By Liza Hamm
October 13, 2003 12:00 PM

AGE: 34

HOMETOWN: Morristown, N.J.

LATEST GIG: The Station Agent

Peter Dinklage had long ago learned to shield himself from the stares and snickers that greeted him—or rather, his 4’5″ stature—whenever he went out. But after his darkly funny drama The Station Agent won the audience favorite award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the actor had to brace himself for something else altogether. “Strangers were coming up to me and saying, ‘That was so funny. Can I give you a hug?'” he says. The accolades, he adds—including a rare standing ovation—”felt pretty good.”

He can get used to the feeling. After his turn as a handsome loner seeking solitude in an abandonded train depot in Station (due Oct. 3), the fact that Dinklage is a dwarf is likely to draw less notice than the fact that he is a darned good actor. Which is exactly how he wants it. “He chose a profession where he gets to control when people stare,” says his writer friend Jonathan Marc Sherman. “It’s like, I’ll impress the hell out of you and make you keep looking.'”

Dinklage, a Morristown, N. J., native, is anything but the grumpy recluse he plays onscreen. His parents, Diane, 60, an elementary school music teacher, and John, 72, a retired insurance salesman (both normal height, like his brother John, 36, a violinist), taught him, he says, “to realize what’s important and what’s not.” As a result, “Peter is incredibly comfortable with who he is,” says Station writer-director Tom McCarthy.

At an early age he felt at home onstage. His first lead role came in a production of The Velveteen Rabbit in fifth grade. “When you get your first solo bow, that feels pretty good,” he says, joking, “I’m in it for the applause.” In 1991, after studying liberal arts at Bennington College in Vermont, he landed in Brooklyn, where he and a friend “tried to open a theater of our own in the worst building under the Williamsburg Bridge,” recalls Dinklage. “We ended up having keg parties and a couple of poetry readings. We realized, ‘Let’s go get some jobs.'”

While working as a project coordinator “pushing information into a computer,” he says, he got a call from director Tom DiCillo, who gave him his break—as a disgruntled actor in his 1995 indie send-up Living in Oblivion. In 1996 McCarthy, who later wrote the part in Station for him, cast him as Tom Thumb in a way-Off-Broadway play. “Partially because of Peter’s life, he’s learned to be very brave,” notes McCarthy. “Peter brings that sense of courage to his work.”

Though Dinklage is far more extroverted than Fin, his withdrawn character in Station, he says he does identify with Fin’s anger: “Most of the anger that builds up I had when I was a teenager. We all probably had that when we were teenagers, but because of my size I’m a bit more fists in the air.” These days, however, the bachelor—who still lives in his old Brooklyn neighborhood—is more of a lover than a fighter. His friend Sherman says Dinklage has worked his charms on “a number of tall blonde women. I’ve looked over at a party, and Peter seems to be much taller than he is.”

LIZA HAMM in New York City