Sandra Oh: 'Bold' Robert Downey Jr. send ups western patriarchy in 'Sympathizer'

Robert Downey Jr. (L) and Hoa Xuande's post-Vietnam War satire, "The Sympathizer," wraps up Sunday. Photo courtesy of HBO
1 of 5 | Robert Downey Jr. (L) and Hoa Xuande's post-Vietnam War satire, "The Sympathizer," wraps up Sunday. Photo courtesy of HBO

NEW YORK, May 26 (UPI) -- Grey's Anatomy, Sideways and Killing Eve actress Sandra Oh says Robert Downey Jr. was fearless in his portrayals of distinctly despicable characters in the Max adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Sympathizer.

"Robert Downey Jr., who spent a decade of his life playing Iron Man, is now playing these archetypes of western White patriarchy," Oh told reporters in a recent Zoom interview.


"It's a very, very bold thing to do," she said. "You could get into the commentary of the 'meta' of all that, all the layers of it and how, as the series continues on, the meaning of one actor playing all of these characters then starts to really make sense and have that much deeper meaning."

The satirical espionage thriller follows the Captain, a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist spy (Hoa Xuande) trying to make a new life for himself in California, following the civil war that ripped Vietnam apart in the 1960s and '70s.


Oh plays Ms. Mori, the Captain's girlfriend, while Downey Jr. plays a film star, CIA agent, professor, politician and priest.

Downey's real-life wife Susan was a producer, while Park Chan-wook and Don McKellar served as co-showrunners for the miniseries, which wraps up Sunday.

McKellar said the men that Downey Jr. was hired to play represent the American establishment as seen by the show's Vietnamese characters during a specific, seldom-explored era in history.

"When we were talking about the book, we realized that there is a recurrent motif, almost, of these characters that have a similar place in the Captain's life through these benign, or at least they present themselves as benign, characters who offer opportunities, but are unreliable," he said.

"They're sort of patronizing establishment figures who may be ideologically opposed, but share a common interest and all are part of the same club," he added. "It psychologically suggests that he's seeing the commonality between all these characters."

Downey Jr., who recently won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Oppenheimer, was at the top of the The Sympathizer filmmakers' list to play the four U.S. characters.

"He dove right and he was so committed, so serious about differentiating the characters," McKellar said.


"But, at the same time, not going too far, not just making them caricatures, to make them extravagant creations, but still grounded and real, and he was a joy to work with."

Susan Downey said she and her husband were intrigued by the story's unique tone and vision when they read the book and script for the pilot episode.

"It wasn't just a gimmick," Downey said about the multiple parts her husband would eventually play.

"You have this incredible acting opportunity for him and, from a producing side, to be a part of this really talented group of filmmakers and take on an extremely challenging piece of material that forced us to look at something from a very different perspective, was just new territory for us across the board and, as a result, we were leaning in."

The ensemble of The Sympathizer also included Fred Nguyen Khan, Toan Le, Phanxine, Vy Le, Ky Duyen, Kieu Chinh, Duy Nguyen and Alan Trong.

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