Playboy: You're from New Jersey. Was your upbringing more like a Bruce Springsteen song or the reality show Jersey Shore?
Dinklage: It's funny you mention Springsteen. I was born in Bay Head, New Jersey, and his manager lived next door to us. Bruce used to come over to his house and hang out and play guitar. This was when I was two, so I don't remember any of it. My mom and dad went to a wedding at a surfboard factory, and Bruce was in the wedding band. He was about 17 years old at the time. My mom didn't think he was that great. She told me he was too loud.
Playboy: You went to high school in New Jersey. How well did you deal with that?
Dinklage: High school is a funny thing. On one hand you're so fragile. But I thought I was William Burroughs by the age of 13, so I had this massive ego as well. Everything in high school feels like it's life or death. I went to a pretty athletic high school, and I didn't have many friends. I remember once talking to my best friend, and we came up with the idea that we should hang ourselves off the bell tower. "That'll show them." We totally had no inclination to commit real suicide at all; we just liked the idea of the whole town responding to this tragedy, how the school would mourn. Oh God, we were so dramatic.
Playboy: As kids, you and your brother would perform puppet shows for your parents. Was that your first taste of—
Dinklage: Whoa, whoa, just hold on! That sounds like I'm Ed Gein or John Wayne Gacy. [haughtily] "When I was performing puppet shows for mother and father." Good God, man. "When I skinned the squirrels and made puppets out of their carcasses and performed them for Mother and Father." Is that the impression you're trying to give people?
Playboy: So it's not true? There were no puppet shows?
Dinklage: [Sighs] Yes, it's true. But it was for the neighborhood, not just Mom and Dad. Everybody in the neighborhood would come over and watch my brother and me do puppet shows. We basically did little puppet musicals with the loudest songs we could find. We did a puppet version of Quadrophenia, the Who album. We made drum kits out of tuna fish cans. It was fun. We would have haunted houses too. My brother, who's a violinist now, was the real ham, the real performer of the family. His passion for the violin is the only thing that kept him from being an actor.
Playboy: You said no for a lot of years as an actor: no to playing elves or leprechauns, no to any role you thought was degrading, even if you were starving or unable to pay your rent. What's the trick to saying no when your bank account says yes?
Dinklage: It was never easy to say no. There were consequences, of course. I think I was more arrogant back then. I had this clear image of who I wanted to be, maybe too clear. I didn't allow anything to break the outline of it. I was very protective and defensive, mostly because of my size. I expected the entertainment business to see only my size and nothing else, so I wanted to pretend my size wasn't who I was at all and do roles that had nothing to do with it. But I was completely limiting myself and my career, because it is who I am. Look at roles like Tyrion. My size is obviously why I got the part. I wouldn't be playing Tyrion if I wasn't this size.
Playboy: How did you make peace with that?
Dinklage: I didn't for many years. I basically just decided not to have a career. That was my only option, or what I thought was my only option. And then I started meeting friends who were writers and directors, and I found a back door. They put me in independent films, such as The Station Agent and Living in Oblivion. I came to terms with using my size rather than being exploited by it.
Playboy: What's your secret to being poor in New York?
Dinklage: I don't think I have a secret. Back then it was so cheap to live in Brooklyn. That's why we went there, because we could afford it. There was nothing hip about it. I don't know how people do it these days, because Brooklyn isn't cheap anymore. At the time, we were living without any heat, not even a stove. I'm a baby now. I like my comforts. But in my 20s my friends and I took suffering for our art to an extreme. It sounds so ridiculous now. "In my day, we ate grubs and had a book of matches for heat. We made soup out of drywall." Shut up, young me.
Playboy: You played Tina Fey's boyfriend on 30 Rock. She reportedly wrote the part for you because she wanted a "show-mance" with you. How do you politely tell Tina Fey, "I'm sorry, but I'm married"?
Dinklage: Well, she's married as well. And also, this is what we do for a living. You've blurred the line here, buddy boy. Seriously, though, even if she were single, I wouldn't have a chance. The line of people who want Tina Fey's attention is already way too long. We shot most of our scenes on the street in New York, and this was around the time she was doing her Sarah Palin impersonation on Saturday Night Live. She was like royalty at that time. I mean, she's always royalty, but especially at that time. You've never seen somebody more beloved by an entire city. Strangers were constantly walking up and saying hello or telling her how much they loved her. It was insane to watch. I've never seen anything like it.
Playboy: You've never had fans approach you on the street?
Dinklage: Well, yeah, but not in that volume. I don't know if I could deal with that. I did Comic-Con in San Diego once, and I couldn't even leave the hotel. Game of Thrones fans are the nicest people ever, but a thousand nice people coming at me gives me claustrophobia. And I can't wear a pair of sunglasses and pull my hat down and just disappear. I'm four and a half feet tall, so I sort of stand out.
Playboy: Last year you gave a commencement speech at your alma mater, Bennington College, and walked onstage with a mace. You mentioned that a student gave it to you. Was that true?
Dinklage: It was. His name was Ben, I think, and he just handed it to me five minutes before I went out. He said it was a gift. It was actually quite heavy. That kid knew what he was doing. Hopefully he's a successful sculptor right now. The interesting thing was, the ball part of it, which he had bronzed or silvered or whatever, was an artichoke. He had dipped an artichoke in bronze. So if you smelted it, you could probably have a meal afterward. I left the mace with my mom. I think it's on her mantel right now. The next day I had to fly out to do a job, and I couldn't take a mace on the plane with me. My mom offered to take it off my hands, and it's still there. I think she's using it as protection out in Jersey.