Fantasy films help 'little people' actors

30th January 2002

Warwick Davis, who portrayed Wicket the Ewok in Return of the Jedi, plays a levitation prof in Potter.

Good things come in small packages. Especially when they're in big movies.

Not since Dorothy rudely dropped in on the Munchkins have there been so many high-profile opportunities for actors who are short of stature but long on talent.

A resurgence of the adventure fantasies has created a job boom for "little people," the term preferred by those who used to be called dwarfs and midgets. They enhance the screen magic as banker goblins "a total of 56" in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and as hobbit doubles in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and its upcoming sequels.

Says 3-foot-6 Warwick Davis, 31, who can be seen as Professor Flitwick and a bank teller in Harry Potter: "A new generation of young people are falling in love with fantasy and sci-fi movies." That often equals an all-out casting call for actors under 5 feet.

"I've spent the majority of my career in those genres, since they require weird and wonderful characters," says Davis, who was the title hero of 1988's Willow and made his screen debut as Wicket the Ewok in 1983's Return of the Jedi. "It's always advantageous to us."

The run should continue. Says Potter casting agent Janet Hirshenson, "I just read how studios are rushing to option other children's fantasy books," thanks to Potter's buckets of box office gold.

Davis gets an extra bonus. He also oversees an acting agency in England that specializes in little people, 70 in all. "Many of the (Potter) goblins were our clients," says Davis, whose firm is expanding into performers who are 7 feet and above.

But short actors also are discovering opportunities beyond make-believe. In the spoofy teaser trailer for this summer's Austin Powers sequel, Verne Troyer (aka Mini-Me) apes star Mike Myers' signature swinger moves while a parade of little people follow behind.

As the takeoff suggests, Troyer, the 32-inch bundle of cloned villainy who silently mugged his way through the first Austin sequel, 1999's The Spy Who Shagged Me, now does small versions of the snaggle-toothed Brit spy as well as nemesis Dr. Evil (both played by Myers).

Troyer, 33, doesn't want to spoil the fun by revealing too much about his double duties. This time out, however, "I get to say a line toward the end." And be assured it's a goody.

A breakout character like Mini-Me makes it easier for other little people to add more variety to their résumés. Says Hirshenson, who hired Troyer for his film debut as a stunt double in 1994's Baby's Day Out: "It just takes the right actor in the right role to make an impact."

Those benefiting include 3-foot-2 Josh Ryan Evans, 20, best known as Timmy, the doll who comes to life on NBC's bizarre daytime soap Passions. He also was the young Grinch in Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas and did a stint as a child-prodigy lawyer on Ally McBeal. On the CBS drama Family Law, 4-foot-2 Meredith Eaton, 27, has a recurring role as an attorney and appears in the upcoming Kathy Bates movie comedy, Unconditional Love.

Less welcome, perhaps, was Hank the Angry Dwarf (real name, Henry Nasiff), who often would show up inebriated and in a shabby bunny suit on Howard Stern's radio and TV show until his death at age 39 last year.

Other little people in substantial parts include 3-foot-7 Michael J. Anderson, 48, best known as the dancing dwarf in the series Twin Peaks, who appears as the mysterious Mr. Roque (disguised in a full-size body suit) in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. And 4-foot Danny Woodburn, 37, who was Kramer's irascible buddy Mickey on Seinfeld, will be seen in the Robin Williams-Danny DeVito dark comedy Death to Smoochy (opening March 29).

It's a far cry from the days of Tattoo bleating "Da plane!" on Fantasy Island, but typecasting continues.

Says Troyer, who also scored a goblin gig in Potter: "It's still typical around Christmas to get calls to be an elf. But we are working more, and if I gave anyone else an opportunity, I'm happy for that."

The current hiring surge is not without controversy. Some in the little people community are upset that the makers of The Lord of the Rings chose to cast regular-height actors such as Elijah Wood as diminutive hobbits and dwarfs.

Says Elena Bertagnolli, a little person who manages Troyer: "They unemployed anywhere from seven to 700 little people by using computer effects and regular-size actors. It's a sore point."

The film's studio, New Line Cinema, declined to participate in this article. Davis, who tried out for Gimli the dwarf, played by 6-foot-1 John Rhys-Davies, understands the decision despite his disappointment.

"Peter Jackson needed 20 or so actors to play these characters. And there wasn't a range of short actors with sufficient ability to fill all these roles," he says. "Normally, there is a pool of thousands to choose from, but not among short actors."

Still, he feels that industry attitudes are improving. "We used to be treated as a commodity," with six or so little people hired in a bunch as if they were bananas. Davis now makes sure his clients are selected individually and for a separate fee, not a group price. His upbeat philosophy: "It is how you look at life rather than how life looks at you."

By Susan Wloszczyna, USA TODAY