Actors often try to unearth a character’s motivation before tackling a role. but for Robert De Niro, probing the psyche of Wall Street swindler Bernie Madoff revealed no pat explanation.
“I don’t understand him. What he did. Why he did it,” De Niro says. “I don’t even know if ‘sociopath’ is the right diagnosis. There’s a disconnect somewhere. He has no empathy for the people he ripped off.”
Despite an utter lack of human commiseration, De Niro found something to latch onto when he agreed to play the notorious charlatan in the Barry Levinson–directed HBO film The Wizard of Lies: sympathy for Madoff’s family. After all, they, too, paid dearly when Madoff’s epic Ponzi scheme was exposed in 2008.
Wife Ruth (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) became a pariah and sons Mark (Alessandro Nivola) and Andrew (Nathan Darrow) died tragically in the aftermath, the former by suicide and the latter due to lymphoma.
“I feel strongly that they didn’t know and that the wife didn’t know. I always felt that from the beginning,” De Niro says.
The film, which debuts May 20, appealed to De Niro because of the abstruseness of its protagonist. But he initially resisted because he wasn’t enamored with the earlier versions of the script. But then Levinson’s son, Sam Levinson, took a crack at adapting Diana B. Henriques’s book of the same name, and De Niro began to see the potential.
“I thought the character could be really fascinating,” says the actor, who also executive-produced the film, along with Barry Levinson, Jane Rosenthal, Berry Welsh and Tom Fontana. In fact, Madoff is the kind of morally bankrupt antihero that De Niro has taken on so successfully throughout his career, from Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle to The Untouchables’s Al Capone to Cape Fear’s Max Cady.
But while those roles offered weapon-wielding bombast, Madoff is all understated malice, ruining thousands of lives with the keystroke of a fabricated earnings statement. For De Niro, the most memorable sequence to shoot was the one he calls “the lobster scene.”
On screen, the Madoff clan has converged at their chichi Hamptons compound, where Bernie emasculates his 30-something son Mark by forcing him to eat a lobster — the ultimate culinary sign of the family’s station in life — even though Mark is not hungry, humiliating a waiter in the process. The result offers a window into Madoff’s warped priorities and lack of respect or compassion for anyone, least of all his first-born.
“It was a good way to show behavior in a slightly offhanded fashion that I think somehow is more meaningful than a scene where people talk about stuff. You don’t have to say anything. It was just the moment.”
Levinson, who first collaborated with the star on the 1996 drama Sleepers, points to a far different scene in which De Niro also quietly reveals a glimpse into Madoff’s dark soul. Gone is the flowing champagne. There’s no dialogue or costars. Just the actor and a glowing screen.
“It’s where he’s in prison watching The Joy Behar Show, listening to [Mark Madoff’s] father-in-law reading the [suicide] letter that he didn’t send,” Levinson recalls. “Just being on Bob’s face. I thought that was an incredible moment. He can bring a moment that defines a character.”
De Niro didn’t attempt to visit Madoff in the federal prison in North Carolina, where he is serving a 150-year sentence (“I thought that they might make it difficult even for me,” he says). Instead, he prepared for the role by devouring as much as he could about the enigmatic one-percenter, including articles, books and news clips.
The one cast member who did meet face-to-face with Madoff behind bars, journalist Henriques (playing herself in the film), found De Niro’s portrait so convincing that she was fooled during their scenes together.
“I said to her after the one take, ‘What do you think? You’ve interviewed Bernie and now you’ve got Bob,’” Levinson says. “And she said, ‘There are moments that scare me, they’re so close.’” Though De Niro knows several Madoff victims firsthand, he would probably take that as a compliment.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 4, 2017