‘The Sympathizer’: Robert Downey Jr.’s Characters & Why He Took Them On (PHOTOS)

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[Warning: The following contains MAJOR spoilers for The Sympathizer Season 1 Episodes 1 and 2.]

The Sympathizer has a lot going for it. For starters, it’s based on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, plus it has the coveted Sunday 9/8c timeslot on HBO.

Perhaps its most eye-grabbing appeal is the fact that Robert Downey Jr. stars as four different characters, each wildly different from the next in appearance. But they have one thing in common: They’re all projections from the leading man, The Captain, played by Hoa Xuande.

No, they’re not ghosts (although Vietnamese folklore about ghosts is incorporated into this seven-episode limited series). Rather, these men all represent the same thing to The Captain. This idea from beloved director Park Chan-wook and his co-showrunner, series writer Don McKellar, was the key to Downey’s participation in The Sympathizer, an espionage thriller and cross-culture satire about the struggles of a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist spy during the final days of the Vietnam War and his new life as a refugee in Los Angeles, where he learns that his spying days aren’t over.

RDJ executive produces the series in addition to starring. His wife, Susan Downey, is also an executive producer through their production house, Team Downey. She tells TV Insider why RDJ had zero hesitations about taking on this many roles.

“He loved the idea. His biggest challenge back to Director Park was, ‘I don’t want it to be a gimmick, so you have to come up with a reason that this character, The Captain, is seeing these men all so similar, even though they are unique,’” she explains.

Director Park and co-showrunner/writer Don McKellar “stepped back, and they came up with something as they looked back at the source material.” The full extent of this idea is “revealed by the end of the season,” Susan adds, “but for Robert, he loved the sendup of the somewhat absurd, disgusting, male American.”

“It’s these pillars of the patriarchy from the art and media to government, to the military to education. He wanted to imbue certain characters more so than others, with a real sense of humanity and depth,” she continues. “But he and Director Park really calibrated those performances and the look and the sound of the guys to have it slightly heightened as it is the perception of The Captain. For him, he was all for it. It was obviously brave to do and to be able to pull it off, but [he] definitely was not hesitating.”

RDJ plays four different characters in the series. Some are more often seen than others, but each one packs a punch. (And yes, there are some thrilling moments when the characters will be seen together.) Xuande’s Captain narrates the series, which puts him in control of how each character comes across. Given that, it makes narrative sense that The Captain’s memory blends all of these men into one, as they each represent a different American sentiment about the Vietnam War.

Two of the four RDJ characters have been revealed as of The Sympathizer Episode 2, which aired on Sunday, April 22. Get details on those men below, in addition to photos of the other two personas the Iron Man star embodies this season.

The Sympathizer, Sundays, 9/8c, HBO

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