‘The Sympathizer’: Robert Downey Jr.’s 4 Roles Represent ‘American Patriarchy in All Its Glorious Ugliness,’ EP Says

Team Downey also breaks down how that Episode 3 ending came to life in post-production

Note: The following story contains spoilers from “The Sympathizer” Episode 3.

When Don McKellar and Park Chan-wook were developing HBO’s adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Sympathizer,” the pair came up with the idea early on of having one actor play four different characters who challenge The Captain (Hoa Xuande) throughout the course of the series.

“We were talking about the book and how there were these older, male American mentor figures, who are also unreliable, and kind of duplicitous in themselves. They all represent different corners of the American establishment — intelligence, academia, politics and entertainment — but they all had shared purpose. They all were part of the same club, as it were, and we were talking about how to make that motif, resonate and show their interdependence without talking about it too much,” McKellar told TheWrap. “And Park Chan-wook came up with the idea of casting one actor to play all the parts like Peter Sellers in “Dr. Strangelove” or “Lolita,” and we loved that immediately. It established the tone as sort of cheeky, allowed the satire to come out, and it also worked psychologically for the Captain.”

Once Team Downey signed on to executive produce the series, the answer of who would take on the challenge became clear: Robert Downey Jr., who had just come off his now Oscar-winning portrayal of Lewis Strauss in “Oppenheimer.”

“He’s always looking for a new challenge. If it’s become familiar territories, it’s not going to be as exciting for him,” his wife and co-producer Susan Downey told TheWrap. “So playing Tony Stark to him is just as big a challenge and just as serious a role as it is playing Lewis Strauss. But I do know coming off of portraying Lewis in Oppenheimer with Chris Nolan, having to play a real person who was incredibly complicated and dimensionalized, he was like a coiled spring just ready to launch. [‘The Sympathizer”] enabled him to jump into these four characters that were all meant to be far more heightened, because they’re all through the perception of the Captain and his point of view, of these pillars of the American patriarchy in all its glorious ugliness.

“I think he was just ready to have a lot of fun while still bringing depth in humanity to them, so they weren’t full on caricatures that you could just write off,” she added.

Downey Jr.’s four characters include Claude, a CIA operative whom The Captain reports to during his undercover work in Vietnam; Professor Hammer, The Captain’s old college professor with an Oriental fetish who agrees to sponsor him while in the U.S.; Congressman Ned Godwin, a Southern California Republican trying to appeal to the Vietnamese population; and Nikos, an auteur filmmaker working on a film about the Vietnam War.

“Each of them are really working to challenge The Captain’s own belief system as he’s struggling to figure out his identity. Each of them really force him to look at himself and figure out who he is and what his role in this world is,” Downey said.

While Downey Jr. loved the challenge, Susan added, it was important to him that the characters he was portraying still had depth and thematic resonance and weren’t just a gimmick.

“He wanted to make sure that he was recognizable in each of these characters and he had such a blast putting them together,” she added. “He’s a real student of history, and took a lot of inspiration from characters of that time and pushed them all together, but talked a lot with director Park on both calibrating performance, as well as the look and sound of each of them.”

In Sunday’s episode, titled “Love It or Leave It,” The Captain comes face to face with all four of Downey Jr.’s characters at once in a hilarious sequence at a restaurant, in which he gets recruited to work as a Vietnamese interpreter on Nikos’ movie “Hamlet.” After The Captain’s tense first encounter with Nikos, he begrudgingly accepts the offer and the group move to a club room to celebrate, featuring Claude serenading and playing the piano, while Nikos, Hammer and the Congressman are surrounded by women (with the latter burying his face in whipped cream sprayed across one naked one).

“It really came to life in post-production. When we showed Robert a cut of that scene, he was like, ‘I need everyone talking on top of each other,’ ” Downey explained.

The scene was directed by Chan-wook himself.

“There was so much design to it. Director Park is obsessive, he storyboards everything. Him and his DP knew this scene needed to land,” Team Downey’s Amanda Burell added. “Honestly, Director Park wasn’t sure if he was going to direct that episode, it wasn’t always a done deal. But then once that scene was written, he was like, ‘I have to do this.’ They planned everything out so meticulously. So it was a blast. It was a great day where we all felt like we were doing something special.” 

Xuande had a lot of fun messing around on set with Downey Jr. and playing off the energy of his various personas.

“I tried to create a personal relationship with each of these four characters because they’re all very different. I had to constantly remind myself that the professor is my mentor, someone who I love and cherished and someone who’s looked after me for a long time; and then I’ve got the auteur, who is completely antagonistic to me, and I just had to tap into those relationships every time I saw Robert,” Xuande told TheWrap. “But it’s funny because every time he stepped on set, we would fool around and have fun and just talk and catch up and all that stuff … I couldn’t have asked for anything more really from a supportive scene partner.”

In addition to Downey Jr. and Xuande, “The Sympathizer” stars Sandra Oh, Fred Nguyen Khan, Duy Nguyen, Toan Le, Phanxine, Vy Le, Ky Duyen and Kieu Chinh. The limited series is a coproduction between HBO, A24 and Rhombus Media, produced in association with Cinetic Media and Moho Film.

New episodes air Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and stream on Max.


One response to “‘The Sympathizer’: Robert Downey Jr.’s 4 Roles Represent ‘American Patriarchy in All Its Glorious Ugliness,’ EP Says”

  1. CR Avatar

    A little Robert Downey goes a very long way…

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