Michelle Pfeiffer, 59, bravely portrays one of the most reviled women in recent financial history, Ruth Madoff, the wife of now incarcerated Bernie Madoff (Robert De Niro), in the upcoming HBO movie, Wizard of Lies.
For those unversed in the scandal, regarded as the biggest fraud in U.S. history, Madoff was a former investment adviser in New York City who swindled his clients, many of whom were high-profile actors, out of their life savings. He operated a Ponzi scheme which resulted in reported losses in excess of US$18 billion to his clients. In 2009, he was sentenced to 150 years in prison.
“I wasn’t that familiar with the story,” says Pfeiffer. “I remember it being in the news, but it wasn’t something that I really followed closely. I didn’t even fully understand what a Ponzi scheme was, but I was approached to do the role, and it was obviously an amazing group of people with Barry Levinson directing and starring Robert De Niro. It was a really interesting part for me. But honestly, I have to say after committing to it, it dawned on me that I was playing this real person. And it was daunting.” She pauses. “She is still alive and she had been through so much already, she had been so villainised, and unfairly so, that I didn’t want to contribute to that. So I did seek her out and I did spend a small amount of time with her.” She smiles “And she was lovely. Actually, I was surprised that she was willing to meet with me.”
Much secrecy and rumours surrounded the family saga. Tragic events ensued once Madoff revealed to his sons, both of whom worked for his company, Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, and his wife (who was a director of the firm), the lies they’d all been essentially living, due to his poor judgment. Unsurprisingly, the family was tarred with the same brush and was treated as guilty by association. Some were of the opinion that his family members had been willing participants, or at least had knowledge of Madoff’s scams.
“I think what happened to her is just so tragic on a level that maybe none of us will ever understand. She literally lost everything in one day. And so I just hope that it will shed a new light on her. I think a lot of people have a lot of assumptions about her that aren’t true. “
Having portrayed Ruth Madoff and walked in her shoes, Pfeiffer must have wondered what she would do if she found herself in a similar position?
“For Ruth, she was 16 when she fell in love with Bernie. It was her first love and her only love. It’s hard to say what one would do when you have that kind of love,” she says. “It’s like when you’re the parent of a child who commits a horrible crime. Do you stop loving that child? No. Do you walk away from them? I can’t imagine my children doing anything that would make me turn my back on them, no matter how heinous.”
Pfeiffer has been married to esteemed TV writer/producer/creator David E. Kelley (Ally MacBeal, The Practice, Big Little Lies) since 1993, and with whom she is raising two children. Pfeiffer adopted Claudia Rose just prior to embarking on a relationship with her soon-to-be husband, and then gave birth to their biological son, John Henry, the following year.
As the mother of two adult children, of which of their achievements is she most proud?
“Where do I begin? You are going to make me cry,” she laughs. “I am just really proud that they are empathetic and thoughtful young adults. And they are really, really decent people. I am most proud of that, amongst other things, but that would be first and foremost.” She smiles. “My daughter is starting a PhD program in the Fall and my son is graduating from college this year.”
Pfeiffer is known for the diversity of her roles, her ability to take on all genres of film. She began her career in 1978, and starred in her first movie in Grease 2 (1982) before her breakout performance in Scarface (1983). Her greatest commercial successes include Batman Returns (1992), Dangerous Minds (1995), What Lies Beneath (2000), and Hairspray (2007).
Pfeiffer was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and won the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Dangerous Liaisons (1988), and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress and won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama for The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989). She received a third Oscar nomination for Love Field (1992). Her other notable film roles include The Witches of Eastwick (1987), Married to the Mob (1988), Frankie and Johnny (1991), The Age of Innocence (1993), Wolf (1994) and White Oleander (2002).
She’s come a long way since the late 70s. Remarkably, she hasn’t lost any of her enthusiasm for her career. “Actually, I enjoy acting more. I think I have less angst about it. I disappeared for a while, and I prioritised parenting and my children. It’s nice to be able to re-prioritise my career, and it feels like a newfound freedom. It’s exciting.”
For all intents and purposes, she has chosen her partners well — both on and offscreen.
“I followed my heart in both instances. When I started acting, I had no idea whether I would be successful. I didn’t know anybody in show business, I didn’t know the first thing about how to go about it, and I just sort of put one foot in front of the other and thought, ‘Well, If I fail, I fail.’ And I think with my husband, I was mature enough when I met him. I was 34 and I was ready, and I chose really well,” She laughs. “But listen, I haven’t always chosen well in my personal life, but I did with him. If you choose well, you will continue to respect each other, and I think that’s critical. And I think it’s easy — especially when you have a family and you both have very busy careers — it’s easy to forget to make time for each other. We have always made time for each other. And maybe it’s because our daughter came into our lives two months into our relationship that it felt like we had this sort of aborted honeymoon period. I feel like we never had that [a full honeymoon].” She smiles. “Lucky for us, we got stuck in the honeymoon period.”