To say that Matt Roloff is one busy guy is an absolute understatement. There’s his stint in acting and his software career, not to mention his motivational speaking, running a successful working farm, and being the President of the Little People of America. And did we mention that Roloff stars in the insanely successful show, Little People, Big World with his family? But Roloff wouldn’t have it any other way. We spoke with the dad of four about career, keeping busy, and why he finally feels that he’s found his balance.
Could you ever have imagined when you started Little People, Big World that the show would have become so successful?
We never imagined this. It’s very humbling to think that there’s still interest in the family. When we started, reality shows were a newer genre, and we call ours more of a docudrama. In one sense, it’s been lifechanging and in another sense, it seems like a natural progression of what we were doing. I had been building crazy structures on my property for quite a while, so I had been leading my life, an extraordinary life, and doing things. A lot of media came to us because that’s when we had our twins because that was unusual. It was featured in various magazines. We would sit back and wonder why people thought that was so special, but we realized that we could educate people on dwarfism. So when we got the show and were able to educate on a larger scale, that became interesting to us.
But you love doing it.
Well, there are hard days and there are days that we enjoy, or we wouldn’t be doing it. If anyone gets to the point that they can’t take it anymore, step one is to walk out of the house and take a break. Step two is to kick the cameras out of the house and take a break, and step three is to cancel the show altogether. We’ve always kept those options on the table at any given time for each family member.
Sometimes, having the show highlights things that are better kept personal between you and your kid and it can complicate it. After all, it’s not like a celebrity parent where you take your kid to a set —what’s going on in our kids’ lives is the most interesting stuff to be filmed. So if a producer catches wind that Molly is having boy problems, they want to know about it and they want to capture it on film. We might not want to share it, because it’s hard enough to go through it and then have all these bloggers analyze it. You really do put yourself out there, but it’s part of the gig.
I think that one of the biggest benefits of all that is that they’ve grown a thick skin. Thick skin is the first thing towards resiliency. You don’t go sideways emotionally when you’re getting dissed on. You can reject it because that’s not true about myself. You learn to separate what people think about you and what you know is true about yourself.
It’s good that everyone feels heard and that they have a say in the matter about the show.
The hardest part is sometimes they say, “I don’t want to do the show anymore,” and you have to get below the surface to see what’s going on. Sometimes I’ll say it, but I don’t mean it. You have to peel the onion back a bit and see if they understand what they’re really saying and if they want that or not.
Being a role model for little people, how do you take on that responsibility?
That’s a very good way to put it: responsibility. The responsibility part of the equation has taken us a little bit by surprise. The notion that even when you’re in a really bad mood and you need to stop and smile and take a picture — I caught myself even as late as last night. I hadn’t eaten anything on the airplane and got into New York City late. I ran down the street to a little café, and I got a burger and was trying to get back to my room to eat it, but people want to stop me for pictures, and I did it. One of the hardest parts is not being able to give people the time that they deserve as fans of the show. They spend so much time watching us, so we should be able to return the favor.
Did you want that role, though?
I did put myself in that position being the President of Little People of America. We still get 100s of letters from little people all over the world saying, “Thanks to your show, our lives have changed. People treat us with more respect and dignity.” It’s much less popular to be the brunt of a joke or teased or bullied. Nowadays other people will step in and say, “Hey that’s not cool!” because they’ve watched our show.
And then there’s the other little people getting stopped in the street getting asked, “Hey, do you know the Roloffs?” I’m sure what they want to say is, “Hey, not all little people live on farms, grow pumpkins, and have crazy dads who do a lot of stupid stuff!”
But it’s fun to have the crazy dad who does fun stuff.
It depends on your perspective. [laughs]
Do your kids view you as a fun dad?
I think my kids certainly do. Zach takes after his mother and thinks I’m nuts. The boys are now 20 and they’ve been exposed to so much opportunity so that they are sorting through on where to land and what they want to focus on. They’re going to community college right now, and they’re looking into transferring to a university. So they’re working hard on that, but at the same time, the farm is more than a home — it’s a compound of possibilities. It has the business that runs there, an office suite, it’s a life and a lifestyle. There’s a lot to do there to keep a person entertained.
So I don’t blame the kids for wanting to stay there. I grew up in a modest house and as soon as I turned 18, boom, I was out of there! But the kids get paid to work on the farm, so they’re sort of staying right now. I was ready for them to move but now I don’t know if the empty nest sounds as good!
How are you and Amy as parents?
I have to say that our kids are really, really good kids. The big lesson that Amy and I learned raising kids was that kids have a mind of their own. You can raise them the same, the same discipline with all four of your kids and they’re going to have different personalities. Even our Jacob, who has a mind of his own more than any of the kids, likes to get his extra attention. He’s a really good kid. It’s been interesting to layer the show on top of all that. Growing up as a kid and then being a parent and figuring out what to do in terms of right and wrong, and then having the spotlight of the world on you — it’s challenging.
We both take turns in different things. My area is keeping the house and farm up. If it’s about schoolwork, then it’s Amy. She tends to the kids’ emotional needs. I’m much more about if you spill oil in the garage and didn’t clean it up.
I would assume that there are some critics out there.
The hardest part for me and some of us is the way people write, and the anonymity that they write things and know very little about the context of us. They’re full of opinions and some of them are hilarious, but we’ve learned over time to appreciate them. I like reading the negative stuff because you learn from it. You can glean certain things from it, but what I don’t like is when they make an assumption and draw an opinion from it. But I guess in a 22-minute show, not everything can be put into context.
Let’s talk about the most recent episode. It appears that you, ahem, might have passed away.
Yeah, dead man walking right here! [laughs] It was 6 or 7 months ago, and I was having vertigo and I still have it today. If I don’t drink enough water and with my diabetes, vertigo and not keeping myself hydrated, I had a dizzy spell and hit the ground. And they made that look like I was darn near dead — and I felt like I was at the time. It was a real incident, but you put some scary music to it, and it’s a really good cliffhanger.
You guys have so much going on. How do you keep (or try to) keep a balance?
That is very, very difficult because I spent most of my life being out of balance. We’re all spread very, very thin. As a matter of fact, Amy and I had this conversation the other day. I told her that I had been out of balance, and she said, “Oh, you think?” [laughs] I’ll admit it; I was passionate about my software, passionate about this or that. For once in my life, though, I feel like I’m in balance. I’m juggling more things in a better way than I ever have before. I said to Amy, “I think you’re struggling with your balance because you’re juggling a lot of things and I want to be here to help you with your balance.” She’s finding her power with her charity and her speaking to the point where she was doing what I had done for years and years.
So how do you tell somebody when you’ve spent your life out of balance and say, “Suddenly I’m in balance, so now let’s talk about your balance.” That was a delicate conversation that we tried to have the other day. [laughs]
We should talk about all of those things you’re passionate about.
Before the show, I wrote the book Against Tall Odds back in 1999. And the family wrote a book together called Little Family, Big Values. We sat down and asked, what’s important to us as a family? We made a list of the values we have as a family and individually. Now I’m working on a children’s book. It has great potential to educate kids.
I also have my charity, Coalition for Dwarf Advocacy. We really do a lot with the Little People of America organization. This year we’re doing a significant scholarship for a student who is in higher education. Our organization was founded by Marty Klebba who was in Pirates of the Caribbean. We’re good buddies; we get in trouble together and we make money together for our foundation. We’re doing something really exciting right now — we’ve just been given a generous grant to make custom made bikes. We’re going to fund the development of these custom bikes and hoping to be able to roll it out nationally. We’re hoping to give kids education, bikes or help with adoptions. There are a lot of little people babies who are in orphanages, and we want to make sure the funds are there to help the potential adoptive parents get through the process.
Do you feel like you have a mission?
Yes, in fact I use that saying with the kids a lot. When the going gets tough, I say, “This is our mission in life.” This is our purpose. I think all of us in the family really have set out to educate people about dwarfism and I believe we’ve made good progress on that. We’re definitely blessed to have the opportunity to have the platform to discuss the kinds of things that are important to us and share our sense of service and giving to the community. And it keeps me out of trouble, for the most part!