Play­ing a tor­tured soul

The heart­break­ing story of Herve Vil­lechaize is drenched in tragedy and poignancy. Jane Mulk­er­rins re­ports.

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Stand­ing just 1.17 me­tres (3 feet, 10 inches) tall, French-born ac­tor and painter Herve Vil­lechaize learnt English by watch­ing John Wayne films on tele­vi­sion, and be­came fa­mous for play­ing Bond vil­lain Nick Nack along­side Roger Moore in The Man with the Golden Gun, and Tat­too on the 1970s tele­vi­sion se­ries Fan­tasy Is­land.

But his for­tunes con­stantly rose and fell – he spent four years liv­ing in his car in Hol­ly­wood be­tween jobs, and later gained a rep­u­ta­tion for drink­ing and wom­an­is­ing.

In 1993, aged 50, he killed him­self at his North Hol­ly­wood home.

A lightly fic­tion­alised ver­sion of his fi­nal days is now re­told in the HBO film, My Din­ner with Herve, star­ring Peter Din­klage as the tit­u­lar ac­tor, and Jamie Dor­nan as jour­nal­ist Danny Tate.

The film is writ­ten and di­rected by

Sacha Ger­vasi, the Bri­tish jour­nal­ist­turned-screen­writer on whom Tate is based. It was Ger­vasi to whom Vil­lechaize gave his last, deeply per­sonal and in­ti­mate in­ter­view that in­spired the film, just days be­fore he took his own life.

In the film, Tate and Vil­lechaize spend one, long, in­tense evening to­gether.

‘‘In re­al­ity, it was three days over the course of a week,’’ says Ger­vasi, who was on as­sign­ment in LA, os­ten­si­bly to in­ter­view the stars of Bev­erly Hills 90210. The in­ter­view with Vil­lechaize was an aside.

Af­ter threat­en­ing him with a knife (he car­ried one on him at all times, so he would never again come off sec­ond in a street fight), Vil­lechaize of­fered to tell Ger­vasi ‘‘the real story’’.

‘‘He poured out his heart to me,’’ re­calls Ger­vasi. ‘‘He told me ev­ery­thing about his com­plex up­bring­ing, the ex­per­i­men­tal treat­ments to try to make him grow – it was heart­break­ing.

‘‘He had a tremen­dously com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship with his mother. He said: ‘She loved me, but she couldn’t bear the fact that her body had pro­duced this quote-un­quote freak’.’’

His fa­ther, mean­while, took him around the world – in­clud­ing Great Or­mond Street Hos­pi­tal in Lon­don, and the Mayo Clinic in Amer­ica – try­ing ev­ery rad­i­cal, and of­ten painful and in­va­sive pro­ce­dure, to try to help him grow.

And, grow­ing up in France, ‘‘there was an enor­mous, al­most me­dieval in­tol­er­ance to­wards lit­tle peo­ple,’’ says Ger­vasi.

‘‘Herve would be walk­ing down the street, and peo­ple would just kick him in the head and beat him up.’’

Lit­tle won­der, then, that he left for Amer­ica, and be­came part of New York’s down­town theatre scene, a place where dif­fer­ence was cel­e­brated. Then, how­ever, he de­camped to Hol­ly­wood, chas­ing his dream of be­com­ing a fa­mous ac­tor.

Ger­vasi recog­nises what he calls ‘‘the meta con­nec­tion’’ within the film.

‘‘The most fa­mous dwarf in the world, on the

big­gest TV show in the world now [Din­klage, Game of Thrones], is play­ing the most fa­mous dwarf in the world on the big­gest TV show in the world, then [Vil­lechaize, Fan­tasy Is­land]. But I think part of the rea­son Peter wanted to play this story is be­cause Herve’s life is a cau­tion­ary tale.’’

‘‘He was a very in­tel­li­gent, very ar­tis­ti­cally driven gen­tle­man, and an in­cred­i­ble painter,’’ says Din­klage.

‘‘But fame got the bet­ter of him. This fame bal­loon floated by, and he fol­lowed it, and it de­railed him from what was im­por­tant.’’

Vil­lechaize played into his dwarfism, wear­ing T-shirts with the logo ‘‘Bionic dwarf’’, get­ting to the punch­line be­fore any­one else could. Din­klage is a very dif­fer­ent ac­tor.

‘‘With Peter, the fact that he’s a lit­tle per­son is the third thing he wants you to know about him, af­ter the fact that he’s a great ac­tor, and dev­as­tat­ingly hand­some and charis­matic,’’ says Ger­vasi.

Din­klage has never been will­ing to play into his dwarfism as Vil­lechaize did.

‘‘I’m not judg­ing peo­ple who do. Peo­ple need to work, peo­ple need to pay the bills, but it’s just not some­thing that in­ter­ested me. I’d rather do s .... y of­fice jobs,’’ he shrugs.

‘‘Herve had a more open phi­los­o­phy – he was OK play­ing Nick Nack, and other char­ac­ters that were writ­ten for his size. Tyrion [Lan­nis­ter, his

‘‘There was an enor­mous, al­most me­dieval in­tol­er­ance to­wards lit­tle peo­ple. Peo­ple would just kick him in the head and beat him up.’’ Sacha Ger­vasi

char­ac­ter in Game of Thrones] was writ­ten for my size, but he broke the walls of that and be­came a much more com­pli­cated per­son.’’

He re­calls a par­tic­u­lar mo­ment on set for My Din­ner with Herve.

‘‘The guy play­ing Roger Moore was shov­ing me into this suit­case, which was a scene from The

Man with the Golden Gun, and I thought, I won­der if Herve was OK with this?

‘‘He had a great sense of hu­mour – as do I, about my­self – but there was a touch of hu­mil­i­a­tion about it, and I thought, I re­ally don’t know if he was OK with this.’’

The theme is also, says Ger­vasi, about judg­ment.

‘‘Peo­ple would look at Herve and just think, he’s this 3 foot 10 freak­ish Fellini-es­que crea­ture. And Danny be­gins in cyn­i­cism and judg­ment too, which is grad­u­ally stripped away by the emo­tional re­al­ity of his en­counter with Herve.’’

And Tate si­mul­ta­ne­ously con­fronts the re­al­ity of his own demons. ‘‘Bro­ken peo­ple are of­ten the most in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ters,’’ says Dor­nan. ‘‘I think we’re all a bit bro­ken or dam­aged in some way – I cer­tainly am – and that’s what makes all these char­ac­ters re­lat­able.’’

Herve Vil­lechaize was best known for his role in The Man With The Golden Gun .He is played by Game of Thrones ac­tor Peter Din­klage.

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