Crafting Robert Downey Jr.’s Oppenheimer And The Sympathizer Characters Was Wildly Different, And Susan Downey Told Us Why

 From left to right: Robert Downey Jr as the politician, the professor, the auture and Claude in The Sympathizer.
From left to right: Robert Downey Jr as the politician, the professor, the auture and Claude in The Sympathizer.

Almost immediately after he landed on the list of 2024 Oscar winners for his transformative performance in Oppenheimer, Robert Downey Jr. is transforming again for the book-to-screen adaptation of The Sympathizer. However, while both projects involve serious physical make-overs for RDJ, the process of developing the characters’ looks was totally different, and Susan Downey, an executive producer on the HBO show and actor’s wife, broke down why.

In both Oppenheimer and The Sympathizer, Robert Downey Jr. plays characters who are older and require a different physique than he has naturally. In Christopher Nolan’s film, he portrayed Lewis Strauss, and he had grey hair, a receding hairline and he looked a lot older than he is. In The Sympathizer he plays four different characters, one is blonde, one is bald, one has brown hair like Downey’s and the other is grey…and that’s just the hair, they also all have different facial features and physicalities too.

Susan Downey explained that while both projects were intensive in terms of developing the actor’s looks, the processes were totally different. She told me during an interview prior to the HBO show’s release on the 2024 TV schedule:

There was a choice, you know. Robert, having just come from working with Nolan, who really stayed far away from prosthetics for Lewis Strauss. That was Robert, he had lost a bunch of weight to change his kind of physicality, he actually shaved his head. [Nolan] really didn't use it. And so he felt like there was a necessity for a light touch [with The Sympathizer.] However, the difference is [Lewis] was a real person who he really needed to dimensionalize. This one was the perception of The Captain.

Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss in Oppenheimer
Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss in Oppenheimer

Breaking down what Susan said, in the Oppenheimer cast, everyone was playing a real person. It also sounded like Christopher Nolan wanted to keep everything as natural and subtle as possible, which is why Robert went about his transformation with minimal prosthetics.

Meanwhile, in the upcoming A24 series, we learn about his characters through a subjective story that the narrator, named The Captain, is telling.

So, everything is heightened and a figment of The Captain’s imagination. Therefore, RDJ’s characters – one works for the CIA, one is a politician, the other is a professor, and another is a director – all represent different archetypes of white power in The Captain's life that could be heightened and bigger because this show is meta, a bit more stylized and subjective. To this point, Susan continued to explain that her partner had a lot of fun figuring out his characters’ looks, saying:

So he knew there was more fun to be had, he says he was sort of like this coiled spring, having done so much restraint through the Nolan process, and through Oppenheimer, that he was just ready to spring forward with all of these.

And spring forward he did. Susan and her producing partner Amanda Burrell went on to tell me some of Robert’s inspirations for his Sympathizer characters. Susan said her husband is “a huge history buff,” and he had influences from the time the show takes place – which is at the end of and after the Vietnam War – which included people like Gene Hackman for Claude the CIA employee and Ronald Reagan, Clint Eastwood and Charlton Heston for the politician. She also noted that he was inspired by people in his own life for the professor, and for the director he pulled from “prototypes from the time period.”

The Iron Man star also worked with The Sympathizer’s co-showrunner and director Park Chan-wook and the prosthetic designer Vincent Van Dyke to fully conceive his characters’ looks. This involved them working with clay busts and putting a lot of thought into the details of each look so they were all individual but still allowed the audience to see Robert Downey Jr. in them. Susan Downey explained:

So, they went and played with these clay busts that Vincent had created. And he and Director Park got their hands dirty, and started playing with different things and different looks for the hair and things that I don't think any of us would think about, like extra jowls or earlobes or cauliflower ear for Claude. You know, it's all these subtle things that make them incredibly human. And again, you can see Robert through each of them.

In Oppenheimer, prosthetics and makeup were used to show subtle change, as explained in a Universal featurette. It helps ground the film and show this sweeping true story. In The Sympathizer the differences in Robert’s looks are supposed to be jarring and wild, it helps amplify the story The Captain is telling and the archetypes of power the Oscar winner is playing.

Overall, both transformations Robert Downey Jr. went through in Oppenheimer and The Sympathizer are jaw-dropping, and it’s even more amazing to know just how different the processes were for creating his characters’ looks.

To see the actor’s transformations in both projects, you can stream Oppenheimer with a Peacock subscription, and you can catch new episodes of The Sympathizer every Sunday at 9 p.m. ET with a Max subscription.