The UBS Financier Who’s Adding Acting to His Resume
Mark Axelowitz talks to Worth about how his hobby helps his day job, what it’s like to work with Barry Levinson and Robert De Niro and the importance of taking risks.
Mark Axelowitz was 44 years old and a Wall Street pro when he got his first acting gig “by chance,” as he puts it. Through his work with the hedge fund charity Robin Hood, Axelowitz had become involved with Boys & Girls Harbor, a nonprofit that focuses on educational opportunities for children in New York’s Harlem neighborhood.
At a Boys & Girls Harbor auction in 2004, Axelowitz won a speaking role on Law and Order, which had been donated by its creator and executive producer, Dick Wolf. But if acting started as something of a lark, Axelowitz’s role as a jury foreman—for which he spoke 19 words—got him so hooked that he ended up studying at the legendary Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in New York and landed a role on the HBO film Wizard of Lies about Bernie Madoff two years ago. Axelowitz played Robert Jaffe, a Palm Beach stockbroker who had steered clients to Madoff.
Axelowitz hasn’t quit his day job as a managing director in private wealth management at UBS. But this year he is in another movie, After, a romantic drama that was such a global hit that a sequel is in the works, and Axelowitz—who plays an economics professor—will be in that as well. He is also producing a movie called Burn Your Maps, starring Academy Award-winning actress Vera Farmiga and Jacob Tremblay that is being released at the end of the year.
Through the Boy & Girls Harbor, which ran an investment conference for seven years, Axelowitz also met Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio, who got him interested in transcendental meditation. Axelowitz is now the vice chairman of the David Lynch Foundation, which was founded by the filmmaker, another TM devotee. The foundation teaches TM to people such as veterans, saying it helps with PTSD, and inner city kids, which has led to a decrease in violence in schools.
Worth recently talked to Axelowitz about how his unlikely acting hobby evolved, how it makes him a better money manager and why having fun is important.
Q: How did your first experience with acting, a speaking role on Law and Order, inspire you to pursue the field?
A: It was an adrenaline rush; that’s what really hooked me. Three years later, I was involved with another not-for-profit, and I bid on meeting one of the top casting directors in Hollywood. She let me audition for a movie. I rehearsed on my own. Then I did the audition with her and she said, “You cannot get the part because you cannot act.”
But that didn’t stop you?
No. She asked if I was serious about acting. I said, “Yes,” so she said, “I’m going to help you get into the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute.” Lee Strasberg is the number one acting coach ever. He taught what’s called method acting to everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Al Pacino to Robert De Niro.
It must have helped.
Method acting really works. But you also have to be lucky. I would say 90 percent of all actors that are on a set with me are better than me. And probably the other 90 percent that don’t get the parts are better than me.
Being a good communicator no matter what you do is important.
So you think you’re lucky?
Definitely. There’s not even a question about it. I know full-time actors that are trying to make it. I know how hard they work at it. I don’t have the time to put a lot of effort into it. It’s my hobby.
Your big break was being in the Madoff movie Wizard of Lies.
Right. That was lucky. I got a call from Ellen Chenoweth, the casting director. She said, “I’m auditioning a movie for Barry Levinson,” who’s an Academy Award-winning director.
She said, “You can audition. If Barry likes you, you’ll get the part, and the scenes are with Robert De Niro.” I was very excited about that. Barry liked what he saw, and I got the part. I probably did 40 takes with De Niro. I played a financial advisor by the name of Robert Jaffe. So I was well-cast.
Did you use your financial background and your experience to flesh out that character?
I did. In the second scene with De Niro, I was not supposed to have any lines. I was supposed to walk up to him and try to introduce him to the gentleman I was with at a party, but he was too busy to be bothered. I was supposed to walk away, but I told Barry Levinson that I didn’t think this Wall Street guy would walk away a second time.
What would he do instead?
He would say, “At least give me a few minutes” to introduce him to the person I was with, who was my client. I try to fight for my clients in my day job, and if they want something, I try to get it to them.
What did they think about adding that line?
Barry said, “I love it, and you can surprise Bob with it,” and I did. And De Niro loved it also.
That was a big hit movie.
I think it was the second most-watched movie ever on HBO. [Ed note: Upon its release, it was the largest premiere viewership for an HBO film in four years, according to Deadline.]
How did being in this movie affect your business?
I have clients in the entertainment industry now. One of my clients is one of the directors of Game of Thrones. Another won an Academy Award last year.
How did it affect your views of Wall Street?
It reinforced what I’ve known for 32 years in the business. My father lost all his money, when I was 9 years old, in the stock market by having a bad financial advisor. I started in the industry in 1987 to become a Wall Street broker, and the stock market crashed six months later. All these guys with experience around me, 20 years, 30 years of experience, didn’t know what to do. So early on in my life and my career I learned to protect people’s money right off the bat. And you know the way you do that? You diversify. So whether you come across a Bernie Madoff or a very bad investment, if you don’t have more than 2 to 3 percent of your investible assets in one investment, even if that investment is a scam or, most likely, a bad investment that can go in half or to zero, your clients are not impacted.
All of my clients in private wealth management at UBS are wealthy already. They’re hiring me to keep them wealthy, to protect their money and then get them a decent return. I know this sounds corny, but we nicknamed our investment strategy the Eat-Well/Sleep-Well Strategy.
I like that.
When you’re 9 years old and your family loses all their money and you have to start cutting lawns at 12 years old and pay for your cars and your college and your clothes, you take the money management business very seriously. That’s what happened with me. And that goes to why I’m philanthropic because I know what it’s like not to have money.
You’re in a new movie called After, one of the highest-grossing independent films of the year.
Again, it’s great casting. I play an economics professor. We filmed my scenes at Emory University at the business school in the economics professor’s lecture hall. In this role, the director asked them to dress me two ways. One, as they would call it, nerdy—with khaki pants and a tie. And then she wanted them to dress me as the cool professor with sneakers, blue jeans and a blazer. And when she saw me both ways, she said, “You could be the cool professor,” which I was happy about. I felt that I did not look like the typical economics professor.
How did you prepare for that?
My acting coach, Gary Swanson, taught me something called sense memory—think about actually doing something that you have done that would fit the role. So my scene was in a lecture hall. There were over 100 students in the audience. I pictured myself hosting the Boys & Girls Harbor Investment Conference.
Barry Levinson had let me add a line with De Niro, so I figured this director is going to let me do it, too. It’s the first day of class for the students who are freshmen. I tell them that this might be the most important class they take here at Emory because it could lead to a job.
And what was the line you added?
The line they wrote was, “So I expect everyone to pay attention.” And then I added, “And benefit from my 25-year lucrative career on Wall Street.”
Do you think you’d ever like to teach?
Really? So is this inspiring you to have a third career?
I’m not saying I’m going to definitely do that, but I’d like to. I speak to young people in the business all the time. My experience is 32 years in the trenches, real-world economics. One thing they don’t teach you in the textbooks is that you first have to master your emotions before you can master investing.
Especially when we have very bad market declines. That’s something I think you can teach people that they don’t read in textbooks.
What have you learned in acting that has helped you become better at your day job?
Being a good communicator no matter what you do is important. But when it comes to dealing with people’s money, it’s very important. Acting has taught me how to communicate better. The best actors, I’ve learned, are truthful. So, I’m very real. I tell it like it is.
By my giving back, I ended up falling into something that I really enjoy.
The other way acting has helped me with my day job has nothing to do with acting directly. It has to do with relaxation. Every acting class starts with a half an hour of relaxation. When you’re relaxed and you’re calmer, I think you make much more intelligent decisions. Especially when things aren’t going well in the markets, you really need to make the right decisions.
What kind of advice would you give to other people thinking about getting involved in something that they never thought of doing before?
I feel it’s an obligation to give back when you’ve been lucky enough to make some money. By my giving back, I ended up falling into something that I really enjoy. And I take that money I’ve made from acting, every dime of it I’ve given back to my charities.
Do you think it’s important to get out of your comfort zone?
I highly recommend it. You only live once. I already have jumped out of a plane. I would not do that again. It wasn’t too smart, but I did it, and it was fun. I don’t know what I haven’t done yet that I want to do. One day it’ll pop up in front of my face.