Robert De Niro, Barry Levinson on Madoff Movie's Relevance in Trump Era

The creative team behind HBO's 'Wizard of Lies' joined THR's East Coast TV editor Marisa Guthrie for the latest TV Talks panel at New York's 92nd Street Y.

It's been almost 10 years since Bernie Madoff admitted to his family that his celebrated investment business was a lie. But the tale of the man behind the largest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history continues to have ongoing relevance as HBO's Madoff movie The Wizard of Lies is set to premiere on the premium cable channel Saturday, May 20.

"It is ultimately how you can manipulate large numbers of people by creating a false narrative," said Wizard of Lies director and executive producer Barry Levinson of Madoff's story at The Hollywood Reporter's TV Talks discussion at New York's 92nd Street Y. "And that's always a frightening thing. And the con artist continues to evolve."

The director's comments, at a panel with the creative team behind The Wizard of Lies moderated by THR's East Coast TV editor Marisa Guthrie, came after star Robert De Niro, an outspoken critic of Trump, and executive producer Jane Rosenthal had already brought up the president in connection with Madoff.

Wizard of Lies star Alessandro Nivola, who plays son Mark Madoff, was speaking about the family dynamic between Bernie Madoff and his children and the loyalty among them, saying, "You were either in or you were out, and that kind of intense bond and closeness and loyalty of course was running parallel to this alternate universe of abuse" when Rosenthal interjected, "He should have run for president."

After scattered laughter and applause from the sold-out audience, Rosenthal mused that perhaps that's material for "another movie."

De Niro quickly added, "Let's get out of the real movie now first."

Levinson chimed in, "We are talking about the con artist, right?"

Later, in response to a question about fame in the age of social media, De Niro said he doesn't interact with online criticism.

"On the internet everybody's a critic and everyone's got something to say," he said. "It's not worth it to hear every asshole's opinion about something. Opinions are like assholes. Everyone's got one. And we've got a big asshole in the White House."

When Guthrie asked if De Niro had any ideas on how to deal with that situation, he said, "Impeachment!"

After which, Rosenthal explained that she felt it was important to support Democratic candidates in midterm elections to flip the House of Representatives and Senate.

De Niro, Levinson, Rosenthal and Nivola were joined by Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays Ruth Madoff; Hank Azaria, who plays Frank Dipascali; and Diana Henriques, who wrote the book on which the film was based.

Before the discussion turned political, De Niro talked about why he didn't meet with Bernie Madoff before taking on the role.

"Of course I always want to meet the person that I'm playing, but I felt, in this case, I was a little wary," he said. "Jane and I spoke about it and I heard that people had trouble, even Diana had trouble — a lot of restrictions in interviewing him. And someone else I knew wanted to interview him on television and that was also a problem although he met him and spoke with him a few times. And I was a bit wary that that would be a mixed message that I was endorsing him. … I met a lot of other people around him — in-laws, relatives, his lawyer, Diana and I had good talks about it, and she was very helpful. … I watched what small video stuff there was on him, so I was OK."

Pfeiffer, however, did meet with Ruth Madoff and talked about capturing her Queens accent for the role.

"It was hard. It was really one of the harder ones. First of all it's not consistent and Queens is — it's just challenging because some of the sounds are just hard and if you're not careful, the accent in and of itself can become caricature," explained Pfeiffer. "In fact, after I met her, we'd been shooting already, and I'd been working on the accent and working with the dialect coach and I was trying to find that right balance and I came back, and I said, 'Barry, I'm not worried at all about going to heavy on this accent.' He said, 'No, no, no, it's fine. What you're doing is fine.'"

While Rosenthal said she doesn't know if Ruth Madoff has seen the movie, Henriques offered that she'd heard from Bernie Madoff's wife since the publicity for The Wizard of Lies began, saying that Ruth Madoff seems a bit more at peace with the latest small-screen exploration of her husband's story, more than a year after ABC's TV movie starring Richard Dreyfuss and Blythe Danner as Bernie and Ruth Madoff, respectively, aired. 

"I think she's come to understand that she has unwillingly wound up shackled to this historic fraud that she will never be able to escape," said Henriques. "It's a part of history. It's a part of this nation's history and she, unwillingly, is in it. This round I think was less stressful for her than, for example, the ABC period that came along. … I think she has come to terms with it. I won't say that she likes it. I won't say that she wouldn't wish that this movie hadn't been made and everyone would just forget Bernie Madoff forever. I think that she understands that that isn't going to happen and that she just has to live with that now."

The film is told in a nonlinear way, shifting back and forth from Madoff and his family dealing with the ramifications of the Ponzi scheme to earlier, happier times.

Levinson said he felt he had more freedom to explore that structure since the audience was already familiar with Madoff.

"One of the interesting things is we know the story, but we don't know the story," said Levinson. "So the question is, how do we basically inform the audience of things that they wouldn't know? I think that's why it's designed that way and then we get inside of the family dynamics that most people don't know about. We don't know about Mark's relationship with his father and Andy [Madoff]'s relationship, et cetera, and Ruth's relationship and how that evolved and what was it about and how did that family dynamic work, because no one really knows that story. So in its construction, to understand that aspect, the tragedy of the family and then the tragedy of thousands and thousands of victims, I don't think we were bound by having to go from A to Z. We're able to move in and out as long as the audience can follow the direction."