Directed by Barry Levinson and based on the book written by Diana B. Henriques, HBO Films’ The Wizard of Lies examines Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, and the deception, lies and cover-up that came, as a result. While Bernie (Robert De Niro) made headlines around the world, upon his arrest for what is perhaps the largest financial fraud in U.S. history, his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) and sons (Alessandro Nivola, Nathan Darrow) were placed directly into a harsh, unrelenting and unforgiving spotlight that permanently tore their family apart.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Alessandro Nivola talked about how the Madoff family presented a closeness to the public that wasn’t necessarily the case in private, how Bernie Madoff could have possibly expected to get out of what he caused, having Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer play his parents, adjusting to Barry Levinson’s directing style, and having a resource like Diana Henriques on set (she’s also in the film). He also talked about signing on for Red Sea Diving Resort, his desire to work with writer/director Gideon Raff, and what he liked about the script.
Collider: How challenging was it to help bring the Madoff’s to life, when they’re such an internal family who doesn’t express their emotions too well?
ALESSANDRO NIVOLA: You’ve got a point. It’s such a strange thing because the family. On the one hand, was so close, by all accounts, really intensely loyal to one another and, at times, deeply loving of each other. And then, in particular, Bernie and Mark’s relationship had this palpable abuse. To have those two things exist, side by side, is very human, but also fascinating and kind of horrifying.
It’s so interesting that, for a family that everyone thought was so close, they didn’t seem to really know each other, at all.
NIVOLA: I know! That’s always the fear, that the people that you’re closest to, you don’t actually really know. People who get divorced often say that. That’s not uncommon. Especially when you’re talking about somebody who really had compartmentalized his life in the way Bernie had, in such a way that the two sides just didn’t touch, of course it would be easy to think that you knew a certain person that you had grown up with, and then discover that he wasn’t who you thought he was. I did feel that it was important to also get across the way that Mark idolized his father and adored him. That ultimately ended up being the source of all of his rage towards him. All his life, he felt that he could never really quite live up to his father’s legacy.
Watching a story like this, it makes you wonder what Bernie Madoff thought would happen, if he got found out?
NIVOLA: Bernie said, later on in one of his interviews, that it got to the point where he was longing for the world to just explode, so that he and everything else would just disappear. That was the only way that he could imagine the whole thing being resolved. I think that makes total sense. If you’ve gotten to that point, where there’s no way out of something that is so catastrophic like that, it’s better to just disappear in a puff of smoke rather than have to go through the whole process of reckoning with it and having to confront all of it, which he continues to avoid doing. I would probably feel the same way.
When this came your way, did you know that Robert De Niro would be playing Bernie Madoff and that Barry Levinson would be directing?
NIVOLA: The way it was presented to me was, “How would you like to play Robert De Niro’s son in a movie?” That was all I needed to hear. I think he’s one of the greatest actors of all time. In my opinion, even more so for having reinvented himself as a comedian, half-way through his career. I think he’s just one of the all-time greats, so the opportunity to work with him was a dream. I didn’t really know that much about the sons. I knew about the Ponzi scheme, but I didn’t really know much about Mark and what that story was. It was only after I’d had the chance to meet De Niro and come onto the project that I really started to be drawn in and fascinated by Mark’s complex psychology and the relationship that he had with his father, in particular. It was knowing that I was going to be in this movie, where most of the scenes involved the two of us, that was thrilling.
What was it like to then find out that Michelle Pfeiffer would be playing your mother?
NIVOLA: I couldn’t believe that she was old enough. She still seems so young and beautiful. They made her up to look so much like Ruth, but she’s still just totally gorgeous. I’d never met her before, but De Niro and I had both worked on American Hustle. We didn’t have any scenes together, so it was heartbreaking for me to have brushed by him and never had the chance to face off together. So, this seemed like the opportunity to fix that.
Bernie Madoff’s crime taught me what a Ponzi scheme is. I know he’s not the first one to pull one off, but it was the first time I had been made aware of what that is because he did it on such a huge scale. I also remember going through those thoughts of, “There’s no way his wife didn’t know. There’s no way his sons and his brother didn’t know.” Did you ever wonder about what his family knew?
NIVOLA: I didn’t really have any preconceptions about it. I wasn’t even really aware of how much the media and the public, at the time, had sharpened their knives for the rest of the family. I wasn’t in a position of defending them, or otherwise. And I wasn’t even that interested in that. I was more interested in what happens to someone, psychologically, to drive them to suicide. To me, the particular set of circumstances in this relationship and in this story that led to that, was really fertile ground for an actor to explore a character and behavior.