“The Sympathizer” finale reveals why Robert Downey Jr. played so many different characters

Plus, the actor's producer wife Susan Downey weighs in on her favorite of his performances in the show.

Warning: This article contains spoilers for The Sympathizer episode 7, "Endings Are Hard, Aren't They?"

In the world of espionage, one person can wear many guises. The very first line of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer, in fact, has the unnamed protagonist declare, “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” Robert Downey Jr. played more than two faces on HBO’s recent miniseries adaptation of The Sympathizer, but his multi-character performance was about more than just the shapeshifting nature of Cold War spycraft. In the seventh and final episode of the miniseries, viewers finally got to see the thematic connection between the recent Oscar winner's different characters.

Related: The Sympathizer director wanted to depict the fall of Saigon in ‘a serious, grave manner’

Over the course of the show, Downey portrayed CIA spymaster Claude; Orientalist academic Professor Robert Hammer; anticommunist American Congressman Ned Godwin, and Oscar-winning filmmaker Niko Damianos (also known as “The Auteur,” and loosely based on Apocalypse Now-era Francis Ford Coppola). In Nguyen’s original novel, these characters are presented as distinct figures. The Sympathizer director Park Chan-wook came up with the idea to have them all played by the same actor on the show, but Downey needed some convincing.

“It was director Park's idea to have one actor play all these characters, and it was Robert who challenged him and said, ‘I just don't want it to be a gimmick. There has to be a reason behind it,’” the actor’s wife Susan Downey, a producer on The Sympathizer, tells Entertainment Weekly. “So director Park and [showrunner] Don McKellar went away and looked at the source material and really thought about it. They came back and they said, ‘okay, we got it. There's actually a fifth character that you're going to play.’ That's how it all came together.”

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<p>HBO (3)</p> Robert Downey Jr. in Sympathizer

HBO (3)

Robert Downey Jr. in Sympathizer

The Sympathizer’s protagonist (played by Hoa Xuande) has no name except The Captain. When viewers meet him, he’s been living a lie for years — acting as a leading anti-communist agent, but secretly spying on America and the defeated remnants of the South Vietnamese military for the communists back home. One reason he’s so good at this subterfuge and deception is that, to go back to his opening line from the novel, he’s always been a man of two faces. As the child of a Vietnamese mother and a white American priest, he’s never felt welcome either in Vietnam or America; he’s always out of place.

The Captain does not think fondly of his late father, and in fact sees him as the source of many problems. In the final episode of The Sympathizer, viewers are finally treated to a flashback from the Captain to a childhood encounter with his father — who, indeed, was also played by Downey. In other words, every time the Captain encounters an antagonistic authority figure (specifically the kind of white, male, American authority figure who sought to crush the Vietnamese communists) he still sees his father’s face.

Related: Author Viet Thanh Nguyen on the struggles of being a refugee in America

“When I first heard that Robert was playing these four roles, I wondered a bit like, 'how would this work?’” Xuande tells EW. “But through Park's genius and trying to tell this story from the Captain's perspective, Robert's characters essentially represent the different aspects of the American system. You've got Professor Hammer who represents the cultural/educational establishment, you've got the Congressman who represents the political arm, you've got the Auteur who basically represents Hollywood, and Claude represents the militaristic aspect of America from the Captain's perspective. These are all patriarchal American establishments that have an influence on the Captain in a certain way. When he perceives all these things through his lens, as we reveal towards the end of the show, they all amalgamate into one, and we realize why the same actor would be playing all these roles.”

<p>HBO</p> Robert Downey Jr.


Robert Downey Jr.

Given Susan Downey’s involvement in The Sympathizer, EW couldn’t resist asking which of her husband’s performances in the show was her personal favorite.

“I do love Claude, and I think the Auteur carries a lot of aspects of Robert, so I find pleasure in watching him as well,” Downey says. “But I have to tell you, it's so hard to play favorites because there are things that are just so charming, awful, and so wrong about the Professor and certainly the Congressman. I just like that Robert went in choosing not to play it safe. He wanted these characters to be heightened. He knew that Claude had to have a bit more dimension than some of the others, but they all did represent something and they had to have a real dynamic with the Captain. That was the challenge, because those relationships are really important.”

Both Downey and fellow producer Amanda Burrell are big fans of the finale scene between the Captain and Claude, where the CIA spymaster reveals that he has an audio recording of the Captain admitting to his communist bona fides before he killed journalist Sonny Tran (Alan Trong).

“We were on set in Thailand, and when Robert put the headphones up to his ear, you could feel the electricity shift in the room,” Burrell says. “We really knew that there was something going on here. You felt like Robert knew exactly what this moment needed to be and had brought all of that character into that moment. It was electric.”

Burrell continues, “The real beauty of it is you meet all these characters with the rest of the audience and you fall in love with them for different reasons, or you’re alienated from them for different reasons. Then it’s so great when everything is revealed.”

Read the original article on Entertainment Weekly.