Hugh Grant is an Oompa-Loompa in ‘Wonka’ now. What's left for dwarf actors?

Timothée Chalamet and Hugh Grant in ‘Wonka.’ Picture: Warner Bros. / Everett Collection

Timothée Chalamet and Hugh Grant in ‘Wonka.’ Picture: Warner Bros. / Everett Collection

Published Aug 13, 2023


By Ron Charles

There's a gag at the end of the trailer for the ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’ prequel, ‘Wonka.’

It's Hugh Grant in a jar, orange-skinned, green-haired and digitally reproportioned into Hollywood's latest idea of an Oompa-Loompa.

Casting a rom-com heartthrob in a role traditionally played by dwarf actors was what the film's director, Paul King, called "a real lightbulb moment."

"You go, 'Hugh Grant's an Oompa-Loompa! Yes, please!'" he told Empire last month.

Or maybe, "No, thanks," if you're a performer with dwarfism who's been typecast in bit parts your entire career, now confronting a future in which even those can be CGIed to fit the frames of A-listers.

"Roles in Hollywood, in general, are very hard for people of my community to get - besides the elf, and the leprechaun and this and that.

“So why are they being taken from my community?" Dylan Postl said on ‘Piers Morgan Uncensored’ last month, echoing the complaints of others who have protested Grant's casting.

"There's been very few opportunities for [little people] in getting more authentic representation and better roles," said Jennifer Crumly, public relations director for the non-profit Little People of America, which assists people with dwarfism and their families.

"Wonka," she added, "is sort of even mocking the role of Oompa-Loompas by utilizing Hugh Grant instead of an actual dwarf."

Warner Bros. has not publicly commented on the issue and did not respond to an interview request, but ‘Wonka’ is hardly the first movie to do this sort of thing.

In the early 2000s, Peter Jackson's ‘Lord of The Rings’ trilogy cast 5-foot-plus actors to play its starring dwarves and hobbits.

They were made to look smaller through a combination of camerawork, CGI and a host of "scale doubles" who typically performed without acting credits.

Brett Beattie, 4-foot-10, told Polygon decades later that he blew out both knees playing the dwarf warrior Gimli - a role credited instead to the character's face: the 6-foot-1 actor John Rhys-Davies.

‘Wonka’ - which is set to release in December and is being promoted amid a historic strike by tens of thousands of Hollywood workers who feel mistreated by the studios - has already provoked far more public backlash over its portrayal of dwarf characters than ‘The Lord of the Rings’ ever did.

"If they did a film about Nelson Mandela and got a White bloke to play him, there'd be an uproar," said George Coppen, a British actor who most recently played a villager in the Disney series ‘Willow’ and a version of Cupid in ‘The School for Good and Evil.’

Dwarf actors are, "incredibly slowly," being offered more diverse roles than in decades past, Coppen told The Washington Post.

But "we still need the traditional roles like your gnomes, your goblins, your elves, just to get some money, just to pay the bills. If people like Hugh Grant are going to come along and push us out, what's next? Are we going to be replaced in 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs'?"

Some in the broader community of people with dwarfism feel similarly, tired of seeing their existence reflected on the big screen in reductive portrayals of dwarves, elves and goblins.

"We never see people with dwarfism going about their daily lives, falling in love, going to the doctor. Just doing things that you do in TV shows and film," journalist Cathy Reay told The Post.

"We're so often typecast into this clan kind of role where we're like one of many village people or Oompa-Loompas, and there's so much more to us, obviously, as people."

The history of Oompa-Loompas has been shaded by discrimination and stereotyping since they were introduced as enslaved African pygmies in the first editions of Roald Dahl's 1964 children book ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.’

The Oompas underwent a racial transformation with the 1971 classic film ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,’ which imagined them as orange-skinned, green-haired characters played mainly by White dwarf actors.

Dahl himself de-Africanized the Oompas in a revision to his book two years later.

For decades afterward, Oompas remained some of the most widely known representatives of dwarf actors in popular culture.

When Tim Burton remade the film in 2005, he cast Kenyan-British dwarf actor Deep Roy, who was digitally multiplied to portray every Oompa-Loompa in the film.

And now comes ‘Wonka,’ and a two-foot-tall Hugh Grant.

"Personally, if my agent had texted me saying, 'Would you be up for auditioning for an Oompa-Loompa?,' I would have jumped at the chance," said Coppen.

"But this is our choice, whether we want to do these jobs. People who can't relate to us in any way deciding for us? No. We've got a voice just like you have. Let us choose."

"We need our voice to show you we can act," he added.