Robert De Niro became so immersed in the way Bernie Madoff moved, acted and responded, director Barry Levinson had him answer a journalist’s questions for a portion of the film “The Wizard of Lies.”
For more than 10 minutes, writer Diana B. Henriques says, the actor was able to channel “his inner Bernie. It was so convincing….I made the vow right then and there to never take investment advice from Bob De Niro.”
In the film, De Niro plays the New York financier who bilked billions out of thousands of investors. The Ponzi scheme is considered to be the largest financial fraud in U.S. history.
Henriques’ book, “The Wizard of Lies,” detailed just how Madoff was able to gain investors’ trust and keep the details of his crime from his family. Madoff, she says, was a source of hers “for decades” before he got arrested. “The respect and admiration that he had, the success he seemed to project and the fact that his legitimate business firm was a huge success” gave him the credibility he needed to get the buy-in. “You put it all together and it isn’t crazy to trust Bernie Madoff.”
De Niro and his producing partner Jane Rosenthal read the stories Henriques had written for the New York Times and expressed interest in turning them and her subsequent book into a film. Because television was more welcoming to a story this complex, they decided to do it as an HBO movie. Directed by Barry Levinson, “The Wizard of Lies” stars De Niro as Madoff and Michelle Pfeiffer as his wife Ruth.
To get to the point where he could answer as Madoff, De Niro studied films of the financier, watched the way he moved and listened to the way he talked.
“Step by step by step, very slowly, all of a sudden this character begins to emerge,” Levinson says. “It’s not, like, one day. It’s somehow over that period of time of talking and preproduction. It just keeps evolving. And then there’s that day when all of a sudden there’s the character he’s going to play.”
Levinson’s improv game impressed Henriques. “It was surreal,” she says. “The primary difference between interviewing Bernie in prison and interviewing Bob as Bernie in prison is I got a lot more takes in the second version. I only got one take with each interview with Bernie and then the prison authorities scooted me out the door.”
De Niro says what Madoff did was “beyond my comprehension.
“There’s still a disconnect somehow in him and I still would like to understand. He’s a classic example of somebody who...let people come to him and got to a position where people would think it was an honor for him to take their money. That’s a classic con situation in all forms, all walks of life.”
While family members weren’t taken into his confidence, some of his investors had to suspect what was going on, the actor says. “They were getting a certain amount of money in return. Why look too closely? That, I feel, is a certain kind of complicitness, but you can never prove (it) with some people.”
Henriques says those victims deserve pity more than anything. “Only someone you trust can truly betray you,” she says.
“I don’t think you can conduct your life with such a lack of empathy for the devastation that you’re causing and not meet that fairly spongy definition of a psychopath. I hope folks won’t get real tangled up in what kind of label – sociopaths, psychopaths – you put on it. What it boils down to is how he treated people and how incredibly magnetic he was.”
"The Wizard of Lies" airs May 20 on HBO.