Saturday, July 7, 2012

On short statured actors, fiction and writing

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in George RR Martin's Game of Thrones.

There are a few obvious roles in which short statured people are often cast and rarely manage to avoid playing if working in the movies or on stage. They are the leprechaun, the dwarf but in particular as one of the seven dwarves, a little person from The Wizard of Oz, Tom Thumb, or a child. It is enough that there are even stories now where the short actor rebels against taking the role out of dignity only to cave at the promise of more money if they'd just get on stage and save the producer's or agent's day.

There are less typical roles about but they are rarer and still make a point of the actor's short stature. Such roles include wrestling which can be combined with the leprechaun gig, Santa's helpers which is a once or twice a year gig, or the ring master's assistant or punching bag which reflect the historical positions short statured people were often forced into for one reason or another (often not pleasant).

When Gary Coleman played a child he actually was. He was 11 when acting in Different Strokes.

Next, you'd likely think of characters such as gnomes or goblins that could be played by short people but there are a few roles that are and were a tad more exciting and fun. Jawas, Ewoks, R2D2, hobbits (non-movie versions) and oompa loompas do make use of the actor's short stature but they also are roles that are new-ish, greatly loved by the masses. The problem is that the fame goes to the creature or character played rather than the actor as the actor is largely faceless or placed in the background (as happens in Willy Wonker scenes). So while there is fun and excitement and fame there's also a lack of recognition and little room to shine as a brilliant actor.

Once such exciting roles are exhausted there are a few woodland creatures, Japanese demons or spirits, Old English purveyors of wine, blacksmith's assistants, king's pages and other random roles. The frequency of such roles appearing is not helpful for maintaining a career and the competition for such roles is likely high, although this is at a guess as I'm not in the acting business.

Hervé Jean-Pierre Villechaize from the James Bond film The Man With The Golden Gun.

The next issue is that there are far more roles for short statured men than short statured women. Why this is, is likely due to the overabundance of male roles in traditional pieces while women were rarely written about. The fairy tales and mythologies that have lasted for centuries favoured male dwarves and male leprechauns where fairies were female and so were pixies. The problem with this division is that fairies and pixies, while being short, aren't portrayed as short statured people but more as miniature (5cm tall - 50cm tall) creatures that have roughly the same proportions, in ratio, as the average to rather tall human. This means that casting a short statured woman into such a role doesn't always work out. Although you might think it could and should. But the imagination and traditional representations say otherwise.

That said, when short statured women do receive roles it is usually focused not only on their short stature but on their sexuality as well. It is startling to see grown women dressed in full prostitute get ups luring in men of all sorts and apparently this seems to be the point, with the added oomph of making the audience wonder "how does she do it?". To be honest, such writing is a little sickening while at the same time powerful simply because it is fair from reality while at the same time lending the character some manner of persuasion unknown to others. Then the powerful part deteriorates again when you realise that the writer is portraying short statured women as only sexy when they really go all out, prostitute style. Then it becomes powerful again because of the shock value. All in all, I'd say that while the overly-sexy or sexually active short statured woman role is a blessing for being a role at all the impact of it is far from appealing and the writing of it highly unsophisticated. 

Debbie Lee Carrington has played mean, innocent, sexy, styling and manipulative in my own TV viewing experiences, which I have to admit were limited but are now expanding.

Short statured women are women who just happen to be short statured. The emotions, reasoning and life choices short statured women experience are rather similar to anyone else's on this planet, with their concerns either focusing on matter regarding or impacting upon their stature or on something else entirely like their jobs, delivering the kids to a sports match on time, making sure the bills are paid and the roof doesn't leak. Short statured women have families, are proud mothers and pursue careers where they don't have to dress as prostitutes and act as such around men in order to be seen as powerful.

This brings me to another point. Oddly, the sexiness of the short statured woman is seen as a positive until the audience realises the full impact of such roles while taller females using their wiles are seen as weak until their reason for living such a life is revealed in the story and we in the audience decide to sympathise and see them as strong. The two roles are so similar initially and yet their impact is the opposite. So when writing a role for a short statured woman it would be nice to have that woman be powerful for reasons other than sexiness without also making them seem unsexy. Trust me, none of those families I was talking about would have come into existence without the woman being sexy.

With all this there are really only one or two roles about for a short statured actor to receive any fame, fan adoration and a decent role to boot. Making a career as a short statured actor is difficult and it is mainly the fault of the writers. But there are occasionally exploitative films, where the focus is on the short stature but where the short statured person really can shine. Off the top of my head there are two rather famous roles that have made the short statured actor famous and loved.

Weng Weng as 00. Dressed in style.

The first is the James Bond rip off For Y're Height Only role of 00, as played by Weng Weng. Weng Weng is extremely popular for playing this role and yes, he gets the girls, saves the day, does heaps and heaps of stunts himself, appears in a series of 00 movies and is the central character of each story.

Verne Troyer as Mini Me.

The second is Mini Me from Dr Evil as played by Verne Troyer. Mini Me entered popular culture in a way most roles for short statured people do not. The drawback was that while everyone knew who Mike Myers was and celebrated him as Austin Powers and Dr Evil, Mini Me was celebrated more for the character than the actor and so Verne Troyer's name wasn't spoken of near as much as the name Mini Me. Still, the role was only just off centre and the fame big. That said, Verne Troyer is hugely famous and a great actor too so being off centre and known as Mini Me for the Austin Power's fad probably didn't hurt much at all.

Chris Cruickshanks as the Red Dwarf in The Chronicles Of Narnia.

Almost all roles given to those of short stature make a point of their stature or make use of it as part of a plot device. Rarely are short statured actors given roles that do not openly point out that the actor is short. Also, rarely are short statured women written decent roles either in quality or quantity. These issues come down to the writer as well as the producer. Pubic perception of short statured people is swayed by their portrayal in fiction, just like the perception of any other group in society. Popularity can be made even if it isn't there now just as anything popular now can be globally forgotten or discredited within days.

So writers and producers need to create more characters for short statured actors that provide non-exploitative opportunities, create good impressions within the public, allow the actor to shine and set new standards in how short statured people as a whole should be represented. Many short statured actors would probably deeply appreciate the chance to place a central character of great personality rather than a side role with an emphasis on height although any work must be done to pay the bills. For while there has been some improvement recently in the writing for short statured actors there is plenty more that can be done to fix the stereotyping and lack of roles short statured actors have to endure. There likely always will be some reflection of the actor's stature in the story but having it not being portrayed as a quirky or detrimental feature or something to be exploited with a series of short jokes would be better. The other option is, cast short statured actors into any old role in a play or movie and see the results.

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