Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Inverse | How The Sympathizer’s Robert Downey Jr. Gimmick Explains The Show’s Secret Message

The actor’s multiple roles was more than just stunt casting. From the moment The Sympathizer was announced, it was met with a combination of excitement and apprehension. The excitement came from the involvement of Park Chan-wook, the director of Korean thriller classics such as Oldboy, who seemed tailor-made to adapt such a sharp, darkly acidic story as Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer winner. But some of the apprehension, and a dash of that shared excitement, came from the casting of Robert Downey Jr. in not one, but four different roles. Hoai-Tran Bui writes for Inverse

From the moment The Sympathizer was announced, it was met with a combination of excitement and apprehension. The excitement came from the involvement of Park Chan-wook, the director of Korean thriller classics such as Oldboy, who seemed tailor-made to adapt such a sharp, darkly acidic story as Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer winner. But some of the apprehension, and a dash of that shared excitement, came from the casting of Robert Downey Jr. in not one, but four different roles.

Throughout the HBO miniseries, Downey Jr. plays various white male characters who had some kind of important role in the life of the show’s protagonist, known only as the Captain (Hoa Xuande). First, he appears as Claude, a CIA agent who mentors the Captain. Then, he shows up as the slimy Professor Robert Hammer, the Captain’s grad school professor. Next, he briefly appears as Ned Godwin, a congressman trying to appeal to the local Vietnamese American population; and finally, as Niko Damianos, an arrogant movie director making a film about Vietnam.

Downey Jr.’s performance as the Orientalist Professor Hammer was his most criticized.
HBO

Warning: Spoilers for The Sympathizer’s finale follow!

In the finale, it’s revealed that Downey Jr. also played a secret fifth role — one that not only further explains our mysterious protagonist, but crystallizes the central thesis of the show. In the final episode, it’s revealed that Downey Jr. was the very first white male character in the Captain’s life: his father, a French missionary who impregnated his mother in secret and abandoned them to be ostracized by their village. And therein lies the secret to Downey Jr.’s multiple roles — in The Sympathizer, Downey Jr. represented the face of imperialism.

“Ultimately, they were just different faces that represented this gigantic system of America,” Park Chan-wook tells Inverse. “They were, essentially, ultimately one and the same.”

“Ultimately, they were just different faces that represented this gigantic system of America.”

In Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, the Captain is an unreliable narrator whose tale of espionage in late-’70s America is curbed by the fact that he’s writing this story for an unseen Communist agent that appears to want him to extract some truth even he is not aware of. He’s a mystery, even to himself, which is what made him such a compelling — and challenging — character to star Hoa Xuande. “A lot of [the show] is the psychological battle that happens inside his head,” Xuande says. “His slippery nature comes from his inability to accept who he is, playing the duality of his identity, being biracial.”

Throughout The Sympathizer, the Captain is constantly torn between worlds: his loyalties to the Communist Party and his South Vietnam Army friends; his homeland, and his new home in America; his white lineage, and his Vietnamese lineage. He’s a man at odds with himself, and this is externalized by the various characters portrayed by one actor. By having Downey Jr. play his father, the Captain’s bifurcated existence trickles down until he sees every white male patriarchal figure in his life as the same as his father.

“Having one spectacular actor play all the major white guy roles reinforces all white men look the same as they’re performing these functions of power,” Viet Thanh Nguyen tells Inverse.

Nguyen points to a line in his novel — “The most dangerous creature in the world is a white man in a suit” — which the show literalizes by its casting of Downey Jr. in multiple roles. But the idea of every single one of these paternal white characters in the Captain’s life looking the same wasn’t present in the novel — it was a concept introduced by Park Chan-wook.

“I feel like that was actually the idea that Viet wanted to come across in his novel,” Park says. Park speaks about the steakhouse scene, in which all of Downey Jr.’s characters (sans the Captain’s father) interact with the Captain at a restaurant. “To have this moment where all these characters are played by one single actor, I think it will be very blatantly clear how it represents this large capitalist system that America is,” Park says. “It would expose how horrifying this world is in terms of America, how it is invading other countries. I think it will be very effective in portraying that idea that they are various faces, representing the military, or art, or education, and so forth.”

Nguyen loved the idea. 

“He said, ‘Oh, I wish I could have done that in the book,’” series co-creator Don McKellar tells Inverse. “But, of course, you can’t really do it in the book. It’s a purely visual idea. That’s what makes it so great. But we did think it leads the viewer to the satire. It allows them to give it a more playful read to see the characters as exaggerated archetypes, Baroque archetypes that they were, playful variations on this theme of American patriarchy.”

“What [Park] is onto is this idea that when it comes to imperialism and colonialism, there is an interchangeability to power,” Nguyen adds.

“There was a conflict against communism versus capitalism.”

And while the show’s decision to cast Downey Jr. in multiple roles has earned it some blowback from critics who ding the casting as being too distracting and too much of an ego-trip from Downey Jr., that was never the intention of Team Downey, who executive produces the show.

“Robert want to make sure that it was never just a gag,” executive producer Susan Downey says.” It was never just some concept that was like a fun gimmick. And so, he challenged Director Park and Don to really give a reason behind it, which by the time you’re through to the end of episode seven, you have an understanding from an emotional and character standpoint why a single actor is portraying each of these individuals.”

Nguyen, who tells Inverse that he’s read everything about The Sympathizer show “obsessively,” is well aware of the divisive reaction to Downey Jr.’s performance. But he doesn’t think that the conversation around the show being centered on Downey Jr. is necessarily a bad thing. “It’s just simply that it’s unavoidable that we talk about Robert Downey Jr. I love his performances. I think it’s very entertaining. And it doesn’t distract me from what’s going on because… I don’t think the TV series is meant to work purely in the vein of realism. It is simply a part of the contradiction that the TV series inhabits.” 

The seventh, and final, episode of the miniseries (there is a sequel to the novel that Viet Thanh Nguyen published in 2021, but no adaptation is currently in the works), does finally bring that metaphor home. It’s a metaphor that Park, who is aware that he’s a Korean director adapting a singularly Vietnamese work, felt was the most important to get across with The Sympathizer

“[Korea and Vietnam] share a very similar modern history,” Park says. “There was a conflict against communism versus capitalism. We both share having Soviet versus American supporting behind each of the power, and there was a great conflict in terms of the ideologies. So there are so many things that I can list we shared so much in common.”

Park concludes, “Even though I was not a Vietnamese myself, it actually afforded me to have this objectivity in treating this story.”

Share

More Reviews