Was Bernie Madoff the worst man on the planet? We asked Oscar winner Richard Dreyfuss to describe what it was like to play one of history’s most notorious con men for the ABCMadoff, and whether the movie will help viewers understand why he committed such a heinous crime.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you know anybody who invested with Madoff before you took this job?
RICHARD DREYFUSS: Yeah, I did. I knew a bunch of people, and I knew a couple of people very well, but that didn’t affect my decision to do it one way or the other. No one had any inclination to say don’t, or anything like that.
When the news first broke about the scandal, did you follow his case?
Yeah, but as someone who had other fish to fry. I didn’t follow it as closely as some, and I must say that when we gathered to do the show, I then went back and researched the hell out of it. And when I read Marie Brenner’s piece in Vanity Fair it so darkened that story, and created a realistic picture of the damage that he was doing. You could never empathize with him again. Only people who didn’t know what they were talking about could empathize with him, or not understand the human tragedy he was causing.
Did you think it was necessary to find a reason to like or respect him before you played him?
No, no. I knew that in order for him to successful, he had to be the most likable, lovable, enjoyable Uncle Bernie that there could ever be. Because he was a con artist, and he wanted you to give him your money. And the only people that you give money to like that are people that you trust implicitly. And so, he had to be that kind of wonderful character. That’s who I played.
Do you think Bernie thought he was helping people, or was he truly the most selfish man on the planet?
He was the most selfish man on the planet. Without a doubt. He wasn’t helping anybody but himself and his tailor.
Did you think it was necessary to meet him before taking this role?
I did not think it was necessary, although, at a certain point, I thought I might enjoy meeting him, or gain something from it. And then I decided there wasn’t really anything to gain from it, and what was he going do, tell me the truth? I doubted that and so I didn’t bother. The only thing he could have possibly taught me was something more about a Queen’s accent, and I already had a Queen’s accent.
The New York Times had a good review, but that said not enough time was spent on how the scandal effected Average Joe and Jane investor. Do you agree?
Yeah, although that’s one reason why those scenes are where they are in the film. But I think that is a fair assessment: it could have been told more from that point of view. But anyone watching this is gonna understand those people really were hurt, and they get the time and space to describe that. And there are people in this film who are real victims, and who spoke from the heart, what it was like.
So if I watch this, will I understand why he was the worst man on the planet?
It’s like trying to understand evil, or trying to understand the Nazis, or whatever. You’re not going get that. You’re going get a telling of the human comedy, of the human story. I would be really arrogant to say that you could understand him. Maybe in the years to come, when we’re more enlightened, watching the film adds to our understanding of him. However, that will take some time.
Does the movie offer any primer on how to invest, a la The Big Short?
You get the exact opposite, as a matter of fact. And when he got to prison, a lot of the guys who were there would ask him for investment advice. And he turned to them and said, ‘I never traded a stock. I wouldn’t know how to do that. I was a con artist.’ And he kept trying to explain to people that he never knew anything at all about trading [laughs]. That’s what I think is funny.
Are there laughs in this?
Well, there’s a lot of something. You have to characterize it for what you think it is. And I wouldn’t want to do that for you. I will tell you that this is not a dark and terrible, awful, horrible, horrible, bloody, awful, disgusting, horrible story, until it is. So, you gotta take the ride.
Before I let you go, as an Academy member, what do you think of the new rule changes?
Well, I do think that it’s important for the Academy to get rid of the deadwood, and to get rid of the people who don’t vote, who have nothing to do with the world anymore — and that may even include me. There have been many years where I haven’t voted. So that’s how I feel. I think that this has to do with actors cleaning up the Academy itself, so that it makes room for actors who are more reflective of our culture.
Madoff airs Wednesday and Thursday on ABC.