July 26, 1999 12:00 PM

Back in high school, Verne Troyer learned that size mattered. Since he was already at his full 32-inch height, he says, school officials “thought I was ‘special’—so I thought, ‘Okay, I’m just going to take advantage of it.’ There were a lot of times I’d hide in my locker and jump out and surprise people. Whenever friends would come by, I’d open the locker and hit’ em.”

These days, making mischief has made him a star. As Mini-Me, a tiny clone of Mike Myers’s Dr. Evil in the hit Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Troyer, 30, steals scenes from his larger costars. “He is very small,” notes Myers, “but there’s nothing he can’t do.”

Getting the gig was easy enough. “I was playing Sundae the dog for a McDonald’s video series, [wearing] a costume with a mechanical head,” he says, and the producer recommended him for Powers. “I didn’t have to audition or anything. They just saw me, and it went from there.” Then came the tough part: three hours of makeup application every day to create the Evil look. “The worst part,” he says, “was taking it off. It took 45 minutes. They lube you up like you were a car or something.”

Still, he rarely complained. “You expect Verne to be fragile or shy,” says Seth Green, who plays Dr. Evil’s son. “But he’s so active and energetic, and so funny and clever, that he fit in very well.” In other words, he adds with mock jealousy, “he immediately became everybody’s favorite.” Since the film’s release, Troyer says he has been “swamped” by fans at every turn—which has its ups and downs. “It’s so cool, I have little kids coming up to me and stuff. [But] I have to have bodyguards.”

Troyer is used to being the center of attention. Born in Centreville, Mich., to Susan, a factory worker, and Reuben, a repairman for a road commission, he was diagnosed with dwarfism as an infant. His parents vowed to treat him like their other children—Davon, now 31 and a computer network engineer, and Deborah, 29, a secretary. “It would have been easy to be overprotective,” says Susan, “but we made up our minds. He had his daily chores just like the rest of them did.”

Troyer, whose health is good, is grateful he wasn’t coddled. “In such a small town,” he adds, “I had a lot of friends, and I wasn’t really treated any differently.” In some ways he even considers himself lucky. “I’ve never been tall,” he notes, “so it’s not like I was six-foot, got paralyzed, and now I’m in a wheelchair. It doesn’t really faze me all that much.”

He always longed to be in showbiz, he says, and after graduating from Centreville High School in 1987, he got his chance. A few years later he moved with friends to Arlington, Texas, where in 1993 he heard about a job on a film called Baby’s Day Out, as “stunt double for a 9-month-old baby.” He offered his services, and his career—often playing animals—took off. Over the years, Troyer has played plenty of simians, donning costumes to portray an orangutan in 1996’s Dunston Checks In and gorillas in ’98’s Mighty Joe Young and last month’s Instinct, as well as an alien in 1997’s Men in Black.

The single actor, who shares a three-bedroom Arlington house with three friends and spends free time watching college football and playing video games, is planning to relocate to Los Angeles. (He gets around via a Mustang convertible and Honda Passport, both equipped with extensions to accommodate his size.) But he has no intention of becoming a full-fledged celeb. “I’m not a star,” he says. “I told my family, ‘If I get out of line, just kick my butt.’ The last thing that I want is to change.”

Dan Jewel

Julie Jordan in Los Angeles

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