much we never address it. He was lovely in that way. He offended a lot of people, but that was part of his joy as well.
When did you first want to portray him?
I didn’t. I was terrified of portraying somebody who actually existed. [Writer-director Sacha Gervasi and I] started our conversations 14 years ago when it wasn’t a full script. He came to see me in a play in New York and we started talking about Hervé, and about his experience and his time in Hollywood. TV in the ’80s were very different than now. You couldn’t jump into the world of films and vice versa, you were pigeonholed. Sacha felt when he met him in the ’90s it was like stepping back into another time. Hervé was still holding onto his Fantasy Island heyday.
The film took such a long time to make. What were some of the obstacles?
“Why?” was the big question. Embarrassingly, it was my response too: “The guy in the white suit who says ‘the plane, the plane’? Why do we make that movie?” There are big questions asked in the early stages of anything. Why make a show about dragons? But in the script, Sacha peeled back the layers of the onion and it’s the most brilliant story. It also takes a long time to get anything made. Thank god HBO finally came through. My close relationship with them helped. HBO is a perfect place for this, the more I thought about it.
What was most challenging about this role?
His energy level. Hervé lived pretty hard and I had to match his energy. And during a lot of the film he doesn’t feel physically very well at all. So it was those two things. He’s such a complicated man. He was such a bright light and everybody around him loved him so dearly. But he burned too brightly. Obviously, it’s a common tragedy in Hollywood. But he lived much longer than anybody expected him too. He was also in a tremendous amount of pain due to his dwarfism, both physical and spiritual, and he just couldn’t take it anymore.
As an Emmy winner who’s gone through some same issues personally and professionally as Hervé, one would think your casting would be considered ideal. But since the film’s announcement there has been some criticism claiming Hervé was half French and half Filipino and that your casting amounts to whitewashing.
I’m glad you brought that up. The internet is the best thing and the worst thing. The funny thing about the backlash is it addresses what we address in the film about not judging a book by its cover. Hervé was judged by how he looked, and cast and perceived to be who he is accordingly. It says [Villechiaze was half-Filipino] on Wikipedia. Family members can’t change information on there. My daughter’s name was “Zelig” on Wikipedia for a long time. Her name is not Zelig. I don’t know who is able to put information up, but there are so many things on there that aren’t true.
There’s this term “whitewashing.” I completely understand that. But Hervé wasn’t Filipino. Dwarfism manifests physically in many different ways. I have a very different type of dwarfism than Hervé had. I’ve met his brother and other members of his family. He was French, and of German and English descent. So it’s strange these people are saying he’s Filipino. They kind of don’t have any information. I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes or sense of justice because I feel the exact same way when there’s some weird racial profile. But these people think they’re doing the right thing politically and morally and it’s actually getting flipped because what they’re doing is judging and assuming what he is ethnically based on his looks alone. He has a very unique face and people have to be very careful about this stuff. This [movie] isn’t Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Personally, I would never do that, and I haven’t done that, because he wasn’t. People are jumping to conclusions based on a man’s appearance alone and that saddens me.
I tried to figure out where the claim originated. It wasn’t in any obituaries or archived stories about the actor that I found. I did find a spin-off version of his Wikipedia page that sourced the claim to a now defunct site called “Notable Filipinos.”
Maybe people were thinking of The Man with the Golden Gun, which was shot in Southeast Asia, and Fantasy Island, where he’s on an island, and that, compounded with how he looked, made some think he must be from that part of the world. But that’s also part of the mystery and fun of this movie. He was so many things and he was proud of the myth of himself as well. Everybody I met — his brother, his girlfriend, people who worked with him — said he was “so proud.” If [being Filipino] was part of his heritage he would have been very proud of that. Hervé would be laughing at this right now, and part of me is too. But when I start to be accused of things that are not truthful and not real, that’s when you want to say, “Okay, calm down.”
You mentioned how Hervé was pigeonholed after Fantasy Island. Have the number of opportunities for roles, and the quality of those roles, changed for dwarf actors since then?
I would like to think so. I try to be optimistic about it. I never really set out to change the parameters of casting. I just like good writing. The fame thing for me is a little hard. I don’t enjoy it. Hervé enjoyed it more than I do. Maybe that’s the difference between myself and Hervé. He embraced it fully like he embraced life. He lived pretty hard. I’m a much more private person. Not to say Hervé wasn’t private — he had a private side — but he enjoyed the spotlight much more than I do.
But yes, I’d like to think more opportunities are out there, but cynically it’s hard to speak to it without sounding like I’m not being critical of somebody else’s choices. I just know what I want in my career and I respect the choices of actors who are my size, or not, make. And I understand bills have to be paid. But it does perpetuate things. Not to get too political about it, but it’s a stereotype that still exists. Dwarf tossing still exists. There are still people of my size dressing up as elves at Christmas time. And if everybody continues to do that, then it won’t stop. But my daughter doesn’t think I’m a mythical creature. Unicorns don’t exist, but I do. It’s tricky, what we put out there, to perpetuate for future generations.
There are clearly more roles on reality TV, which has been inspired by the success of Little People, Big World. People seem to have mixed opinions on whether such shows are helpful.
Right. Anything that sheds light on certain topics is helpful and informative. Anything that makes the unknown become known is helpful. It’s just how it’s handled. There are many different stories out there. You just want to be careful not to pigeonhole an entire group of people into one idea of what that is.
Ultimately, what do you hope people take away from watching your film?
I love finding stuff out about somebody I assumed was one thing and they weren’t at all. It sheds light on somebody and challenges your assumptions. I saw the Netflix documentary Wild Country where your judgment is constantly being shifted. I think that’s what [My Dinner with Hervé] does. Everybody has an expectation going in, as does Danny Tate — played brilliantly by Jamie Dornan, who stands in for Sacha in the movie. Sacha went in with a judgment about this guy and Hervé changed Sacha’s life. You never know who you’re sitting next to, what secrets they have, who they are, what their pasts are comprised of. You might think you know but you don’t. And that’s the fun of life.
My Dinner with Hervé premieres on HBO on Saturday, Oct. 20.