Referring to a character played by an actor of short stature in a brief review of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, a new film by Terry Gilliam, , the film critic Anthony Lane wrote "sadly compulsory in any work that flirts with the surreal." At first, I was pleased with the passage, agreeing that often times people of short stature appear in films to deliver a mood, symbolize a dream sequence, or deliver a sight gag. I also thought that perhaps such commentary from an established film critic would help curb stereotypical use of dwarf actors. Without seeing myself the new movie by Gilliam, I have no way of knowing the accuracy of Lane's comment. Perhaps the little person did serve no other role but to indicate the movie is very different from the life experience of the average audience member. But as I thought more about Lane's comment, I wish that he had gone deeper, if only slightly, explaining more about the character. I wanted to know for myself if the character just hung around the movie, with nothing to do but be 'a dwarf,' or if Lane was too quick to judge.
If Lane did judge too quickly, he is not alone. Many little people have made similar assumptions. Last summer, at the National LPA Conference in Brooklyn, I sat on a panel with four actors who are dwarfs. The panel was set up for the actors to speak about their experience navigating Hollywood, the film industry and the theater industry. During the discussion, a few of the actors made a comment about fantasy (aka surreal) roles. The comment opened a new perspective in terms of what I think about roles for little people.
Being that on television, in the movies, and on the internet, the dwarf community continues to be objectified by stereotypical roles that insert dwarf characters as 'punch lines' or as stereotypical representations, the panel was well aware that the acting decisions are sometimes controversial. Historically, a fair percentage of roles for little people have been fantasy type characters -- the elf, the leprechaun, etc.. Today, because of a history of super natural roles, it is easy to categorize the fantasy roles as dwarf stereotypes, because they perpetuate the idea that little people are different from everybody else. This is turn leads to different treatment.
The actors on the panel said they are often criticized for accepting fantasy roles because they reinforce stereotypes. The actors pointed out though that the fantasy characters are often much ambiguous, much more complex, and therefore much more human than the roles available in the so-called realm of realism. If viewed critically, these roles could actually help our efforts as a community to achieve social equality. Sometimes, it is our own stereotypes as viewers that cause us to make snap judgements about a particular role.
Be that as it may, as a community, we should still advocate for more diverse roles for dwarf actors, including roles outside of the traditional little people parts. But just as we, as little people trying to get along in the role, ask the world to judge us based upon our intent, actions and accomplishments, we should not be quick to judge the roles that actors take until we look a little deeper.