While very few actors can say their first acting role was opposite Robert De Niro, only one can say her very first acting role was playing herself opposite the legend.
“Let me just announce that I think I’m going to retire from acting now that I’ve made my debut opposite Robert De Niro in an Emmy®-nominated performance in an Emmy-nominated movie,” joked Diana B. Henriques, whose book The Wizard of Lies was the basis for Barry Levinson’s HBO film.
“I just kept reminding myself of what Barry Levinson kept saying to me. He said, ‘I don’t want you to play yourself. I just want you to be yourself.’ And I just kept repeating that. Be yourself. You’re not playing anybody. You’re just being Diana Henriques. And I kept focusing on that over and over and over.”
Through Henriques’ performance, she got to relive her experience interviewing Bernie Madoff, as the only one involved in the production that actually got to meet the man behind the largest financial fraud in American history. While portraying herself, Henriques’ reporter skills were put to good use.
“Every good reporter has to be able to tune out the ambient distractions and focus on the interview at hand. That actually stood me in very good stead on set. We don’t live our lives with mics hovering above us, but we do our jobs with that kind of filtering focus, so that’s what I tried to use on set, to tune out all of this unfamiliar stuff going on around me and focus on interviewing this extremely credible Bernie Madoff in front of me.”
Henriques knew De Niro was onto something special with his eerily convincing Emmy-nominated performance, going as far back as her audition process when she first read opposite him.
“He had the script and after about one or two lines, his face changed a little bit, his lips changed a little bit, and you could see him taking on the physical shape of the character. That was the first hint I got about how remarkable this was going to be. It was chilling at that moment to watch him slowly morph into someone so reminiscent of Madoff. By the time he walked on set to sit down across the table from me, it was just amazing how totally he occupied Madoff’s mannerisms, tone of voice, self-deprecating manner. I don’t think unless you’ve actually had the real-life experience that Bob was portraying that you can appreciate how extraordinary his characterization is. But man, it is good.”
And Madoff’s victims have concurred, as Henriques has been hearing from a number of them, telling her how closely the actor resembles the fraudster. As a professional through and through, viewing videos and reading transcripts, De Niro also frequently quizzed Henriques on and off set.
“Even the day before he was shooting a scene, I’d get a phone call, ‘Would it be OK if I did this?’ Right down to the night before, he was still wrestling with every little physical gesture that would make this a convincing performance.”
Henriques served as a consultant on the film, mostly throughout the script development stage.
“HBO and Barry Levinson’s team, everyone connected with this, were excruciatingly concerned that we keep this real, everything from the courtesy of the FBI agents who come to arrest to the relationship between Andrew and Mark to the way the trading room would have looked—they wanted it all to be just as accurate as possible. The visiting room they created for the scenes that I do with De Niro was as close to real as possible. There was that great big window. There were vending machines that ended up on the cutting room floor. At every stage, [there was] a concern for accuracy, and where I could help them meet that concern, I did.”
One real-life scene that did not make it into the movie involved Madoff breaking down while talking about his wife.
“I asked Bernie whether he regretted Ruth’s decision to stay with him after his arrest, given how much hostile publicity it generated for her and the extent to which she became a social pariah. He started trying to answer the question, and tears leaked from his eyes. His lawyer who was with us got us some scratchy little napkins from the snack bar area and handed it to him to dab away the tears down around his chin. That was one and only moment when Madoff lost his composure.”
The Madoff story is an extensive one, with lots of angles and background, but the HBO movie hones in on the family drama. While not everything in Henriques’ book made it into the 2-hour movie, overall she was beyond satisfied with the final product as a reflection of her work.
“It’s especially gratifying given that many times authors find themselves less than thrilled with how their work is adapted for television or film. I was so gratified by how faithful this production was to both the architecture, the conclusion, and the drama that I tried to build into the book. That was a terrific experience, and it was a result of HBO taking the consulting arrangement that we had seriously, listening to my concerns, respecting my judgment. I didn’t really have a lot of concerns [when the movie wrapped up] about how it was going to turn out, even not having seen the edited version. I knew we were all on the same page.”
But one person Henriques wasn’t on the same page with, when it came to who would play her, was her husband. While she and her friends imagined Joan Allen or Patricia Clarkson playing her role, only her significant other knew she’d end up securing a part in the Emmy-nominated film.
“My husband from the very beginning said, ‘You should play yourself.’ I said, ‘Don’t be absurd! HBO is not going to invest all this money in this movie and grab the newspaper reporter to play one of the roles.’ So when I got the call from Tribeca asking if I would consider auditioning to play myself, I thought my husband had put someone up to a joke. I thought it was a prank call. He was the one person in the world who wasn’t utterly astonished. It was a Cinderella story for me. At my stage in life and at this point in my career, it was an utterly unlooked-for adventure, but it was unbelievable fun.”
The Wizard of Lies is available now on Digital Download and available on Blu-ray and DVD October 3.