Multi-Faceted Rutgers Student Refuses to Be Defined by Dwarfism
Andrew Bambridge shared the spotlight with Peter Dinklage, Adam Sandler before excelling in percussion at Mason Gross
“In music and in acting, I’m not afraid to put myself out there. I’m willing to make a fool of myself – and if something doesn’t work, I’ll try something new.”– Andrew Bambridge
When Andrew Bambridge received acceptances from both the acting and music programs at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts last year, a rarity for the school, he faced a tough decision.
Bambridge, who was born with achondroplastic dwarfism, felt lucky to have had some acting breaks. In 2015, he played the younger self of Game of Throne’s star Peter Dinklage in the movie Pixels, also starring Adam Sandler, and later that year appeared in a minor role on the TV sitcom Happyish.
Nevertheless, he knew from experience people with dwarfism have a hard time getting auditions in the professional acting world.
So he chose music. Now a sophomore at Mason Gross, Bambridge, 21, studies music composition and percussion performance, playing everything from the marimba, xylophone and other keyboard mallet instruments to the snare and bass drums in university bands and orchestras.
“The great thing about music is that it’s not about how you look but how the music sounds. Is the melody emotional? Does the piece have meaning?” said Bambridge, who last fall won the school’s concerto competition, an unusual feat for a first-year student.
Though he is adept at many instruments, Bambridge’s go-to is the marimba, a percussion instrument with wooden bars – laid out in the same array as a piano keyboard – that are struck with mallets to produce musical tones.
“The instrument is as big as my car,” said Joseph Tompkins, head of the percussion program at Mason Gross, “and Andrew has figured out how to negotiate the spatial issues, using a platform he designed to reach the keyboard. Not only does he have enormous talent, he is a go-getter. Andrew can do anything he puts his mind to.”
Growing up in Morris County and, later, Hunterdon County, Bambridge displayed his determination early. Emulating his older brother, he begged to take piano lessons, but his fingers were too small to reach the octaves. He tried violin, but realized his undersized instrument would never produce high-quality sound. In sixth grade, he discovered percussion – instruments easier for him to navigate – and joined the school band.
But achondroplastic dwarfism, or achondroplasia, did not make life easy. The genetic condition – characterized by diminutive stature, short extremities, a large head and a relatively long torso – is a disorder of the bone structure and often comes with complications. In Bambridge’s case: lumbar spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the channel in the lower spine, resulting in pressure on the spinal cord and bowed legs.
“I had my first MRI when I was 4 days old and more than a dozen operations by the age of 14,” Bambridge said.
He is grateful to his parents for the way they handled his physical challenges – “searching out the right specialists, not jumping into surgery” – and for supporting his artistic ambitions. “They never said you can’t do this,” he said.
In fact, they encouraged him during high school to apply to Juilliard’s pre-college division for percussion, and after he got in, his mother drove him in and out of Manhattan every Saturday for three years.
So how did he end up sharing screen time with Sandler and Dinklage? “For me, acting has been a whole separate journey,” Bambridge said. In tandem with the music, his parents encouraged him to act in church plays – his first, at age 6 – leading to roles in community theater. When he was 13, he entered an acting competition in Orlando, Fla., sponsored by Actors, Models and Talent for Christ. “Surprisingly, and thankfully, I won best male actor out of 600 contestants,” he said.
The experience led to a flurry of interest from agents and producers, but during the next four years, he didn’t get called for one audition. There were two problems. “Casting directors don’t like to hire actors under 18 because they are considered children, which comes with a lot of restrictions,” Bambridge said. “But the main issue is that parts for little people are few and far between.”
Then came the call for Pixels, a sci-fi comedy that centers on video gamers. One video audition and in-person callback later, he was in, filming in Toronto the summer before his senior year. The film opened July 2015 and Happyish followed, but the dry spell resumed, allowing him to rediscover his musical side.
"My music is very much influenced by my condition. It’s very personal,” said Bambridge, whose performance of his original song "Not the Same" at a talent show in Boston is posted on his website.
As for acting, he’s not ruling it out. Peter Dinklage, who also grew up in New Jersey and has a similar form of dwarfism, gave him some wise advice. “He told me, ‘Write for yourself or work with talented writers who can create great roles in which a little person is at the center of the story,’” said Bambridge.
“In music and in acting, I’m not afraid to put myself out there,” he said. “I’m willing to make a fool of myself – and if something doesn’t work, I’ll try something new.”