Real-Life 'Wolf of Wall Street': 'It Was Awful What I Did, But I Was on Massive Amounts of Drugs'

While Jordan Belfort was in prison for securities fraud, he began writing the book that would become Martin Scorsese's Oscar-nominated movie. Now, in a first-person account to THR, he's selling a whole new version of himself.

This story first appeared in the March 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Jordan Belfort's house on the Hermosa Beach, Calif., boardwalk is hardly the decadent palace you'd expect of a former swindler whose drug-fueled escapades inspired Martin Scorsese's latest film; instead, it's comfortable but unpretentious.

This has been the best-selling author and motivational speaker's headquarters for much of the time since he was released from prison in Taft, Calif., having served 22 months for fraud and money laundering. But even after eight years of freedom, he can't quite escape his past: Prosecutors recently claimed he had failed to make court-mandated payments toward the $110.4 million he owes his victims. In an October filing, the Justice Department said that he had stopped paying restitution "at the rate of 50 percent of his gross income, as set forth in the judgment." The government withdrew its filing days later. (It has acknowledged Belfort "has continued to pay $3,000" a month.)

Belfort denies he is still obliged to return half his income. "It's the most idiotic thing ever," he insists, allowing a rare flash of anger to ruffle his practiced charm. "If they have a judgment against me, they can freeze my assets."

Rather than focus on this, however, the stocky 51-year-old, who now lives with his girlfriend, Anne Koppe, preferred to describe his roller-coaster life since leaving prison, in a long conversation with THR in early February.

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When I arrived at Taft, they lost my paperwork, so I spent five days in solitary. It was brutal, absolutely brutal. But it was minimum security, and after solitary it was like a boys' club -- and who's my bunkmate? Tommy Chong from Cheech & Chong. I couldn't believe it.

He was in the process of writing his book. We used to tell each other stories at night, and I had him rolling hysterically on the floor. The third night he goes, "You've got to write a book." So I started writing, and I knew it was bad. It was terrible. I was about to call it quits and then I went into the prison library and stumbled upon The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe, and I was like, "That's how I want to write!"

When you're in jail, you have a lot of time to think about your mistakes. It was completely mellow. I played tennis three hours a day, and I'd write for maybe 12. I wrote about 130 pages, but I tore them up. I just didn't think they were good enough.

I got out of jail and said, "Maybe I should try to write again." I had zeroed out financially. I was 43 years old. I knew this book agent, Joel Gotler, and he said, "Send me some pages and I'll call you next week." The next morning my phone rings and he says, "Who the f--- wrote these pages?!"

I was a very slow writer, still am. I started writing and didn't leave the house. My only human contact was my children and my ex-wife. She wasn't vindictive at all [unlike her portrayal in the movie]. At the time [of the split] I thought she was the worst person in the world. But now we can look back with perspective.

"You have four seconds to establish three crucial things -- you're (1) sharp as a tack (2) enthusiastic and (3) an expert in your field -- or they tune out," says Belfort, photographed Feb. 10 at his home in Hermosa Beach. 

Then Joel calls me and says, "I showed the pages to [producer] Alexandra Milchan and she's crazy for them." So I went and met her. She goes, "Listen, I want you to know that Leonardo DiCaprio's going to play you and Scorsese is going to direct." This was 2006. I thought she was crazy.

It took me about 11 months [to finish the book], seven days a week, 15 hours a day -- my whole life I've been an unbelievable insomniac, and I sleep maybe three or four hours a night. When I got a solid 125 pages, Random House snapped up the book for $500,000 upfront.

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As soon as it was done, Alexandra sends it out. And the first few days, there were no bites. But then Terry Winter read the book and went bananas for it. Then Brad Pitt loved it, Leo went crazy for it, Mark Wahlberg loved it, too. Then [Milchan's husband, manager Scott Lambert] calls me and goes, "Listen, Leo has got Scorsese attached to direct." I mean, how do you turn that down? My life had been completely destroyed by my own actions, and here I have the biggest movie star on the planet, the most acclaimed director. It just seemed surreal. So I chose Leo and Marty [in a deal based at Warner Bros. with] an option for $330,000 against a million one.

But when Marty and Leo commit to something, it doesn't mean it's getting done. And then the problems start. One, Marty is over at Paramount, which gives Paramount the right to co-finance. But Warners is like, "F--- you!" and they start butting heads. Marty was really concerned that the studio would make him tone it down. And then the writers strike hits and it falls apart: Marty and Leo go off and do Shutter Island, and I'm devastated.

I was on probation when this was all happening. I was struggling. And then the financial crisis hit in 2008. We [Belfort and Koppe] were broke.

You know there are lots of different paths to find happiness in your life, and money for me was never going to be an issue because I know the rules of being an entrepreneur. The issue was: What was I going to do? And I was determined to do whatever I was going to do absolutely legitimately, with the highest level of ethics and integrity -- and that takes longer. I had a fundamental shift in values when I was in prison. So I made a conscious decision: "I'm going to become a speaker." I wrote out a vision statement: One day, I'm going to be speaking to 10,000 people. Then I started making a lot of money.

[After Warners renewed its initial option, in 2010] Leo's option expired a second time, and we had like five false starts. Ridley Scott commits, then Fox says, "We're going to make you do Prometheus." There were rumblings Warners wanted Ben Affleck to do it. And Megan Ellison offered to buy the whole thing -- I had a celebratory dinner with her -- then two days later it fell through.

"I spent hundreds of hours with Leo doing everything you could imagine, from hanging out to showing him what it's like to be on drugs."

But Leo just refused to let it die, and after the option expired, in 2011 Scott Lambert called a meeting with everybody -- me, [DiCaprio's manager] Rick Yorn, Leo and Alexandra -- at the Polo Lounge. And Leo goes, "We're going to get Marty." Then I start hearing about Red Granite. They buy it, they announce it in Cannes. They said, "Listen, we're going to make Marty an offer he can't refuse."

I spent hundreds of hours with Leo doing everything you could imagine, from hanging out socially to showing him what it's like to be on drugs. I took him through the stages [of taking Quaaludes] and I was rolling on the floor in his house as he was filming me. [But] I never met Marty till the end of the shoot. I did a cameo: I'm the MC that first introduces Leo.

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When I saw [the finished film], I was overwhelmed. I loved it, but it was almost sensory overload. I saw it twice and then my ex-wife and I took my son. There were a lot of scenes that I wanted to make sure he understood. It was important because my son's a lot like me. I wanted to make sure he knows what my life is like now. It was fictionalized at the end: I never punched my wife in the stomach. It was more of a struggle where she grabbed onto my leg and I kicked out. I was out of my mind. I was at the lowest point of my life. I'm not trying to minimize it; it was awful what I did. But it was under the [influence] of massive quantities of drugs.

Since the movie, I was offered a reality show, but I'm not doing it. If someone came to me with an idea that was cool, I would consider it. I'm working on a TV show, but scripted, sort of a Wall Street thing. I don't have many friends in Hollywood -- just a couple, like Scott and Brett Ratner. I'm very cautious these days about relationships. I don't go out very much. I tour a lot, and it's very draining for me emotionally to be onstage. I appreciate the fans -- you can imagine how much you could appreciate people after what I've been through -- but it's draining.

It's laughable when people say [Scorsese is] glorifying my behavior, because the movie is so obviously an indictment. I could have easily been redeemed at the end of the film, because I am redeemed in real life, but [Scorsese] left all that out because he wanted to make a statement -- and I respect that. Even though I'll be the whipping boy for the world.