Robert De Niro just could not understand Bernie Madoff, whom he portrays in The Wizard Of Lies

Robert de Niro as Bernie Madoff in the television movie The Wizard Of Lies.
Robert de Niro as Bernie Madoff in the television movie The Wizard Of Lies.PHOTO: HBO ASIA

Robert de Niro, who plays Bernie Madoff, could not understand how the fraudster, who stole from investors, could do what he did

Actors often tell you they try to empathise with the characters they play no matter what depths they sink to.

But even the legendary Robert de Niro could not wrap his head around the depravity of fraudster Bernie Madoff, whom he plays in the television movie The Wizard Of Lies.

"What he did is beyond my comprehension. So there's a disconnect - I did as best I could, but I don't understand," says de Niro, who won Academy Awards for The Godfather: Part II (1974) and Raging Bull (1980).

Debuting in Singapore on May 21 on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601), the film recounts Madoff's decades- long investment-fund scam, which in 2008 was revealed to be an elaborate ponzi scheme that used money from new investors to pay older ones.

He stole US$20 billion from thousands of investors, robbing many of their life savings.

Madoff, now 79, is serving a 150-year jail term.

I do feel strongly that he didn't tell his kids and he didn't tell his wife. But everyone around him probably had an idea. They just didn't want to look too deeply because they knew something wasn't quite right.

ROBERT DE NIRO on Bernie Madoff's family claiming they were not aware of what was going on

Directed by Oscar winner Barry Levinson (Rain Man, 1988) and co-starring Michelle Pfeiffer (Dangerous Minds, 1995) as Madoff's wife, the movie looks at how he managed to dupe almost everyone, including federal regulators and big institutional investors.

It also questions whether Madoff's wife and two sons, who worked with him, were truly unaware of what was going on, as the whole family has claimed, but which many find hard to believe.

Posed this same question at a press event in Los Angeles earlier this year, de Niro, 73, tells The Straits Times and other media: "I do feel strongly that he didn't tell his kids and he didn't tell his wife.

"But everyone around him probably had an idea. They just didn't want to look too deeply because they knew something wasn't quite right."

Another interesting thought The Wizard Of Lies raises is that Madoff might be a sociopath.

Financial journalist Diana Henriques, who appears in the film to recreate her 2011 prison interview with Madoff, has no doubts about this.

"I don't think you can conduct your life with such a lack of empathy for the devastation that you're causing and not meet that fairly spongy definition of a sociopath," she says.

Yet Henriques, 68, whose book of the same title forms the basis for the movie, does not believe the label is all that useful.

"You can look at some of the greatest entrepreneurs and innovators in American business, such as Steve Jobs, and some people would have said he was a sociopath."

"What you need to understand and what I think you'll see in Bob's performance, is how plausible con men like this are - how utterly they can seize your trust and your imagination and make you believe. What it boils down to is how he treated people and how incredibly magnetic he was."

De Niro, who refuses to pass judgment on whether Madoff is a sociopath, says: "I think he's a classic example of somebody who receded very much (into the background) and let people come to him.

"He got to a position where people would think it's an honour for him to take their money," he says, referring to the fact that Madoff, a former Nasdaq chairman, was highly respected in financial circles.

"And that's a classic con situation that you see in all walks of life. He was in that position and he used it."

•The Wizard Of Lies airs on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601) on May 21 at 8am and 9pm. It will also be available on HBO On StarHub Go and HBO On Demand (StarHub TV Channel 602).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 10, 2017, with the headline 'Crook's baffling lies'. Print Edition | Subscribe