Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer Talk Trump, Madoff, and American Decline

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Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro in The Wizard of Lies. Photo: HBO

When Vulture caught up with the leads and director of HBO’s Bernie Madoff biopic, The Wizard of Lies, it was a weird day to be talking about ethical abuses at the highest levels of American society. Then again, is it ever not such a day anymore?

Less than 24 hours before our sit-down interview with Robert De Niro (Bernie Madoff), Michelle Pfeiffer (Ruth Madoff), and director Barry Levinson, Donald Trump had fired FBI Director James Comey; just minutes prior to the beginning of the conversation, Trump tweeted about the possible existence of tapes of a meeting with Comey. The topic of hubristic men was fresh on everyone’s minds. As such, the chat centered on charisma, pride, deceit, corruption, downfalls — and how to depict all of that in a way that’s both engaging and critical.

Congratulations on the film. It’s quite good.
Michelle Pfeiffer: You sound so surprised.

No, no, that’s not what I meant!
MP: It was hard.

What was hard about it?
MP: Well, I was watching it last night. It was the first time I really saw it finished. And I kept thinking the whole time we were shooting it, This is so much information. I know we shot a lot more footage than what’s there — Surely, this is gonna end up being four hours. [Barry] can’t possibly tell this story in two hours. And he did it and it’s remarkable. And it’s just so dense.

Not to be too much of a downer, but having done this movie and lived with its story — having understood how America can allow someone like Bernie Madoff to exist and thrive — how screwed do you think we are, as a country?
Robert De Niro: [Gestures toward his phone.] Look what we’re going through now.

MP: Definitely there are flaws in our system. Huge, gaping holes. But we always seem to come out the other end of it and we always, as a country, we rally. We end up finding our way back to the right path. And there are going to be the Bernie Madoffs. There are going to be people who take advantage of the system, who get away with it, but I still think it’s a pretty great place as far as the world order goes. It seems like we’re one of the best systems around.

One of the most striking moments in the movie comes when Bernie says he’d often kinda hoped the apocalypse would come, so that the scheme could end. He had no plan to wind it down. I hate to get heady, but is he sort of speaking for us in that moment? Does anyone in America have a plan for how we can fix things?
RD: Well, with what we’re in now …

Barry Levinson: I don’t think we have a plan. I mean, if you were to look at America, obviously we’re not planning. Because we cannot fix anything. The idea that, for example, Flint, Michigan, a city, can’t drink the water because it’s so bad and they don’t take care of it.

MP: And they have to pay for it.

BL: And you go, “How can we not? We’re the wealthiest nation on Earth and we can’t afford to fix it.” But it’s not just in Flint. It’s in the Bronx.

MP: It’s all over America.

BL: The plumbing is fucked up in the entire nation. It’s inexcusable.

RD: But that’s okay because Donald Trump is gonna fix it.

Only he can fix it!

RD: “I’m the only one that can fix it.”

Along those lines, how do you guys keep your heads above water vis a vis the news? Do you have to take information breaks?
MP: I do. I have to take news breaks. I have to.

RD: I can’t. It’s hard to keep up with what’s going on.

It’s hard to keep up?
RD: I’m trying to finish this article, something else happens on CNN.

BL: You would think at some point it would sort of burn out. That we’d get tired. But what happens is a new event. I mean now it’s, he is now saying, “I have tapes on the FBI guy from the dinner.”

MP: And of course the media just loves it. Keeps churning.

RD: I mean, Nixon had the thing playing all the time. It was a dinner which means — did he have a pocket recorder?

BL: Maybe the place had micro … that’s what Nixon did.

RD: He did, but a lot of that was in the White House.

BL: Maybe it was in the White House? I don’t really know.

Another thing that really stuck with me was the moment where Bernie says, “Rich people. Fucking parasites.” Of course, he’s astoundingly wealthy, himself. How did he perceive himself in terms of class?
BL: He wasn’t a guy that would make his sons into prep-school kids. He was not from that. He was from a more — what’s it called — lower-middle-class background. And so, he might have had a certain disdain for rich people who either inherited the money, or just kept it going. He might have had a bit of resentment.

RD: Well, he strikes down at Mark when he says, “I’ve said this to your mother. You have to earn it.” Or whatever. So he has that in his bones.

MP: I could be wrong about this, but considering the circles they traveled in and the wealth that they traveled in, they actually did not live as extravagantly as they perhaps could have.

BL: None of his things were on a level of those others. He didn’t have the private planes and all of those things. Or the apartment, even though by our standards it was really amazing. It was nothing compared to the other billionaires and what they might have.

How closely did you guys follow the Madoff story as it was playing out back in 2008 and 2009?
BL: You couldn’t not follow it. [Gestures toward his phone.] It was like everything in today’s news: It’s there in your face all the time. Even if you were peripherally following.

RD: I knew some basic things. I didn’t know all the inside stuff. I didn’t know the relationship between Ruth and Bernie, that they met at the age of 13. He was the only person in her life. So she wasn’t some independent woman who, at the age of 32, decided to get married. The first man she ever really met — that is Bernie Madoff. That’s why it fascinated me that, when she finally breaks, how huge an issue that is for her. It’s all she knows. So for that to happen, well, these are interesting conflicts. In terms of [Bernie’s son] Mark’s relationship to Bernie, to [Bernie’s other son] Andy’s relationship. That nucleus of it. And then you say, All right, now, let’s spread out here and then look at what he did to thousands and thousands of people.

MP: Overnight. That much destruction.

BL: Gone.

That is one of the more remarkable aspects of the story and of the way the movie portrays it. The collapse of the Ponzi scheme is instantaneous.
MP: Going along fine, life is good, and then, boom!

BL: They couldn’t catch up to it. In other words. For Ruth, okay, there was this scandal, her husband is implicated, et cetera. But how, all of a sudden, she becomes the enemy, pursued by cameras and all of that, goes into a beauty salon and can’t get service — all the repercussion that come out of that, which I don’t think any of them ever expected. That that wave would smash into them.

Robert, I know it’s hard to describe the craft of acting, but how do you approach creating this character, who is something of a monster? How do you humanize him without making him too sympathetic?
RD: Well, he was sympathetic. People wouldn’t have been drawn to [the scheme] if he wasn’t sympathetic. I’ve personally been conned by the nicest person in the world. Very smart, great person. That’s what it is. He can’t do it unless he’s sympathetic. And people trust him and feel that, if they put their money with him, it’s gonna be in good hands.

MP: The devil couldn’t be the devil if he weren’t charming.

RD: That’s one of the prerequisites of a con artist. A good one. You’re not even a con artist. You’re just somebody that they like, people like, and then they get whatever your spiel is about: business or whatever you’re trying to get them to give you. Money or whatever. That’s what it is.

Did you all worry that people might walk away from the movie and go, Hey, Bernie wasn’t such a bad guy?
MP: I had somebody say to me last night, “You know, that Bernie Madoff — he was kind of an asshole.”

RD: Look, you have to show a character that you believe is trustworthy. And solid. But then you see, look, he’s directly responsible for his son hanging himself. That betrayal of father to son, the betrayal that he never told his wife stuff, suddenly, one day, it’s like bam! That’s the character. I think our job is simply to … You create these characters. And we’re going to be fascinated by them, hopefully. That’s the key. Is the fascination. And that’s what’s frightening. Because you get drawn in. That’s what’s frightening.

What kind of research did you do for your roles?
RD: I didn’t meet Madoff, but I had spoken to his lawyer. I spoke to the wife of Andrew. Read some of the books that the family members had written. Met a friend or two of his. Some people knew him that I knew, who was a friend of their family’s. I spoke to somebody well-known who knew him, who lived in his building, and he was telling me stuff. There was a guy who used to guard him who spoke to me. When he was under house — whatever you want to call it — arrest, I guess. He was with him. Telling me little things about him. Behaviorally, blah blah blah. But I didn’t need him. I heard it was hard to [see him]. I mean, you always want to see the persons that are actually alive. But in this case, I decided it might’ve been too difficult.

MP: I actually spent some time with [journalist] Laurie [Sandell], because she spent extensive time with Ruth. And talking to just people who know her. I spent a little bit of time with Ruth. About an hour. And she was incredibly gracious. She was a different person, I think, than she’s portrayed a lot in the film.

And what conversations did the two of you have? Before you started filming, about how you’re going to depict this relationship?
RD: What’re you gonna have for lunch? [Laughs.]

MP: Who’re you texting? [Laughs.]

Okay, I get it, you’re professionals. Robert, you’re not Jewish, but Judaism seems important to understanding Madoff. Was the concept of his Judaism going through your head while you were building the character?
RD: Yeah, of course. [Pause.]

Okay, fair enough! You also did a remarkable job at mimicking Madoff’s face. How did you approach that task?
RD: Well, I watched whatever there was of him, and there wasn’t much of him speaking, but you saw a lot him visually and they played it over and over again. There are certain expressions on his face and then when he spoke, I played that a lot. And the voice, it was similar to my voice.

Do you all think of Bernie as a coward?
RD: I suppose he’s a coward by not doing what he should’ve done in the first place. He allowed that kind of a scam to go on. Even if he fell into it by trying to cover some investments. And then it just got worse and worse.

MP: I would describe him more as weak.

RD: Weak. Yeah.

MP: Because he certainly had a strange kind of courageousness.

What do you mean by that?
MP: Well, to do that, to be moving around billions of dollars. That took some chutzpah.

At least ambition.
MP: Some courage, no?

RD: I don’t know if you’d use the term courage.

MP: [Laughs.] I could be using it wrong.

BL: Determination, perhaps.

RD: Well, he was in it. And once he was in it, he had to survive. So he had to just keep going.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

De Niro and Pfeiffer on Trump and Madoff