When Detroit native Christophe Zajac-Denek was born, the doctors told his parents that he would likely never lead a normal life. Zajac-Denek was born with a rare form of dwarfism, which at the time of his birth, doctors told his parents that running, biking and even walking without assistance equipment may not be possible for him.
Zajac-Denek recalls his parents were taken aback by the news, but because they were problem solvers, a tireless search for solutions to give their son the best medical care possible ensued. His parents found a doctor in Baltimore who specialized in dwarfism, and after multiple surgeries and his own incredible determination, Zajac-Denek defied those early expectations.
“It’s a really difficult thing when everyone else around you is shooting up in height and you’re staying the same size.” —Christophe Zajac-Denek
“I proved the doctors wrong,” he says. As a kid, he “got super muddy in puddles, I would ride my bike on trails … I was super active and I skateboarded and went on hikes and rode my bike and went snowmobiling and cross-country skiing.”
He says he didn’t feel so different from other kids until he got older.
“It’s a really difficult thing when everyone else around you is shooting up in height and you’re staying the same size,” says Zajac-Denek, who is 4-foot-4.
While navigating the challenges of growing up with dwarfism was significant, he says it hardly deterred him from living a life that most people can only dream of. Zajac-Denek, a longtime musician, became the drummer for one of Detroit’s most successful rock bands of the late 2000s, the garage rock trio The Hard Lessons. The city’s local music scene was incredibly supportive, Zajac-Denek says. ”I can only remember people being really awesome and gracious and supportive.”
Touring in cities across the world, however, brought some challenges. “People have all these different reactions. … It almost feels like I’m always proving people wrong in a way, I guess because the disbelief of having someone walk in at 4‘4 and load their drums and do a soundcheck and then come back off the stage and then play later is just mind-boggling for them,” he says.
After leaving the band, Zajac-Denek left Detroit for the sunny, adventurous climate of L.A. to continue his musical career. Only a month after moving to Hollywood, he found himself unexpectedly receiving offers for acting gigs. He soon found out that talented folks with dwarfism like himself were in high demand for roles in film, television and commercials. After finding an agent, Zajac-Denek landed a gig on a television pilot where, for the first time, he began working with other people who looked like him. Prior to that, he had only known one other little person in his life.
“I did not want to associate myself with any other little people. I was very awkward about that, which is interesting because I am a little person, but when I worked on this television pilot that was the first time I was around other little people that I felt like I had something in common,” he says.
Zajac-Denek became an in-demand actor, even working with acclaimed directors like David Lynch, playing Las Vegas hitman “Ike the Spike” in “Twin Peaks: The Return.”
After a lifetime of self-induced pressure to “fit in,” his life working in Hollywood has been a powerful mental metamorphosis in his relationship with others with dwarfism. It all began to change when he started working on productions with other little people and discovered the incredible stories of life, love and work that many had to share. That inspired Zajac-Denek to start a podcast called “I’m Kind of a Big Deal,” where he interviews writers, actors, athletes and many more folks who share the real-life struggles and triumphs of living with dwarfism.
“There really is no media out there that shows little people in a light that we can be understood, we’re allowed to share our stories [and we’re not being molded by a reality show producer or a theatrical script],” he says. “I’m almost setting a goal for myself to interview every little person because everyone’s story is so incredible. You don’t have to be an actor or a dancer or an entertainer. We just live these really incredible lives and I just want people to hear them because they’re just human stories.”
Listen: Christophe Zajac-Denek talks about his childhood in Metro Detroit and what inspired him to start the podcast.