Actors with dwarfism hit out at Hollywood

Actors with dwarfism hit out at Hollywood

When it emerged that Hollywood was making a prequel to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, everyone expected an outcry over the casting of the candy king, for who can compete with the memory of Gene Wilder in the 1971 original?

No one foresaw a bigger backlash over who would play an Oompa Loompa. In a comic turn at the end of a trailer for Wonka, the green-haired, orange-skinned little person apparently trapped inside a jar turns out to be Hugh Grant, who usually stands at 5ft 11in tall.

The digitally rendered coup has been attacked for depriving an actor with dwarfism of the role and is not the sole offender. The upcoming Disney live-action remake of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Apple TV+ series Time Bandits and have both drawn scrutiny for offering fewer parts to little people than their original versions.

While Hollywood is making imperfect but non-trivial steps towards diversity and inclusion, many actors with dwarfism feel that they are now caught in a double bind. Technology is erasing roles they used to play in fantasy movies while directors are still not casting them as textured characters in socially realistic dramas.

“These roles as elves and leprechauns and gnomes and fantasy creatures would be much more palatable if the role you’re playing after that was a doctor or lawyer or father or husband or love interest,” says Mark Povinelli, an actor and activist with dwarfism. “That’s just not happening. Neither is happening now.”

Povinelli is president of Little People of America, a non-profit that supports people of short stature and their families. The 52-year-old objects to the casting of Grant as an Oompa Loompa, characters played mainly by white actors with dwarfism in the 1971 film and by Deep Roy, a Kenyan-British actor with dwarfism, in Tim Burton’s 2005 remake starring Johnny Depp as Wonka.

Povinelli says by phone from Los Angeles: “The most troubling aspect of the Hugh Grant one is that, from what I can tell, they have CGI-ed him to have the physical attributes of a person with dwarfism like the larger arms, the shorter hands, so he looks like a person with achondroplasia just like the Oompa Loompas from the film of the early 70s. They’re trying to maintain the physicality of dwarfism but erase the authenticity of dwarfism, which is troubling, and that’s why you go, well, this is like a physical version of blackface.”

Wonka stars Timothée Chalamet and is directed by Paul King, who has pointed out that the author Roald Dahl made the Oompa Loompas “incredibly sarcastic and judgmental and cruel” about the children visiting the chocolate factory. He told the Hollywood Reporter: “So I was really just thinking about that character; somebody who could be a real shit, and then – ah! Hugh! Because he’s the funniest, most sarcastic shit I’ve ever met.”

Mark Povinelli and Ron Perlman in Nightmare Alley
Mark Povinelli and Ron Perlman in Nightmare Alley. Photograph: AP

Povinelli resents the implication that, as soon as a role moves beyond caricature to something more nuanced, it requires a non-dwarf actor. “When they want to make the Oompa Loompas fleshed out and more of a fully developed character, they immediately remove little people from the conversation. It feels doubly insulting that you’re not only removing us from a traditional role but you’re actually trying to dignify the role and your answer is to not use us.”

Povinelli has appeared in films such as Water for Elephants, Mirror Mirror and Nightmare Alley and recently finished the world premiere of The Return of Benjamin Lay, a one-man show at London’s Finborough Theatre nominated for an Off West End (Offies) award. But he has also turned down parts over the years because they indulged crude stereotypes.

“Basically any part that involves biting somebody on the ankles or the butt or grabbing some woman’s breasts. Those were the go-tos for a long time. It was astounding how many times the character written was supposed to fight somebody. It’s always the pugnacious little person who’s fighting the big guy and people find it hilarious. I would get killed if I did that in real life. I’ve never gotten in a physical fight in my entire life.”

Paradoxically, fantasy films such as Time Bandits have often been the one genre in which film-makers have liberated actors with dwarfism to be fully human, he continues. “Because they think they are that non-human, they develop them with a lot of human qualities to make them relatable.

“When it’s written as a human little person, all of our humanity gets taken away and we’re just a sight gag. You get the guy who walks into the office and all the workers make inappropriate jokes and get in trouble for it. They still get all the jokes but they’re at your expense whereas the fantasy character is like a fully developed character who just lives his life and happens to live in a world that’s adjacent to ours. It’s kind of demoralising.”

Part of the problem can be traced to the writers’ rooms, where people with dwarfism are underrepresented. Povinelli comments: “What we’re not getting is authentic representation of people with dwarfism. Every little actor I talk to has a script just like every actor has a script. The problem is getting even into the room. Being given that initial meeting is often very hard and being taken seriously is next to impossible.”

The “Oscars So White” social media campaign is just one example of how Hollywood has been forced to confront decades of misogyny, racism and homophobia. Progress has been uneven and the job is far from finished. But Povinelli and others contend that people with dwarfism remain at the margins of the movement.

Povinelli reflects: “I’m thrilled that there is this progress with racial equality and gender and sexual orientation and even disability and more representation. We’re a very specific group but the dwarfism community, which I consider part of the disability community, has been left behind and I feel like it’s because we have had such visual representation in the past in these humiliating roles. No one’s interested in writing for us because they feel like they can’t write that but they can’t see in their minds anything beyond these fantasy characters.”

A still from Time Bandits
Fantasy films such as Time Bandits have often been the one genre in which film-makers have liberated actors with dwarfism to be fully human. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

The complexities of representation, and disagreements within the dwarfism community, are evident in Disney’s live-action remake of its 1937 animated musical classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

In a podcast interview last year Peter Dinklage, an actor with dwarfism with credits including Game of Thrones and the Marvel universe, noted that the Latina actress Rachel Zegler had been cast in the lead role and said: “You’re progressive in one way but you’re still making that fucking backward story about seven dwarfs living in a cave together. Have I done nothing to advance the cause from my soapbox? I guess I’m not loud enough.”

It has since transpired that Disney is taking a different approach with the dwarfs reportedly replaced by “magical creatures” who are diverse in various ways – only one of whom is a little person. Dylan Postl, an actor and professional wrestler with dwarfism, does not regard this as progress.

“This is seven roles meant for people of my stature, different characters in each role,” he says by phone from Oshkosh, Wisconsin. “It’s not cave dweller A and B and C and D. Each character has separate characteristics and they’re actually heroes of a story in sync with Snow White.

“Now, not only are you taking the roles away from them but potential stunt doubles and body doubles and all of that. That’s more dwarves that you’re taking roles away from and what are we doing that for? There’s no real reason that’s been given. If you’re going to do this you should be able to have reasoning to back it up and there’s been no reasoning.”

Postl, 37, a WWE star who portrayed the leprechaun wrestler Hornswoggle, believes that Dinklage’s comments were counterproductive because they imply that dwarf parts seen as old-fashioned typecasting should be wiped out. “There aren’t many roles for dwarves in Hollywood so him saying that cancelled these roles for dwarves in Hollywood.

“When Peter Dinklage went on that podcast, it hurt the dwarf acting community. He had no issue cashing a cheque for Elf or other various roles that were made for a dwarf. Yes, he’s been killing it and making a name for himself in non-dwarf roles but he made his name in Elf and that was a dwarf-specific role if we’re being honest with ourselves.

“So why is it OK for him to take that role and why is it OK for him to say what he said and everything halts? Why are we taking the voice of one person? Why are we letting one person speak for a community? There are other voices and other opinions. That’s what really irks me: the sudden ‘Oh no, we can’t do this,’ response instead of taking other people’s opinions for the community into consideration.”

Postl does not feel a need to turn down or condemn roles that some actors with dwarfism might regard as demeaning. “I just don’t have the mindset to complain about that very much. When you do complain and stand on that ‘soapbox’ and go, oh man, that’s not how we should be represented, you’re taking yourself too seriously, man.”

And he has no regrets about his own career choices. “My dream when I was four years old was to be a WWE superstar. I saw these heroes of mine growing up like the Ultimate Warrior and I just wanted to be that. Then I got to live my dream as a leprechaun role for just under 10 years of my life and provide for myself and my family and my son.

“Still doing it to this day because WWE gave me the opportunity to play a leprechaun on worldwide television and be known worldwide. Now, if I look back at that and go, man, that was wrong of me to play that ‘stereotype’, I think that’s a bit silly because it helped me live my dream of being a pro-wrestler.”

A still from Elf

Danny Woodburn, an actor and comedian with dwarfism, has been confronted by plenty of stereotypes during a career spanning more than three decades. He has sometimes had success in challenging them in appearing in over 30 films and regular roles in TV shows including NBC’s Seinfeld.

Woodburn says by phone from New York: “I’ve been blessed to play these rounded characters but I have also had to fight for those rounded characters so you’re not just identified just by that one thing. I’ve received scripts where that’s the case and I said, ‘well, can we work on this because I’m not just that.’

“The pathos for me is not is not about my size. They always used to have it where your character with dwarfism had a pathos of disgust around how small they were. They were shunned by society. There’s never any strength in those characters. I said, ‘let’s not do that and that’s not even the story here.’

“One example was a show that I did where my character was cuckolded by his wife but he made it about his size and I’m like, that’s not what it was about; it’s about the fact that his wife had cuckolded him. We changed everything and then the end result was a character that could have been played by anybody. It just happened to be me.”

The 59-year-old adds: “Even in the 10 or 12 times that I’ve put on makeup in my career and made myself otherworldly, as it were, my goal was always also to have some depth to that character, whatever it was. I didn’t want to close that door just because I had dwarfism. I wanted to make sure that I could still play those roles but so long as there was some depth and some humanity to it, not that I was just there as a sight gag.”

Woodburn is national vice-chair of the performers with disabilities committee at the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (Sag-Aftra). He produces online shows such as Gumshoes – a kids’ adventure series depicting young actors with disabilities portraying a character with disability – and tries to get studio executives to take a look. But often in Hollywood he comes across a lack of insight into communities with disabilities along with barriers that are attitudinal, cultural and sometimes physical.

He recalls: “It was only a few years ago that I auditioned for a role of a character in a wheelchair and the auditions were held on the second floor in a building with no access to the second floor other than stairs. You’re starting from day one with no intention of hiring a person in a wheelchair to play a person in a wheelchair. That’s still hanging over this industry in a lot of ways.”

What does Woodburn make of the Wonka controversy? “I realise this is a fantastical character but, at the same time, when I look at Hugh Grant’s Oompa Loompa, I see the body type of members of the dwarf community who have achondroplasia. If you’re going to mimic the body type of those members with achondroplasia, as was the case in the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, why aren’t you giving that job to a person with achondroplasia? Otherwise change the body structure.”

The magic of digital special effects only seems to cut one way, Woodburn notes. “Nobody’s going to CGI me up to a six foot tall, leading man character but we will do the other thing because it’s novelty, it’s gimmick, it’s good press. We’re not going to do that equally across the board and create opportunities for those who might not get to be on screen in that capacity.

“Hugh Grant doesn’t get to do that without CGI, without special effects, so why aren’t we doing the reverse? I hear about roles that get cast where they say the actor we’re using has to not be disabled and they’re going to play disabled later in the film because they become disabled halfway through the movie.

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“Well, OK, you did all these special effects to say make Gary Sinise a double amputee [in Forrest Gump] but we won’t take the double amputee and give him legs for the first half of the movie and then take them away later where he’s just himself. We do the one way but we don’t do the other. We can’t keep using that argument. I always say, if you can make me a martial arts-wielding rat on screen, certainly you can do the other things too.”

Woodburn also points to the example of The Upside, a 2017 film in which Bryan Cranston played a billionare with quadriplegia, renewing debate over non-disabled actors playing disabled roles. “I explained to Bryan Cranston, yes, you’re a name but people with disabilities aren’t going to get the same access to play a role as you did.

“A person who’s a wheelchair user, a person that is quadriplegic, is not going to get the same access because we don’t have the opportunity, the education, and we certainly aren’t being acknowledged as a viable talent. We’re not going to get to the point of A-list status until these other things come into play. At this point in the game, we need that help from above, as it were.

“We had a discussion about that and he acknowledged that was a legitimate concern and I came up with what I call ‘the Woodburn ratio’, which says that if you’re an A-lister or director and you’re going to take one of these roles away from a person with disability then you have to give three back. If you’re playing the lead in a film as a person with disability or person with dwarfism or whatever, then you must seek out and employ three others in speaking roles to be on that same film.

“When we can get on film then we are seen as part of the community when it comes to employment as well. We need to erase the stigma and the way that we erase the stigma is to give us a chance to be on screen.”

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