What first interested actor Alessandro Nivola in working on HBO’s The Wizard of Lies? That’s easy.
“Robert DeNiro,” says Nivola with a laugh. “That was the main draw for me. In my mind, he’s one of the greatest actors of all time.” The two actors had actually (kind of) worked together on David O. Russell’s American Hustle in 2013 but unfortunately shared no scenes. “It was heartbreaking to brush by him that way.”
With The Wizard of Lies, not only would Nivola be actually sharing screentime with DeNiro, but he’d also be playing his son, Mark Madoff. (DeNiro plays the ill-fated Bernie Madoff in the TV movie.) “Mark seemed like such a complex and fascinating person. Regardless of whatever opinions people have about his innocence or guilt, none of that interested me as much as, psychologically, what kind of person he was and what kind of person could be driven to do what he did.”
To prepare for the role of Madoff’s eldest son, Nivola naturally read Diana Henriques’ book the HBO film is based on, plus Truth or Consequences: Life Inside the Madoff Family by Laurie Sandell, as well as Mark’s widow Stephanie Madoff Mack’s book, The End of Normal: A Wife’s Anguish, A Widow’s New Life. He also watched a 30-second home video of Mark on a fishing trip “about 500 times.” But really it was just one conversation that helped him get to know who Mark actually was.
“I met [CNN anchor] Chris Cuomo at a cocktail party. He had done a whole story on Mark. He had actually met Mark once or twice years before, so he had a pretty close encounter with Mark and all of the people around him.”
While the script described Mark as a hothead, almost like a “Sonny in The Godfather” character, when Nivola spoke with Cuomo, he really gained insight into this troubled individual.
“A whole different portrait started to come to life, which was one of somebody who had a really delicate and fragile ego and persona, probably because of the way he had been treated by his father for most of his childhood and young adulthood. He was hanging on for dear life, never was given the feeling of confidence. That feeling created this real vulnerability in him, and that became the quality I wanted to capture most.”
One of the most crucial scenes leading up to this tragedy actually came about by accident.
“Barry [Levinson] and I felt there was a final piece missing that would help the audience believe that this guy could do this to himself and his family. We had both read that toward the end of Mark’s life he had started making phone calls, relentlessly to his brother and family lawyer. He had started calling so frequently that they had stopped answering the phone. He would leave message after message, sometimes serious and hysterical and other times calm and collected and apologetic. It just got to the point where they couldn’t answer anymore. We just decided that Barry would set up the camera in the kitchen, and I would just start making calls. I improvised for an hour, calling Andy and my lawyer over and over again. And he then cut that together into that final sequence leading up to that suicide. To me, without it, the performance wouldn’t have landed nearly as much as hopefully it does.”
For those who see the film, it’s hard to imagine Mark’s suicide depicted without this penultimate scene, which shows the desperation to escape this current, dire situation.
“I think he wanted his own reputation back. I think the feeling that everybody in the media and the public and the people on the street were convinced he had taken part in that thing that had destroyed the lives of so many people just tore him apart. And of course, he felt it was at the hands of his father, and having been made to feel inadequate all his life, it turned this self-doubt into pure rage toward his father. He tried to commit suicide twice. The first time was unsuccessful, but he had left a suicide note that read, ‘Fuck you, Dad.’ That’s just horrifying, but that gives you a real glimpse of the kind of anger he felt toward his father after the Ponzi scheme was revealed.”
Nivola sees Mark as a very sympathetic character who loved his wife and family despite his controversial reputation that still persists today.
“I didn’t feel concern that I would be casting him in an unfavorable light. The story is that they’re [Mark and Andy] really the victims. To me, the most important thing was to try to get at the essence of what could drive somebody to take his own life.”
What’s interesting in the film, Andrew (Nathan Darrow) tries to escape the clutches of his father by heading out on his own business venture, but Mark doesn’t even though Bernie is especially hard on him.
“Mark was the first son, and so I think he felt there was an expectation for him to take over the family business and step into his father’s shoes. And yet his father wasn’t equipping him to do that. He absolutely idolized his father, which makes it so much more painful that his father treated him the way that he did.”
And yet, the Madoff family were an incredibly close family who spent a lot of time together, as depicted on vacations and the Montauk scene. This wasn’t a family that grew up distant and cold, which makes it all the more ironic that the patriarch would put them all in jeopardy and ultimately ruin their lives.
“They were very loyal to each other and in some ways very loving, which is interesting, paradoxical, and baffling. Growing up with Bernie, it was family first.”
HBO’s The Wizard of Lies airs Saturday night at 8pm ET.