Robert Downey Jr. Says His ‘Sympathizer’ Hair and Makeup Was a “Very Surreal Experience”

The collaboration process to develop a character’s look can typically take months, going back and forth among filmmaker, artisans and actor to refine details through countless emails and photo attachments. But with four separate characters (plus a surprise fifth persona in the finale) just for Robert Downey Jr. on HBO’s The Sympathizer, prosthetic designer Vincent Van Dyke knew they didn’t have that kind of time, so he invited the key players to his studio in Burbank for a live sculpting session.

“Walking into Vincent’s studio for the first time and seeing those clay molded heads of the characters was a very surreal experience,” Downey says. “You’re not just throwing on a costume; you’re stepping into someone else’s skin. Working with director Park [Chan-wook], molding and adjusting the clay, was hands-on in a way you don’t get with CGI. It was like stepping back into an old-school way of creating characters from the outside in.”

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Ultimately, Park, Downey and Van Dyke, along with key makeup FX artist Chris Burgoyne, special makeup effects artist Michael Mekash and hair department head Katherine Kousakis, transformed the actor’s bone structure, hair, eye color and complexion, and built five different ways to reveal so much about these characters simply through hair and makeup.

“A lot of that came through the collaborative testing phase of Robert giving notes,” says Burgoyne. “He was like, ‘For The Auteur, I want to be more olive-toned, and as The Congressman, I want to have an Orange County vibe to me, like I’m sitting out on the beach when I’m not in the office.’ When Mike and I get that kind of input, we go into automatic mode: ‘How am I going to achieve this?’ And we make it happen.” Adds Kousakis, “He really stretched my wings” — prodding her to perm and dye a long, straight blond wig until it became Claude the CIA agent’s one-of-a-kind tight ginger curls.

Taking an actor far from his natural look is already a challenge, but when multiple metamorphoses have to be applied to the same actor — sometimes on the same day — the work of design and application becomes both a creative and a practical matter. “There are ways to make somebody unrecognizable completely, but it makes that application so much more involved and longer. Knowing that wasn’t where we could go, we had to remain somewhat subtle in our approach,” says Van Dyke, who prepared for Downey lace hairpieces (for the face and body), hand-painted contact lenses, dentures, eye bags, nasolabial folds, jowls, earlobes and even veins to make each of his characters look distinct.

In order to help streamline the process, Downey shaved his head — and also challenged the team to get their work done quickly. “He timed us on the first day!” Kousakis recalls with a laugh, adding that she, Burgoyne and Mekash soon developed the smooth efficiency of a race car pit crew. Adds Mekash, “It was the best project I’ve been on. I’ll never [again] get five makeups on one television series on one of the best character actors in the world.”

For his part, Downey credits the crew. “Going bald definitely made my mornings easier,” he says. “When you’ve got a solid team, even the most complex looks come together smoothly. It’s a team effort, finding that sweet spot where the character” — or characters, in his case — “comes alive.”

This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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