Emmy contender Richard Dreyfuss talks about conveying the financial villainy in Madoff
One of Academy Award-winner Richard Dreyfuss’s most notable films is Jaws, where he and Roy Scheider set out to stop a shark from wreaking havoc on a small beach town. But in ABC’s Madoff miniseries about Ponzi-scheme fraudster Bernie Madoff, he is the shark – the one everyone should be trying to sink.
I had the pleasure of talking to Mr. Dreyfuss about playing the famous shyster, including what surprised him about the role, why it’s fun to play the bad guy, and whether he’ll ever portray a certain Republican presidential candidate.
AwardsDaily TV: You were wonderful in Madoff. You really brought that character to life in the miniseries, making him more than just a villain. How did you prepare for this role?
Richard Dreyfuss: Well, I knew one secret. It’s an acting secret. If you’re going to be soothing and gentle and sweet enough to allow men and women to give you all of their millions of dollars, you gotta be the nicest guy in the world. There’s no question that you can ever go. . .(lets out maniacal laugh.) You can’t do that. That was the whole trick. That’s exactly what he was.
ADTV: He is kind of likable in a sense, but he’s also really bad. You usually play good guys, like my personal favorite Elliott in The Goodbye Girl or Mr. Holland’s Opus. Did him being a bad guy attract you to the role?
RD: Yes, the story attracted me first, and then the idea of presenting to the audience this guy that you really can’t help but like. They can experience it as the victims experienced it. And one of the great opportunities when you’re an actor in America is that you’re not the expert, but you’re the one that everyone thinks for a moment is an expert. We met all the victims and all of the people that should have been responsible for curtailing all of this. I’m actually making a speech in Vegas on June 13 to a room full of a thousand people, I think, of SEC investigators. It’s interesting that they’ve asked me to speak because they know that actors have great stories, and they also know that actors are not chief justices of the United States of the Supreme Court who can look at them and say, “You really fucked up!” And I can. I can say it.
ADTV: Did anything surprise you with Bernie’s story?
RD: About two weeks before we started shooting, I had the same questions in my mind about whether the kids or wife knew. But as soon as I got into the work, I realized, of course, they didn’t know. Where were you born? What city were you born in?
ADTV: Me? I was born in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania.
RD: And what did your dad do?
ADTV: What does my dad do? He’s a drug and alcohol counselor. [Laughs]
RD: And did you ever say when he came home at night, “Are you really a drug and alcohol counselor?”
ADTV: [Laughs] No. I just assumed.
RD: Yeah, and that’s what they did. That’s what we all do. And that’s why I’m absolutely 100 percent convinced that neither his wife nor his boys knew anything at all. They might have suspected something, but they would have put it down to bad parenting.
ADTV: I wondered about that, too.
RD: I grew up 10 blocks from where he lived for a while. I have a distinct memory of men on 218th Street in Bayside who were all very political. Leftists, communists, and socialists. And that’s what meant something to them, men of their generation. But they were all starting to go into business. One of the things to consume from Madoff, and from All My Sons by Arthur Miller, is that there’s a certain group of men who came out of World War II who went into business. They didn’t go into the aluminum siding business. They didn’t go into the ball bearing business. They went into business. They didn’t care what it was, and they went. And when you go into business in America, there are two things that everyone already knows. One is you have to lie to the government and you have to lie to your taxes. And so you go in knowing you’re going to do that because if you don’t, you’ll just fail. And if you can imagine the character in All My Sons not getting a case of moral judgment and blowing his own brains out, if he hadn’t done that, he would have turned into Bernie Madoff in the 1950s. And it was probably 15 years of his [Madoff’s] career when he thought of himself as a businessman and then he realized he was working real hard at that, so he said, “Screw it.” He figured, “Why not?” Because the government doesn’t care. So it was a very illuminating thing. I understood a whole generation of men, including my father and his brothers, why they did what they did.
ADTV: That’s so interesting.
RD: Madoff did it for the most base reasons. He really spent $50 billion or north of that on his wardrobe. [Laughs]
ADTV: Oh my gosh.
RD: He didn’t create philanthropy or anything. He did it because he could have his suits made in London and he could buy a yacht. He was a true scumbag.
ADTV: Was it kind of fun to play that?
RD: Yeah, it was. It’s always fun to play characters like that. I played Dick Cheney. That had to be fun.
ADTV: I wanted to ask you. So you’ve played Dick Cheney. You’ve played Bernie Madoff. What other controversial figure are you eyeing up? Would you play Trump?
RD: Ummmm. I haven’t yet. Actually I did. I did on the Internet (referring to this theatrical reading of Donald Trump for the Independent Journal Review). Hopefully, I’ll play him when he’s living in Central Africa, and we’re having trouble extraditing him.
ADTV: [Laughs] So there’s been some Emmy talk for your Madoff role, obviously, and I believe this would be your first Emmy nomination. TV seems to be where a lot of big movie stars like yourself are turning up nowadays. What do you think the draw is with television versus film right now? Do you think the roles are getting more interesting?
RD: Oh, yeah. The roles are getting interesting, and the structure is allowing for something that nothing else can offer. For instance, when you do a movie or a stage play, you know what the ending is. You know every night in a stage play that it’s going to be the same ending. In a film, you may shoot out of sequence, but you know what the ending is. And when you’re doing television, the one thing that can change is the producers can walk in the next day and say, “Let’s make him a cross dresser!” And they do. And the ending is always with a question mark. The character can morph into things that were never expected at the beginning. And that makes it really kind of like life.
ADTV: You will next be appearing on Fox’s Shots Fired with an A-list cast that includes Helen Hunt. Can you tell us anything about your role?
RD: Actually, I can’t, which I find amusing. Because they keep this show under very tight wraps. And they don’t want people to know what’s going to happen, who’s going to do it, or who’s good and bad and all that. And so, I’m actually constrained from telling you anything except that it’s a really well-written show.
ADTV: Are you working on any other TV shows or movies right now?
RD: Yeah, I’m doing two or three things. I’m doing a film in Israel in the fall about an American who goes to Israel to raise pigs. A hold for the laugh.
RD: It’s called Holy Land. I’m also writing two books. A piece about the American Civil War called The Two Virginians. One who stayed with the South, and one who stayed with the Union. Everything in the story is true. And I’m going to play all the characters. [Laughs] The other book is a short book about civics. Three chapters, a hundred pages long. Written by me and a bunch of history teachers, and Bruce Pandolfini wants to write a chapter about how chess helps you think clearly.
ADTV: You’re crazy busy! There’s one other thing about Madoff that I wanted to ask you. One of my favorite scenes in the series is when you explain your famous smirk to the paparazzi and the press. Did you watch that real-life video dozens of times to get it just right?
RD: You like that scene? [Laughs]
ADTV: It was so funny. You just nailed it.
RD: We did it in one take. We kept working, but what they used was the first take.
ADTV: Wow. Cause I remember all of this when it happened in the news and I remember that clip they showed. When you did it, it was exactly what it was like.
RD: When I was researching the role, I found two articles written in Vanity Fair by Marie Brenner. Once you read those two articles, you will never smile at the thought of Bernie Madoff or remember him with anything but loathing. Because she details the pain he inflicted. Anyone who sees the film should go back and read those articles.
ADTV: Well, I certainly will.
RD: When I heard Bobby De Niro was doing a show with the same character, I met his partner at a theater in New York, and I said, “If we finish first and you’re still shooting, I want to be in your movie! I could play a waiter. Or Harry Markopolos.” And she said, “What?” I said, “I’m not kidding. I think it would be fun.” And she said, “Great! We’ll call you.” They never called. [Laughs]
ADTV: That would have been so fantastic.
RD: Yeah. It would have been great.
ADTV: Did you know De Niro’s version was happening when you started filming?
RD: Yeah, we were tracking it. I don’t think they made a decision about when they would release it for quite a while. I kept thinking it was going to be the same season, which would have added extra anxiety. And I’ve heard that Bobby De Niro has a lot of acting talent. [Laughs] I’m really curious to see that show.
Madoff reairs on Saturday, May 28, on ABC at 9 p.m. EST. The episodes are also available online at ABC.GO.COM.