Robert Downey Jr Playing Many Characters In ‘The Sympathizer’ Park Chan-Wook’s Idea

SPOILER ALERT: This article contains details of the first episode of HBO‘s limited series The Sympathizerwhich premiered on April 14.

“All right, see you stateside,” says Robert Downey Jr’s Claude quips with some gallows humor to Hoa Xuande’s The Captain near the end of the first episode of HBO’s The Sympathizer as communist North Vietnamese forces bombard soon-to-fall Saigon in 1975.

If the slippery CIA officer was the only role Oscar winner Downey portrays in the Park Chan-wook and Don McKellar co-showrunned multi-genre adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, it would capture a lot of attention on or off cable. However, the fact is Downey plays several characters in multi-cultural and multi-national The Sympathizer as the action moves from the dying days of the American War as it is known in Southeast Asia, to southern California and back again.

Along with the music fan spymaster and mentor to the Captain, the actor also pops up as a scheming Congressman, an grad school professor and self-absorbed Hollywood director seeking to make the definitive movie in the Vietnam War.

It is a masterstroke.

A masterstroke that Oldboy director Park conceived to bluntly make a point. The acclaimed filmmaker revealed his thinking behind the move to a The Sympathizer FYC panel on the Paramount lot last week before the show premiered.

From left: Viet Thanh Nguyen, Park Chan-wook and translator, Don McKellar, Robert Downey Jr., Susan Downey, Niv Fichman, Hoa Xuande, Sandra Oh, Fred Nguyen Khan, and Duy Nguyen onstage during HBO’s ‘The Sympathizer’ FYC event.

“I came to realize these guys are actually one and the same because they’re doing all different kind of things, but essentially they’re representing America as a whole,” Park told Nguyen of the American characters in the book. “I was planning to cast all of the great actors for each of the roles …so Mark Ruffalo for this role, and then Josh Brolin for this role,” Park added via translator before a packed Paramount Theatre after a screening of the opening episode.

“But the thing is, if we have all these great actors, and they perform superbly, then …each of the characters would come alive and that would actually subvert my original intention that these characters are supposed to be one and the same,” Park further explained onstage with Nguyen McKellar, cast members Downey, Sandra Oh, Hoa Xuande, Fred Nguyen Khan, Duy Nguyen and Eps Susan Downey and Niv Fichman. “So, I thought I would flip the script and that one actor will be playing all these roles. So, who should it be? Well, the one and only Robert.”

“I am a blunt instrument,” deadpanned Downey to laughs from his fellow Sympathizer panelists and the screening audience.

“I feel like the exploitation and appropriation and marginalized of peoples is something that I’ve witnessed in my many decades in this medium of film and TV,” a thoughtful Downey said. “And it was really interesting to have the mirror held up and say, how would you like to represent all the different ways in which you’ve witnessed these sorts of, these degrading acts take place in society, in media, in the way a culture assumes the other is meant to be made small and just part of its story?’ the actor and Sympathizer EP thoughtfully added.

“It was a great opportunity and a challenge.”

Or as Claude says to Toan Le’s the General as he, the double agent Captain, other high ranking South Vietnamese military officials and their families prepare to flee: “C’mon, we’re CIA, we’ll figure something out.”

The seven-episode The Sympathizer airs Sundays on HBO at 6 pm PT/9 pm ET. and streams on Max soon afterwards. The limited series is a co-production between HBO, A24, and Rhombus Media, produced in association with Moho Film and Cinetic Media.

As well as the Paramount Theatre panel taking place last week, Deadline went backstage with The Sympathizer cast and creatives to discuss the vision and path to bringing the novel to the screen – take a look:

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