Dinklage turns heads in `The Station Agent’ | AspenTimes.com

Dinklage turns heads in `The Station Agent’

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The inspiration for “The Station Agent” began when writer-director Tom McCarthy came across an abandoned train station in the rural New Jersey where he was raised.

McCarthy is an experienced theater writer and director and actor in movies and television. In making his film directing debut with “The Station Agent,” he saw the deserted depot as an ideal setting for a story about isolation and connections.

But perhaps what really made “The Station Agent,” which earned the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Festival, click into place was McCarthy’s idea to call on his friend Peter Dinklage.

McCarthy first met Dinklage – also a native of New Jersey’s countryside – when Dinklage appeared in a New York production of “Marking” with a friend of McCarthy’s. A few years later, McCarthy cast Dinklage in “The Killing Act,” a true-life account of P.T. Barnum’s killing of a Western outlaw written and directed by McCarthy. A friendship ensued.

McCarthy’s first hit of inspiration for “The Station Agent” didn’t include Dinklage. But soon after, over beers one night, McCarthy’s vision became clearer. Dinklage, a dwarf who often had to close himself off from persistent stares, would be the perfect basis for a character craving solitude.

Without telling the actor, McCarthy began writing a script for Dinklage and two other actors – Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale – McCarthy was associated with.

“Unbeknownst to me, Tom realized, because of my size, I would be good,” said the 34-year-old Dinklage. “He saw that the size thing would be a good connection to why he wanted to be alone.”

Some three years ago, McCarthy presented Dinklage with the script for “The Station Agent,” whose central character is Finbar McBride. Fin is a train lover who retreats to the broken-down train station after the death of his boss, seeking nothing but seclusion. His existence, though, unintentionally intersects with two other outsiders: a grieving painter, the character written for Clarkson; and a hot-dog vendor with a nonstop mouth, written for Cannavale.

Like Dinklage, Clarkson and Cannavale were attracted to the story, and the four met several times a year reading and working over the script.

While McCarthy wrote with Dinklage in mind, the Fin of “The Station Agent” is not an approximation of the actor. While Fin seeks a permanent splendid isolation at the depot, Dinklage sees himself as a “much more social person.”

“I have a sense of humor about life,” he noted.

But Dinklage easily relates to his character’s desire to remove himself from the world. And he says that desire comes not only from being a dwarf, but from being a longtime New Yorker, and just being a person in the world.

“I do understand that need to be alone at times. But I think everybody feels that way,” he said. “Everybody who lives in New York has that ability to shut down, shut out the world.”

Dinklage is thrilled to see how the world is embracing him. “The Station Agent” was a major hit at Sundance, earning the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and the Special Jury Prize for Outstanding Performance for Clarkson’s portrayal of the haunted Olivia.

But Dinklage, the subject of a recent profile in Entertainment Weekly’s fall movie preview issue, is at the center of the quiet, meditative film. (“The Station Agent” gets its general release Oct. 10.)

It is uncommon attention for Dinklage, whose previous film appearances were in supporting roles in “Living in Oblivion,” “Human Nature” and “Just a Kiss,” screened at last year’s Aspen Filmfest.

Dinklage is even more unaccustomed to playing a character who barely speaks.

“I usually play characters who are more extroverted, maybe a little touched in the head,” said Dinklage, who graduated from the drama department at Vermont’s Bennington College. He also attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and the Welsh School of Music and Drama in Cardiff, Wales. “This is a far different character. Me, I’m somewhere in the middle.”

Fin, like Clarkson’s Olivia and Cannavale’s Joe, were intended as stretches for the actors. “Tom, being an actor himself, he knew all of our work,” said Dinklage. “He had seen what we could do, and he wanted to challenge us.

“I’m so used to playing these characters roles, these roles you could run with. Tom guided me with this character.”

Dinklage, who is featured in the upcoming films “Elf,” starring Will Ferrell, and “13 Moons,” which reunites him with “Living in Oblivion” star Steve Buscemi, is pleased with the reaction to “The Station Agent.” Now, he said, people are looking at him and approaching him for reasons other than his size.

“The reaction people have to this movie is amazing,” he said. “It’s so kind and so surprising. It’s a different kind of movie, so you really don’t know how people will respond. There’s a lot more people coming up to me and responding kindly.”

Also showing today at Aspen Filmfest ’03 are the 1975 film “Shampoo,” part of Filmfest’s Salute to the ’70s (Wheeler Opera House at noon), and “Stander” (Wheeler, 8:45 p.m.). Filmfest continues through Sunday with events in Aspen, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs.

For full program information, go to http://www.aspenfilm.org or see the special Aspen Filmfest section in the current edition of The Aspen Times Weekly.

[Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com]

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