Finding humanity on Wall Street, some might say, can be a little like finding a good mortgage in a bundle of C.D.O.’s. Traders, after all, tend to pride themselves on their dispassionate objectivity. They resist introspection, and find drama in numbers flickering across a screen.
Kevin Spacey plays the part of a trader in the film “Margin Call,” which is about bankers dealing with the financial crisis.
Oh, and they aren’t exactly held in high esteem these days.
This was the challenge facing the stars of “Margin Call,” an independent film that deals with the high-stakes choices a group of traders must make during the financial crisis.
“I am trying to humanize bankers,” said Kevin Spacey, the Academy Award-winning actor, who plays a veteran trader. “Everyone talks about facts, figures and debt. I was more interested in what they were feeling.”
Mr. Spacey spoke about the research he did for his role late on Thursday night between takes on the film’s set, a recreated trading floor high above Midtown Manhattan, on the 42nd floor of One Penn Plaza. To prepare, he said that he searched for clues like a psychological sleuth.
Mr. Spacey toured investment banks, ferreted out nuggets from newspaper articles about the financial crisis and from the book “Too Big to Fail,” and even dug up old speeches from Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman.
Some of his deepest insights, he said, came from conversations with senior Wall Street bankers and traders. During the discussions, he asked: “What was it like to be at a friend’s wedding, or a bar, when you knew that the whole house of cards was about to collapse?”
“I listened with some degree of surprise about the weight of having knowledge that others don’t, how that shifted relationships — what guys couldn’t even tell their wives at the height of the turmoil,” Mr. Spacey said. Many of the traders, he discovered, were angry about some decisions that helped assure the survival of their firm but also destroyed longstanding bonds of trust between them, their clients and their colleagues.
Other cast members found revealing clues elsewhere. Simon Baker, the star of TV’s “The Mentalist,” who plays an ambitious trader in the film, pulled out a copy of the “The Big Short” by Michael Lewis and said he listened to podcasts from the Mad Hedge Fund blog.
Penn Badgley of “Gossip Girl” said a trip to Citigroup’s trading floor helped prepare him to play a junior analyst. He observed how young traders sported “nice clothes that were not terribly tailored,” took in Wall Street tropes like using “bucks” to signify millions, and parsed the unofficial pecking order of the desks based on who fetched coffee and eggs for their bosses.
Demi Moore was cast as a chief risk officer just before the cameras started rolling, leaving her less time for extensive research. “We got her up to speed, but she is certainly not going to be out there crunching numbers anytime soon,” said J. C. Chandor, who both wrote and directed the film.
By ERIC DASH