Dwarf actors have appeared in films for decades — the worlds of Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka, and Star Wars, for instance, wouldn’t be as magical if it wasn’t for the dwarf actors who have played some of the most memorable characters in those films.
Yet with the upcoming debut of Ricky Gervais‘ show Life’s Too Short, a comedy about dwarf acting agency starring Warwick Davis (Return of the Jedi, Harry Potter, Willow, Leprechaun), brings up a much more serious question: can dwarf actors really make an impact in the industry in serious roles? BBC News explores the options available for dwarf actors that go beyond fantasy films.
Only one dwarf actor has ever been nominated for an Oscar — the 3′ 10″ Michael Dunn was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for 1965’s Ship of Fools. But Dunn isn’t the only example of a dwarf actor seeking a serious dramatic career.
Kiruna Stamell (3′ 6″), who appears as Davis’ girlfriend in Life’s Too Short, has appeared in television shows like EastEnders and Cast Offs and movies like Moulin Rouge. So far she has avoided such fantasy-like roles, explaining, “I feel that when some people go into that sort of work it’s a result of having been exposed to a lack of aspiration. Not from the actors themselves but as a result of society’s low expectations of short people.” But not only is it difficult for dwarf actors to find dramatic work in film and television, but because of their short stature it’s often difficult for them to find work in other fields too. Peter Burrows, who co-owns Willow Management with Warwick Davis, the real-life dwarf acting agency which Gervais’ show is based on, remembers trying other avenues of work in his younger years. He recalls, “When I left school in the early 60s, I wanted to be an electrician but nobody took me on because it meant carrying an extra large pair of steps and they didn’t have a bigger van to carry them in. They wouldn’t get away with it now. So I had to come away.”
Still, he says the fantasy roles that continually employ dwarf actors aren’t the worst thing, pointing out, “We have 250 short people on our books now. Not all of them do it for money, they enjoy it. It’s very uncomfortable wearing some of those costumes but a lot of people would give their right arm to be in Star Wars, Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and things like that.”
While dwarf actors continue to face intentional and unintentional prejudiced comments and uncomfortable starring, there is the potential for success: Peter Dinklage (4′ 5″), who has appeared in films like The Station Agent and Elf, won an Emmy this year for his role as Tyrion on HBO’s Game of Thrones. So it isn’t always demeaning roles in comedies or under heavy makeup in fantasy films… by following actors like Dunn and Dinklage it’s possible that dwarf actors can find their own dramatic successes.