Thirty-nine-year-old Azerbaijani actor Riad Sultanov may be small, but he thinks big. Sultanov has had one ambition since childhood: "[T]o prove to everyone that I can do everything."
It's not as easy as it may sound. In Azerbaijan, as elsewhere, little people often encounter discrimination or negative stereotypes. No anti-discrimination law or support group exists to protect their interests.
"I always sense some different reactions from people," says Sultanov, who stands 1.34 meters (4'4 ) tall. "Some people want to approach and shake my hand; others look at me like at a UFO. They are not embarrassed. They don’t think that [staring] can hurt us. . . ."
Nonetheless, Sultanov hasn't let that stop him.
After a series of job setbacks and some time in children's performances, he happened upon a career as a television actor – a natural calling for someone who, as a child, loved mimicking others. His first appearance, as the character Passe-Partout in ATV's 2013-2014 run of the French game show "Fort Boyard," led to a lead role in a New Year's TV comedy, "Hotel X"
"I was very nervous – I'd never before performed live. But everything went as smooth as butter."
He's now started filming another TV comedy, but the details remain under wraps.
He also dreams about acting in feature films and becoming a TV presenter –in Azerbaijan, he emphasizes.
"I don't want to be like other people, to leave the country and become successful in Turkey or Russia. I want to do something important here."
That perseverance is a recurring theme in his life.
In school, his size meant that he was exempt from physical education and military training, but attended the classes anyway, he says, to show that he was as capable as his classmates.
When he graduated from high school not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan was sunk in an economic crisis and jobs for university graduates were in short supply. Riad decided to forget university and intern at a jewelry factory, but competition from Turkish imports eventually led to the factory's closure.
Next up, he bought a billiard table and computers and set up a game salon inside a building in Baku that his father had constructed. He started to earn money -- "around $100 by lunchtime," he says -- and saw another opportunity. "I decided to sell everything and turn this place into an internet cafe, but I failed," he remembers.
He went on to work registering customers at a car dealership, and doing whatever else to earn money, including engraving spoons.
Again, opportunity knocked. Through work, he met his wife, Ulker.
"I would have never thought that I can marry Ulker. I just took her number, we started to communicate, but I did not dare to say anything about my feelings. Later, I did, and two to three months later, we got married."
Not everyone, though, was happy with this union. Riad's two brothers, who had never expected him to marry, objected, he said. His wife's family initially stopped speaking to her.
But Sultanova, now a full-time homemaker, was not deterred. "It didn't embarrass me, doesn't embarrass me and won't embarrass me," she says of her husband's size. In fact, she jokes, she tells him "Don't think about growing taller – I'll divorce you!"
"I fell in love with him the way he is, and I will love him that way always," she stresses.
That bond became critical last year, when the couple's three-year-old son, Tahir, suffered from hydrocephalus, or excessive fluid within the brain; a condition associated with dwarfism. A benefactor helped pay for Tahir's intensive treatment after the couple's own finances ran short.
The experience appears to have helped Sultanov keep his career ambitions in perspective.
"The most valuable thing is never to lose your humanity," he says, "and to preserve that health which the Almighty has given us."
Interview: Sabina Guliyeva; Edited by Elizabeth Owen
Photo: Khalid Zeynalov