I had high hopes for Peter Dinklage as Hervé Villechaize in HBO’s “My Dinner With Hervé,” and I was not disappointed. Dinklage adopts Villechaize’s helium voice and his French accent, and he wears all the right wigs; but his performance transcends all of that. He brings all kinds of layers of conflict, arrogance, insecurity, and sorrow to a man who, before he killed himself in 1993, was viewed by most of the public as a pop oddity, a figure of sexless comic relief, and a spoiled celebrity. He humanizes the man, even as he plays out Villechaize’s miserable on-set misbehavior, his substance abuse, and his destructive, manic energy.
“My Dinner With Hervé,” by the way, isn’t quite a biopic; it’s almost as much about the reporter who interviews him as it is about Villechaize. A good portion of the story takes us on the parallel journey of Danny Tate (Jamie Dornan), a London writer who has been sober for a month after blowing up his marriage. His editor sends him to LA to interview Gore Vidal and Villechaize, assuming Vidal is the big get. She says, with deep condescension, “Oh, and the dwarf piece? Make it funny.” But the Vidal interview falls apart, and Villechaize, desperate for attention, keeps promising Danny “a great story,” at one point jokingly — or perhaps not jokingly, since he died the following month — calling it “the last interview.”
Danny stays with Hervé all night long, despite Herve’s nasty comments about him and his recent sobriety. As Hervé talks, in a restaurant and in his limousine, the narrative flashes back to vignettes from his past, including his breakthrough in the 1974 Bond movie “The Man With the Golden Gun” and his run as Tattoo on “Fantasy Island.” Meanwhile, we can see Danny begin to work out some of his own troubles; as he pushes Hervé to be thoroughly honest, he feels more empowered to face his own darker truths.
When Danny asks about Hervé’s bad relationship with “Fantasy Island” star Ricardo Montalban (Andy Garcia), Hervé thinks he’s being candid by saying Montalban was jealous that Hervé was stealing the show. But the facts are much shadier, as we see scenes of the debauched Hervé showing up late to shoots and insulting producer Aaron Spelling (Wallace Langham). Hervé was rejected by his mother because of his stature, and his light-hearted line about it is, “My mother always said I was Hitler’s fault,” since she went into labor after an accident during World War II. But Hervé has so many facile lines at the ready, including how fame is God’s way of compensating him for his dwarfism, that Danny challenges him to go deeper.
The Danny plot is fine — nothing special really, although Dornan is excellent and manages to bring a good sense of transformation to an underwritten character. Danny is based on the film’s writer-director, Sacha Gervasi, who had a similar experience with Villechaize. The space his story takes up in the movie might have been better devoted to more details about Hervé’s romantic life, particularly his 15-month marriage to actress Camille Hagen (Ashleigh Brewer) and his long relationship with Kathy Self (Mireille Enos). Also, the movie gives no sense that Hervé worked in film before the Bond movie, even though IMDb has nine earlier credits.
But Dinklage, like Dornan, manages to convey a fully dimensional person despite the skipping of narrative steps. He is a remarkable actor, working at a time when audiences are willing to take little people seriously — which wasn’t the case in Villechaize’s era. Indeed, he’s helped us all make that step forward.
MY DINNER WITH Hervé
Starring: Peter Dinklage, Jamie Dornan, Andy Garcia, Mireille Enos, Oona Chaplin, Wallace Langham, Mireille Enos, Harriet Walter, David Strathairn
On: HBO, Saturday at 8 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.