Actress with dwarfism making a change

"It is very rare that somebody's able to find a unique way to offend me," says actor and dancer Kiruna Stamell, who stands at just over one metre tall.

No matter how witty they think their little insult is going to be, I've heard it before."

Born with a rare form of dwarfism, Kiruna has spent her life dealing with discrimination and abuse.

But through a combination of talent, luck and unflagging self-belief, she has forged an impressive career on stage and screen, here and in Britain.

"She has always been aware that she was different from other people," her mother, Kerry, said.

"In a way that's been liberating because when you're different you don't necessarily have to follow the road map."

Sisters share common bond through dwarfism

Kiruna was born in Sydney in 1981 to high school teachers George and Kerry Stamell.

Neither had any known family history of dwarfism and it took two years for doctors to diagnose the condition.

Not long after Kiruna was diagnosed, Kerry gave birth to identical twins, Melanie and Peta, both of whom had the same form of dwarfism.

"That turned out to be a huge blessing for me and for them," Kiruna said. "The three of us had a shared experience that otherwise would have been quite unique."

Unfortunately, part of that shared experience was being the focus of attention, most of it unwanted and much of it offensive.

It is something the women have endured all their lives.

"I meet a lot of discrimination in the street," Kiruna said. "I'll be photographed, I'll be filmed. I will have things yelled at me from cars."

"This kind of random abuse will be like someone filming you and calling you a f***ing midget," Peta said.

"It's not like you're being over-sensitive — it's really overt insult stuff."

From Mini-Me to Tyrion: Dwarfism on screen

For Kiruna and Peta there's a clear correlation between their treatment in the street and how people with their condition are depicted in the media.

"Often the only experience people will ever have of someone with dwarfism is on TV," Peta said.

"If that experience has been people laughing at them, that is not going to foster respect towards me or my sisters on the street."

Kiruna said the Austin Powers films gave a platform for strangers to dish out more abuse.

"When Austin Powers came out, Mini-Me was the insult I heard for the following five years," she said.

But recently they have noticed a difference and they attribute that to one thing — the character of Tyrion Lannister, played by the short-statured actor Peter Dinklage in the hit drama Game of Thrones.

"Peter Dinklage has made a huge impact on the perception of people with dwarfism," Kiruna said.

"The number of people I hear talking about Tyrion when I'm walking down the street," Peta said.

"Obviously they're reminded of him by seeing me and suddenly they're reminded of a good character, a great character, that they don't want to laugh at."

All the world's a stage

Kiruna's experience of how the media shapes perceptions of dwarfism has directly informed the choices she makes as an actor.

She was determined not to be typecast, demanding to play the kind of roles she might perform in real life.

"Of course those characters would have my body," she explained. "Which means they'd automatically have dwarfism, but they'd also have my humanity and just be the person that I am and that person could be a queen, a doctor, a lawyer, a secretary, a wife, anything."

Ultimately for Kiruna it is about the complexity of the role rather than the role itself. She does not want to play characters that are simply sight gags or defined by their dwarfism.

"It's not a case of me saying I would never play a Christmas Elf," she said. "It's more that I would never play a badly written Christmas Elf and I've never seen a well-written one."

Kiruna got her first taste of acting on Baz Luhrmann's film Moulin Rouge.

She started as an extra but when Luhrmann realised she could dance he gave her more and more screen time, creating the character La Petite Princesse for her.

She remains indebted to the director.

"Baz Luhrmann had something that everybody in my career that has helped has had, which was an open mind, which was, 'I'm not going to write you off because you're different, I'm going to embrace it'," she said.

Kiruna's experience on Moulin Rouge made her determined to pursue an acting career but she faced resistance in Australia. Eventually she decided to try her luck in Britain.

It was an inspired move. There, Kiruna found an acting community that was far more open to diverse casting. She also met her now husband, actor and comedian Gareth Berliner.

"As soon as I moved to England I basically got continual work," Kiruna said.

That included roles in the soap opera EastEnders, the Ricky Gervais comedy Life's Too Short, the Geoffrey Rush movie The Best Offer and three productions at London's prestigious National Theatre.

And all without resorting to one-dimensional or demeaning roles.

"Kiruna should play any damn role she likes," said Belvoir's artistic director Eamon Flack, who recently cast her as a maid in a production of The Rover.

"But I admire her a lot for saying no to things — that's really difficult when you're a freelance actor."

Much ado about nothing

Kiruna knows that much of the interest in her and her career relates to her height but it's not something she spends a lot of time thinking about.

"There's only so long you can go on and on about my height," Kiruna said. "Like, boring."

Likewise, for anyone who gets to know her — it's not a big deal.

"Kiruna is just my wife, she's smaller than me," Gareth said.

"For the rest of the world, it's fascinating, but for me I'm married to a really clever, beautiful woman who's a very talented actress, and that's bottom line."