Film

We Went To An X-Men Junket With Peter Dinklage, And All We Got Was Completely Charmed

Fun fact: his eyes are even more enormous and soulful in person than they are on screen.

Even in the best of circumstances, an interview is a completely artificial way to encounter another human being. The natural business of communication gets loaded up with a host of unfamiliar pressures: collecting content, representing a product, representing oneself.

But the press junket interview takes this artificiality and just plain jacks it up. There are corporate representatives hovering around. Australian media luminaries wander the halls (what up, Richard Wilkins). There are professional lighting rigs. There are cameras filming you, though you can’t remember anyone telling you why this would be so.

Pity the poor junket interview subject, who faces an endless-seeming procession of strangers (often in clusters), each of whom will ask some kind of question — possibly unclear, potentially embarrassing, probably trivial — and expect in return a lucid, on-topic, and informative response that they can take back to their publication and likely totally misinterpret anyway. The questions might even all be the same, but the answer must always feel fresh. Time is tight. There is little opportunity to pause, retract, or clarify. The business of the sale, often just humming along in the background of an interview, creeps inexorably to the fore.

Being a successful junket interviewee is, in almost every instance, a secondary skill set. No one does this for a living. They do it as an addendum to their creative vocation, a vocation that may not otherwise require them to be gregarious and extemporaneously communicative with total strangers. There is probably only one person in the world who is really, supremely talented at this, and I bet his name is George Clooney. Peter Dinklage seemed pretty good at it, though.

This junket took place on Floor 19 of Crown Towers in Melbourne. There was one hotel suite, four interviewers, one movie star, five questions, and ten minutes — just enough time for a five-part charm offensive.

#1: Tell Them About The New X-Men Movie

It is called X-Men: Days of Future Past. It is the fifth entry (not including the two Wolverine films) in this multi-billion dollar franchise, and the first to be helmed by original series director Bryan Singer since 2003’s X2. It is also an ambitious attempt to combine the cast of the original trilogy with the younger versions of those same characters from 2011’s X-Men: First Class.

Peter Dinklage — you may know him as Tyrion, the least-loved Lannister — makes his franchise debut as a new villain, the wonderfully-named Bolivar Trask: a defense manufacturer, or ‘war profiteer’, as Dinklage calls him. In Days of Future Past’s twisty, time-travelling narrative, Trask is the inventor of the Sentinels — a species of deadly, mutant-eliminating robots, which, as the story opens, have all but wiped out mutant-kind and devastated the earth.

Xmen-bolivar-trask-resized

Peter Dinklage as Bolivar Trask

The surviving X-Men send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to avert the war before it starts. His mission is not to kill Trask, but to save him. Back in the 1970s, young Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is hot on Bolivar’s trail, determined to murder him for the torture and deaths of her mutant friends: it’s Trask’s murder, though, that will set off a chain of events that leads to the Sentinel project’s success. Wolverine must re-unite young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) with his friend-turned-rival Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to stop Mystique before she inadvertently ensures their future destruction.

Dinklage doesn’t see Trask as a particularly bad guy, though — just an egotistical one. “Everybody who proposes war is proposing it for the Good”, he says. Trask embodies the banality of evil, and Dinklage plays him as a bureaucrat who — despite his predilection for experimenting on mutants — is an essentially mild guy. He’s animated by a belief that mankind’s unity in the face of the mutant threat will ensure lasting world peace, and a conviction that his Sentinels are the best tools for the job — for the right price, of course.

#2: Respect The Source Material

Probably the most amusing consequence of the superhero franchise’s ascent to King of All Blockbusters status is the concomitant requirement that all associated actors must exhibit some sort of interest in comic book culture. The decades-long rise of the nerd cohort to Western cultural dominance has seemingly not lessened their compulsion to have their interests and obsessions ratified by the attention of the ‘mainstream’, even though they now effectively rule it.

The press junket is therefore generally an opportunity for the blockbuster actor  to unconvincingly proclaim themselves ‘one of the fans’. Dinklage has treaded this water before. Just recently on this very same promotional trail, he had to explain his recent comments, in which he described the Game of Thrones books as ‘confusing’ — which, you know, fair enough. Poetry is apparently more his thing: poetry and True West.

Dinklage is pretty diplomatic when it comes to X-Men, though. He admits to being “late to the game”. For him (and for me, and really, probably for most people who would consider themselves fans of superhero movies), Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men films were the works that started it all. But it’s not like the X-Men comic books are some obscure, underground text. As he says, “you can’t grow up in the world without knowing about them.”

#3: Talk About What You Bring To The Role

Like just about any creative pursuit, acting is a tricky thing to unpack in conversation. Reporters tend to want to compress all the complexities of an actor’s relationship to their role into an easily-digested personal or physical narrative. Try to imagine how many times Hugh Jackman has been asked about his workout over a decade-plus of promoting these movies: you cannot. In Dinklage’s case, the obvious narrative usually regards his physical stature.

He seems to understand the unspoken requirement that he gloss on this topic, and delivers a neat response. Trask’s height is never mentioned in the film, and so there’s an unspoken incongruity between his physicality and his determination to vilify and eliminate the mutants. Dinklage suggests that this is a deliberate undertone: “I think (that was) one of the reasons Bryan was interested in me playing the role — although we don’t cram it down people’s throats. Given my size, the fact that I’m playing this part, I think there’s a lot of self-loathing and envy going on there.”

But Dinklage generally seems to have made a point of not letting his physical stature over-determine the course of his career. He famously went through a rough period as a young actor due to his refusal to play leprechauns or elves — despite the relatively lucrative financial opportunities at stake. Watching Days of Future Past (or any of his roles), his dwarfism doesn’t matter. As an actor, the meaning of his physicality is always less important than his obvious charisma (fun fact: his eyes are even more enormous and soulful in person than they are on screen).

At any rate, as he points out, there’s nothing unique about Trask’s particular brand of insecurity. The X-Men franchise has always, by its nature, made room for a sort of free-floating commentary on the politics of difference. As he says, “I think part of the appeal of these movies is that all of us, even if you’re seemingly perfect, you have at one point in your life felt like an outsider.”

Processed with VSCOcam with g3 preset

Dinklage and I. He is a patient man.

#4: Try To Be Humble

The performance of humility is also a common part of the Stations of the Junket. Nobody is particularly fond of an egotist (unless it is Kanye West), but the pressures of appearing relatable on the publicity trail can cause some actors to tie themselves into knots — no sane artist wants to Shyamalan their career by carrying on about their own special gifts. Thankfully, this doesn’t seem to be an issue for Dinklage, though, who is self-effacing in a totally genuine-seeming way. For him, the biggest challenge of appearing in a $225 million dollar blockbuster was just “getting over myself”.

Apparently being an Emmy award-winning, internationally recognised star of film and television doesn’t prevent you getting butterflies in your stomach. “I have first day jitters on everything I do,” he explained. “I feel like, ‘Why am I here? I’m so insecure, this is bullshit, I’m a horrible actor’”.

The X-Men films have cumulatively earned $2.3 billion and the adoration of millions of fans worldwide. That is high stakes for a newbie, amid a cast and crew that, as he points out, “have experience with it before and familiarity with each other, and proven their moxie. So you just hope and pray that you don’t bring that all crashing down”.

A lot of his modesty probably comes from the hard-won nature of his success. Dinklage is no flash-in-the-pan wunderkind. Game of Thrones may have made his name, but his film debut was back in 1995, in the Steve Buscemi indie comedy Living in Oblivion. His breakout role didn’t come until 2003, in the Sundance award-winning drama The Station Agent, where he played an asocial railway enthusiast. It wasn’t really until landing the role of Tyrion Lannister in 2011, though, that he was launched to worldwide fame.

Now, at age 44, he says he wouldn’t have handled success at a young age. “I’m not sure that I would have been able to do that. I was sort of a mess when I was young. Youth is wasted on the young. I have no regrets, but I’m happy that it’s come later. I know who I am at this point, and I’m not having other people figure it out for me.”

#5: Leave Them Wanting More

Anyway, that was pretty much it. By this stage we’d already had the ‘two-minutes’ hand signal, and it was time for the photo-op. Dinklage seemed politely optimistic that this could be avoided (“Or, use the time for questions?”), but, well, by then the camera phones were already out. Peter Dinklage: total pro.

James Robert Douglas is a freelance writer and critic in Melbourne. His work has been found in The Big Issue, Meanland, Screen Machine, and the Meanjin blog. He tweets from @jamesrobdouglas.