When actor John Magaro was cast in apocalyptic financial comedy “The Big Short” (now in theaters), he was as mystified as anyone by the 2008 economic collapse.
He knew it had something to do with subprime mortgages. And that’s about all he knew.
“My brother works for a hedge fund,” Magaro, 22, said in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles. “But my knowledge of finances is superficial at best. I knew there was a bailout, a lot of outrage, that a lot of people lost jobs and homes. But nothing about how it came to happen.”
He knows a lot about it now. In Adam McKay’s film, a black comedy about greed and arrogance, Magaro plays Charlie Geller, a young financial whiz kid who with his partner runs a “garage hedge fund.” Literally — their office is in the garage of a suburban home.
But these two financial outsiders are among a handful of savvy investors who looked at the housing market in 2006 and 2007 and bet that the whole thing was going to fold like a house of cards.
Basically Wall Street was giving mortgages to people who had no hope of paying them off, then bundling these bad mortgages to create financial instruments that looked solid but were in fact practically worthless.
The film finds Magaro’s character — along with other financial oddballs played by Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt — betting that the whole thing would go up in smoke.
“My character, Jamie, is a relatively small player. He and his partner were smart; they had turned an initial investment of $110,000 into $30 million. But by Wall Street standards that was pretty small potatoes, not enough for them to be taken seriously.”
They were serious enough to turn their $30 million into $80 million once things went south. But while Charlie and his partner made a ton of money, it was at the expense of everybody else.
“What’s different about this film is that these guys are protagonists, but they’re not heroes,” Magaro said. “If their predictions are correct, they’ll be making a ton of money off the misfortunes of millions of everyday people.
“Brad has a moment in the movie when he shuts down our celebration over outsmarting Wall Street by reminding us that so many people are going to lose their jobs and their homes, that lives are going to be ruined.
“So it’s hard to root for these guys. If they win, everybody else loses. And that’s an OK feeling for the audience to have. If you walk out of this movie angry and emboldened to keep it from ever happening again, well, great.”
The real-life investor on which Magaro’s character is based tried to sue the ratings agencies that gave glowing recommendations to various funds that were basically worthless.
“These guys got laughed out of the lawyers’ offices. They went to The Wall Street Journal and got laughed out of there, too. Before the collapse nobody wanted to believe that it was all smoke and mirrors.”
Magaro described making “The Big Short” as a wonderfully collaborative experience.
“There were so many really terrific actors in this cast that you just had to let go of the reins and trust that the director and your fellow cast members were all working selflessly to make the best film. The set was a very playful place where we could do a lot of exploring.”
Most of all, Magaro said, “The Big Short” is important for reminding us of how the collapse happened at a time when some are proposing relaxing financial regulations meant to prevent a re-occurrence.
In addition to “The Big Short,” Magaro can be seen this season in “Carol” with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.
Next year he’ll be reunited with Brad Pitt in “War Machine,” a black comedy about America’s involvement in Afghanistan, and in “The Finest Hours,” about a daring 1952 Coast Guard rescue mission involving oil tankers destroyed by fierce weather.
“When I first started out doing this I always hoped I’d be able to do work that had something to say,” he said. “I’ve always had a secret passion for the political process and the possibilities of change. Getting to express that in film is a real gift.
“I’ll still make straight dramas and off-the-wall comedies, but being able to tackle a movie that might actually change things — that’s the ideal.”
Read more of freelance critic Robert W. Butler’s features and reviews at ButlersCinemaScene.com.