Friday, March 23, 2012

Little people actors pressure Hollywood to abandon degrading images, find some success in new "Mirror, Mirror" film

from the Wall Street Journal. In the picture, the seven dwarves of 'Mirror Mirror': Mark Povinelli is fourth from left, Danny Woodburn is fifth, with the prince (Armie Hammer).

One word almost forced Danny Woodburn, the veteran character actor best known for playing Kramer's buddy Mickey on "Seinfeld," to abandon his job on the set of a possible Hollywood blockbuster. The movie was "Mirror Mirror," the part was one of Snow White's seven dwarves and the word in the script was "midget."

Over 20 years as an actor, Mr. Woodburn has developed certain rules for what he will and won't do in a movie. Like being lifted up as if he were a child. "I'm a 47-year-old man. There's no moment in my life that anybody needs to pick me up," he says. "I've actually literally put in the contract 'there's no biting on my character's part.'" He has no patience for the m-word, a term long displaced in favor of "little people." He sees things like this in almost every script he gets, and when he complains to casting directors, they often just say, "Next."

It is this "I've had it" attitude among Hollywood little people that has made them nervously await not one but two Snow White movies revisiting the iconic seven dwarves. "Mirror Mirror," due March 30, stars Julia Roberts as the evil queen, and "Snow White and the Huntsman" is scheduled for early summer. The 1937 animated Disney film "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" may be a beloved classic, but it led to Munchkins, Oompa Loompas, Ewoks and Mini-Me, which have provided Hollywood jobs over the years but not exactly fond memories among this acting community.

Little people have long found work in the entertainment field, but in the last decade, from Peter Dinklage on HBO's "Game of Thrones" to TLC's "Little People, Big World," they've been counting on a greater measure of dignity for their characters and humor which isn't predicated on their size.

After passing his audition, Mr. Woodburn showed up at the "Mirror" set in Montreal and read an early draft of the script, which included the offending word and other irritants. "I had some issues with it," he recalls. "I found it played up some stereotypes that I didn't care for and were not the things I would normally do. I immediately made that clear, and they assured me things were going to be different."

And they were, to Mr. Woodburn's pleasant surprise. Not only did the filmmakers not fire him, they rewrote the script per his demand. Even better, it turned out producers Kevin Misher and Bernie Goldmann envisioned fully formed roles for the seven dwarves from the beginning, and they convened a sort of ongoing focus group, asking Mr. Woodburn and his colleagues what they would and wouldn't find funny. The dwarves are "the heart of the movie," Mr. Goldmann says, thieves and outcasts who identify with Snow White (Lily Collins) after the queen orders her toadie Brighton (Nathan Lane) to take her to the forest and kill her. In one scene, Prince Andrew (Armie Hammer) mocks the dwarves: "You can't expect me to fight you—you're minuscule!" Responds one: "That's the best you got?" But "midget" was nowhere in the redone script.

Mr. Misher says the filmmakers took elaborate steps to listen to their little-people actors. They were the first cast members to be flown to Montreal, and weren't told which parts they'd be playing. Instead, the directors let Mr. Woodburn and the others hang out together for weeks, injecting their own personalities into the parts. "We all play not so much on our size as on our distinct personality. We just happen to be smaller," says Mr. Woodburn, who plays Grimm, who mentors Snow White and boosts her confidence.

It took Mr. Dinklage in 2003's critically acclaimed indie film "The Station Agent," in part, to show filmmakers they can cast little people in roles that aren't built around their size. (In Mr. Dinklage's Golden Globes acceptance speech for best supporting actor in January, the "Game of Thrones" star somberly called attention to actor Martin Henderson, a British little person who may be confined to a wheelchair after a stranger picked him up outside a pub and threw him down the street.)

"The roles the last three years seem to be getting better and better," says Mark Povinelli, who acts alongside Mr. Woodburn in "Mirror" and played Kinko in "Water for Elephants." "It's a lot harder for writers to make the pugnacious, randy dwarf who kicks somebody's shins and looks up somebody's skirt when people saw the amazing stuff Peter Dinklage did on TV last night."

No one would think a little person in mobbed-up 1920s Atlantic City would have an easy time of it, but Nic Novicki, the actor and stand-up comic who plays Carl in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," says his character has depth and humor. "Carl uses his size to his advantage by winning people over with vaudeville-style jokes," he says. "When Steve Buscemi's character asks Carl for a few bucks he says, 'I'd like to, but I'm a little short.' The people around him and the audience viewing at home never laugh at him, but with him, because he's always in on the joke."

Warwick Davis had the satirical idea for HBO's "Life's Too Short," a deadpan, "The Office"-style faux-documentary series. On the show and in reality, he played an Ewok in "Return of the Jedi" and starred in 1988's Val Kilmer flop "Willow." Flashing a million-dollar smile, he must stand on a chair to pose with a fan at a sci-fi convention; ask a belligerent stranger to reach a doorbell that's too high up; and allow an over-the-top, enthusiastically racist Johnny Depp, researching a little-person role, to taunt him and put him in the toilet.

Little people actors also don't like it when filmmakers pre-empt roles meant for them. The "Lord of the Rings" series—and the coming "The Hobbit"—employed regular-size actors as hobbits and dwarves and used special effects to make them appear small. In Tim Burton's 2005 film version of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," the director hired just one little person, Deep Roy, then reproduced him numerous times to make him seem like a platoon of Oompa Loompas. (Mr. Burton's agent did not respond to interview requests.) "Snow White and the Huntsman," a more grown-up version of the story, uses computer-generated graphics to shrink Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins and others into the seven dwarves on screen.

Veteran actress Kiruna Stamell, who plays Mr. Davis's love interest on "Life's Too Short," has no problem with "Lord of the Rings," since the characters are mythical. She says she objects to directors compacting regular-size actors into body types that approximate achondroplasia, the medical condition that causes dwarfism. On her blog, she wrote, "I think it's terrible and I will feel this way until someone offers me a gig where I film an entire movie as a tall woman. And she'd better be the bloody lead and get to wear all the cool dresses!"

Rupert Sanders, director of "Huntsman," was unavailable to discuss the casting decisions, but the film's executive producer, Palak Patel, says hiring character actors like Messrs. McShane, Winstone and Hoskins in the seven-dwarves roles was a no-brainer. Mr. Sanders "felt they were perfect and he couldn't find anyone else better at the time," says Mr. Patel, also a producer for 2013's "Oz: The Great and Powerful," which employs little-people actors. "The only thing we discuss when we're casting the film is a) who's available right now for our dates; and b) who are the best actors out there to pull off these performances."

Fans of the classic Disney cartoon may be disappointed to learn that nobody in either movie is named Grumpy, Dopey or Doc. (One big reason: Disney owns the rights to those characters.) But it's a relief to little people in Hollywood, who are eager to redefine the 75-year-old archetypes.

"I've never allowed myself to believe, growing up, that an animated character with a long beard who works in a mine and sings songs all day and lives in the forest by choice has anything to do with me," says Mr. Povinelli, whose "Mirror Mirror" character is called Half-Pint. "The fact that they're the same size is a fact of life, but doesn't lead me to think I'm in any way related to them."