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[Only IN Hollywood] A lot of Robert Downey Jr., Vietnamese actors bring ‘The Sympathizer’ to life

Ruben V. Nepales

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[Only IN Hollywood] A lot of Robert Downey Jr., Vietnamese actors bring ‘The Sympathizer’ to life

Robert Downey Jr. plays multiple characters in THE SYMPATHIZER.


In Park Chan-wook's series adaptation, lead star Hoa Xuande engages veteran actor Robert Downey Jr., who dazzlingly plays multiple characters – a filmmaker, a CIA operative, a professor, and a congressman in their scenes together

LOS ANGELES, USA – “It felt like I won the lottery,” Hoa Xuande said about finding out he bagged the lead role of The Captain in The Sympathizer, Park Chan-wook’s miniseries adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name.

The Captain, from whose coerced perspective as a prisoner the thrilling spy tale is told, is a huge, demanding part for the Australian actor of Vietnamese heritage, and he delivers. Hoa leads a cast of predominantly Vietnamese actors, making it a landmark Hollywood production.

The Asian thespians compellingly anchor this HBO seven-episode series set at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 and subsequent events as the half-Vietnamese, half-French The Captain continues his life as an undercover communist agent.

JACKPOT. ‘It felt like I won the lottery,’ Hoa Xuande says about landing the role of a lifetime in ‘The Sympathizer.’ HBO GO

I talked to Hoa, his castmates, Park (who spoke through an interpreter), and the creatives behind The Sympathizer, which is also a biting cross-cultural satire of the Hollywoodization of the Vietnam conflict, in a series of video interviews.

‘Nail-biting’ wait

Hoa shared the nail-biting eight months it took from the time he submitted his audition tape to the Zoom call where he was told he got the plum role: “It was honestly, the longest, most arduous, most difficult process of an audition that I’ve ever been through. I don’t wish it on anybody. But what it told me was how much the production cared about telling this story and finding the right people to be able to tell this story.”

Hoa said the process began in January 2022: “A week after putting in my first tape with my first scenes, throwing it out there, praying and hoping that I would even get a look in, that’s when it really got started. The casting people started to look into me.”

“Director Park appeared on Zoom a couple of months later and then both the showrunners appeared. It was basically from there, a lot of sleepless nights and anxiety-inducing things. Wondering if I was good enough, the insecurity set in, and wondering if I was doing anything that was even worthy,” he recalled.

“Then I got to meet with director Park finally in Korea. I had to do my audition in front of him and then I got to have dinner with him, his wife, and his producer. It was surreal to have dinner with somebody who you’re gonna potentially work with but it’s director Park. It was like we were having a family conversation about everything and nothing, about the book, the character, Korea, Vietnam, about all these different things.”

“A month after that, I flew to LA to do the final callback. A month after that, because I didn’t hear anything the whole time, I let go of this project. I let go so many times. Then I came back to it and let go of it again,” Hoa said. “September 21 of that year was when I finally got the Zoom call that I got the role and I couldn’t believe it.”

Robert Downey Jr.’s unique characters

Viewers will see Robert Downey Jr. for the first time since he romped off with the best supporting actor honors, from the Golden Globes to the Oscars for Oppenheimer, in The Sympathizer.

The young Hoa engages the veteran anchor, who dazzlingly plays multiple characters – a filmmaker (inspired by Francis Ford Coppola), a CIA operative, a professor, and a congressman (think Ronald Reagan) – in their scenes together.

Park explained why he and his fellow showrunner and executive producer Don McKellar decided to cast Robert in various roles: “This concept itself of him playing different characters was very important. And it was very important that the audience was able to catch that this idea was what we were going for.”

“So, while the characters needed to be different, at the same time, they had to be one and the same. We were dealing with portraying these characters realistically because we had to feel like it was someone who lived in 1975.”

“But at the same time, each had to symbolize, portray these unique characters, which meant they had to be a little bit exaggerated or perhaps heightened in expressing them. As pointed out, we had to avoid portraying them as a caricature,” Park said. “So, it was a very complex process in finding the fine line between being real and representing them in a unique way.”

Newcomer Hoa Xuande and veteran Robert Downey Jr. lead the fine performances in ‘The Sympathizer.’ HBO GO

Don, whose credits include Last Night and Twitch City, said: “Park and I were discussing how there were these repeated characters in The Captain’s life, in the book. These older, patriarchal American establishment figures representing the entertainment industry, academia, intelligence, and politics. The pillars of American establishment.”

“And we were talking about how they all have similar relationships with The Captain. They’re all mentors but unreliable mentors and they’re all a little patronizing and slightly absurd. We were talking about how it was important thematically to show that they were all interdependent in some way and that there was a point for the repetition. So instead of it seeming repetitive, we wanted to show that they were interdependent and that they were intertwined,” he said.

“And that was the point. He (Park) came up with the idea of, he said, what if we just cast one actor, like Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove and Lolita? I love the idea because it took away a lot of exposition and literary positioning in the script. It just said it and made that point. And it worked psychologically for The Captain because it reminded us that it’s from his perspective and that he sees all these characters as similar in some way deep down.”

“We mentioned it to Viet and we were both very worried about what Viet would say because it’s an outrageous conceit. But he thought it was fantastic because he was worried about conveying the tone, the voice of the book, maintaining the satire,” Don said. “He felt it would help viewers approach it, see the absurdity and see the flamboyant literary nature of the book.”

Don shared that Robert immediately liked the conceit: “He loved the idea right away. I only spoke to him after he had expressed interest so maybe he had some hesitation at first.”

“But he was top of our list and one of the very few actors who could do it or who made sense. He was immediately into it and he took it very seriously. I had long conversations about his personal influences on all the characters and how he wanted to ground them. He was in pretty deep right from the start.”

Susan Downey, who is one of the limited series’ executive producers, gave a personal insight into her husband Robert’s interest in portraying these disparate characters: “I know that Robert had a ton of fun bringing these toxic American symbols of the patriarchy to life. He was able to do that as Niv (Fichman, another exec producer) and I and the rest of the producers tracked the overall narrative.”

Robert Downey Jr. dazzlingly plays multiple characters, which his producer wife Susan Downey describes as ‘toxic American symbols of the patriarchy,’ in ‘The Sympathizer.’ HBO GO

“It seemed like a unique opportunity for us to work on something that had this important conversation. It was during a period of history that Robert is very familiar with. He’s a total history buff, knows it well, and knew exactly what he wanted to do in terms of representing these roles that he was being asked to play,” Susan said.

“I could go on and on about all the things that were appealing to us but it just seemed like the right group of people telling a story that hadn’t been told. And that’s what we’re always looking for, a new opportunity to break new ground, to do something that is a little bit scary, a little bit like, are we gonna regret this? Or it’s the high degree of difficulty that is always important to us,” she added.

Why Park directed only the first 3 episodes

Park, saying “I had to hold back my tears,” bared why he decided to direct the first three episodes only. The other episodes were directed by Fernando Meirelles (episode four) and Marc Munden (five, six, and seven).

The revered world cinema filmmaker explained: “Not only did I need to write the show but also as a showrunner, I had to oversee the entire process. So, unfortunately, I could not direct the entire seven episodes.”

“I had to hold back my tears because the situation forced me to not do that (direct all episodes). So, in terms of selecting the three first episodes, I thought it would be beneficial, in terms of the viewers, for me to set up the very first part of the entire show.”

“Not only for the viewers but for the cast and crew who are involved in the show and also for the other directors who will be taking over the rest of the four episodes. I thought it would be best for me to set it up at the very beginning. So, when I was writing the show, of course, there were other episodes that I thought would be a little more interesting perhaps. Also, needless to say, there’s a finale. So, there was a little bit of regret,” Park said.

Adaptation challenges

The tough task of turning the novel, which made the author the first Vietnamese to win the Pulitzer in 2016, into a script fell mainly on Don’s shoulders.

Don recounted: “When I first talked to Viet, his biggest concern was the voice of the book. And his feeling is that the voice of the book is very unique and that’s why it was successful. And I agree. There’s something very bracing about the voice. It’s challenging, fearless and intelligent, very literary, very pop-cultural savvy.”

“But it also keeps you on your toes a bit because it plays both sides all the time and even politically, it’s hard to put your finger on where it’s going. So that was the biggest challenge, to come up with a parallel visual style that would evoke the intelligence, the wit, the nastiness of the book. Sometimes it’s a little nasty,” Don said.

He said “the main remedy for that was working with Park Chan-wook because I feel his visual style is very similar. It does similar things.”

“It also is demanding on the viewer but rewards them heavily because it’s hugely entertaining, so smart formally and so cinematically aware. So, that was the biggest job, tonally. We made lots of changes, trying to integrate it more, and pump-up genre elements more. But the main thing we tried to do was keep that sort of density and for lack of a better word, wit.”

“You know, we wanted it to be an intelligent show while you can still make those on HBO.”

And how did Don feel about showing The Sympathizer for the first time to Viet who is now a professor at the University of Southern California and is the first Asian-American member of the Pulitzer Prize Board? “I was very nervous,” Don replied. “I talked to him right at the beginning of the series. He was very excited and engaged.”

“I told him, this is how I want to break it down. I decided with him to make it seven instead of eight episodes. He was very engaged but he didn’t want to write. However, I did give him drafts of every episode at a certain point. I was very nervous to give them, as you can imagine,” Don said.

He said Viet was “very respectful” and gave “very helpful, mostly factual points and very specific points, not, ‘What the hell have you done to my novel?’”

“But yes, I was terrified to show them (drafts) to him, even though I love him. He had written me a couple of times or phoned me a couple of times saying, ‘I just talked to my friend, another author, and they butchered her book on television’…. And I said, no, Viet, it’s not going to happen. I’m always in touch with you. We respect you,” Don said.

“So, he loved the series. He was excited when he saw it. He was surprised, he wrote me these big letters. So, it was a huge relief when he finally saw them. I was very honored that he saw his book in this show. He noticed every change and he told me about them. But some of them he definitely has said, boy, I wish I thought of that at the time. Maybe he’s just saying that to us to make us feel good.”

“But he’s been wonderful. So, it’s a huge relief.”

Hoa Xuande, Fred Nguyen Khan, and Duy Nguyen in ‘The Sympathizer.’ HBO GO
Parallels with present-day conflicts

The show has received generally favorable reviews, including this one by Time’s Judy Berman: “…Park has crafted a vibrant, faithful yet often audacious Sympathizer…that matches executive producer Nguyen’s brilliant novel in both ambition and execution.”

Don stressed how the Vietnam War continues to have parallels, from Afghanistan, Ukraine to Gaza.

“When I started writing, it was right around the time of the evacuation of Afghanistan. Of course, it’s very similar. And in all the papers at the time, they were writing about how it’s very similar. That it’s Vietnam all over, it’s like the fall of Saigon. So yeah, you’re probably right that that was in our heads when we were starting to work,” he said.

Don added: “However, having said that, I feel like it’s not the only example we could use. And the lesson of Vietnam which seemed to be an earthquake in American foreign policy kept shaking for years after.”

“It feels like people keep bringing up the parallels to Vietnam war after war and for very good reason, of course. I think finally, in America at least, it feels like both sides of the spectrum are realizing we’ve come to the limit of that particular model of American foreign policy.”

“So maybe those parallels will die but I have a feeling they’re going to live on for a long time. Even in the wars that have happened since, in the Ukraine and Gaza, I can think of pretty obvious parallels.”

Sandra Oh, who costars as Ms. Sofia Mori, a feminist who has a love affair with The Captain and awakens to her Asian American identity, said: “I wanted to do this project because here is a traumatic event of war that is now being explored – the missing perspective and the truth in questioning about the American system and the American white patriarchy that has been in charge of the telling of the story.”

“What I hope that people get from the piece is that they will Google but that they will look into it and question, what happened? Why do I think what I think?”

On a lighter note, as soon as I introduced myself as from Rappler in the Philippines, Don immediately quipped: “Oh, now is this going to be about why we didn’t shoot in the Philippines? Because in the book, the whole of episode four is shot in the Philippines.”

Think of Apocalypse NowPlatoon, and all those Vietnam War films where the Philippines subbed for Vietnam. This time, the movie was shot in Thailand; the film was also lensed in California.

“When I told Viet we weren’t going to shoot it in the Philippines, we were going to do it in California, he said, oh, but I miss it because it brings the Philippines and it’s another country I didn’t touch on. I wanted to bring all of Asia in there.”

“But he also understood why we didn’t do it. So I apologize to the Philippines. We would have loved to have gone.”

Hoa and Park

For Hoa, who was born in Sydney, where his Vietnamese parents fled to after the fall of Saigon, Viet’s debut novel was an eye-opener.

“Yeah, definitely. When I finally finished reading the book in anticipation of doing this show, I was deeply moved. There’s a lot of scenes and a lot of well-articulated paragraphs about the refugee experiences that all too often we don’t hear about or aren’t shown or depicted even in the mainstream,” Hoa said.

“I remember so many passages, like the escape, and there’s a letter The Captain writes back to the handler about the different refugees who make their way across America and then they’re never heard about again. Those stories I felt and held on to when I did six months of this shoot. I tried to remind myself, who was this for? Who was this about?”

“And when I researched The Captain, just trying to get deep to the core of the emotional psychology and the beliefs and what it was that I wanted to hang on to, I found so many other stories in the depths of the web that moved me. People who were down in the trenches fighting that you never heard about. The civilians were just moving about trying to survive, not wanting to be involved in the conflict in any way but couldn’t help but be just obviously torn apart.”

To be directed by the auteur behind such films as OldboyThe Handmaiden, and Decision to Leave excited Hoa. “He’s such a revered legend of auteur cinema. Everybody’s seen Oldboy.”

“When I first saw his name attached to this project with HBO, A24, and Downey, I was like, oh my God, he’s going to tell this thriller in an epic way. I wanted to be a part of that. I’m so fortunate to be able to do this role and to work with him. But I remember even my first couple of weeks on set, I felt so green.”

“I’ve never done anything on this scale before with people who are so experienced in their fields. I remember having conversations with Park about how we would depict certain scenes, this, that, and the other. I was like, oh my God, I’m just trying to not be nervous or have my hand shake or remember my lines, let alone remember what the frame looks like or how I’m supposed to be in this or that.”

“And it took me a while to find my way. But the thing with Park is that he instills confidence. He’s clear and specific about the choices that he wants to tell this story. You just have to lean into that and trust that he’s drawn the dots on the board for you and you just have to connect them. After about the first month, I felt like we were in sync.”

Hoa said that Park would “would throw these little things at me like a word or a moment or something he wants me to hit in the scene and I would find my groove.”

“Then I’d work towards his thing but also be able to trust myself enough to do my thing and then we were just doing one take by the end of it. It was a surreal dance and experience,” he said.

Finally ‘seen and heard’: Vietnamese lead the cast

The Sympathizer is the first and only major Hollywood production to feature the biggest cast of actors of Vietnamese heritage.

For a change, the Vietnamese are not portrayed as hapless bombing victims, bar girls or relegated to the background. And tiếng Việt (Vietnamese language) is spoken in the limited series.

“Even before we started this, the question came up about the Vietnamese language. Also, from the perspective of casting, there was no question that we would cast only Vietnamese people. And then there are different dialects that we had to deal with and different political stances of the characters themselves that led to how we cast different things. So, it was a challenge,” Niv said.

“We had to look around the world. We had casting directors look for people in various countries where there’s a Vietnamese diaspora. A strong one, of course, in the US but also in Canada and Australia. In Europe, believe it or not, in Germany and the Czech Republic. There are a lot of Vietnamese people in Prague. So, we learned a lot about that as well. And we had people everywhere.”

Vietnam, of course, was included in their search. “We didn’t leave any stone unturned,” Niv said, adding that “there was never a question that we would cast a Chinese actor in the lead.”

“These actors had to speak Vietnamese; they had to speak English, in most cases. And so, there was a narrow band of people that were available for each particular role and sometimes it was very obvious and sometimes it was it was harder but we were all together on that. It took over a year to do and we found some incredible people that are going to be known to the world now.”

Susan enthused about the Vietnamese cast which includes Fred Nguyen Khan, Toan Le, Phanxinê, Vy Le, Ky Duyen, Kieu Chinh, Duy Nguyen, and Alan Trong: “It was incredibly exciting to work with the cast. It was such a spectrum of experience that the cast brought.”

Susan said some of the actors had done, or had an interest, in local theater but never had any “professional in-front-of-the-camera performances” but then are is also Hoa “a well-trained actor from Australia, who’s done other things,” embarking on his biggest role as The Captain.

“Robert would come home feeling very proud and fulfilled because so many of the people that, whether, again, it’s one of our key players or people background or extras on the day, they’re getting to play Vietnamese characters in a story from the Vietnamese perspective, and for a big American production.”

“That is something they had never done before in their career. And it was an opportunity I don’t think they even felt was possible. And so, it was exciting.”

Duy (Man) enthused, “The fact that this is the first time I stepped on set and I saw the cast full of Vietnamese people. It’s the first time in my entire life that I saw something that I felt like right at home.”

“And I met Hoa and then we clicked instantly, like magic. We often joke we saved HBO a bunch of money on chemistry readings.” The long friendship of Hoa, Duy, and Fred’s characters, sealed by a blood oath they made in their childhood, is one of The Sympathizer’s themes.

Fred (Bon) said: “It was not very difficult to have that friendship come across on screen. And once Duy and I met Hoa, right away we got along so well.. On the first two weeks of shooting, it was only Hoa and me. It was The Captain and Bon going through stuff together. So, we really got time to become close friends.”

Duy shared that he read the novel in 2016 when it won the Pulitzer Prize. “It was a big deal because he was the first Vietnamese author to win that prize. I grew up in Hanoi, Vietnam. I arrived in Ottawa, Canada in 2014. So, it was two years after I read the book. And my English wasn’t that great back then, I remember.”

“But it was the first time I got exposed to the other side of the war that I had never been taught about in Vietnam. It was from a completely different perspective. It blew my mind. I had to read it 10 times to understand it. It’s a life-changing novel,” he added.

Duy said that he learned about the casting call for The Sympathizer through Fred.

“He asked me to be the reader for his audition. At first, I thought it was a scam (laughs). No way – HBO, A24, director Park Chan-woo, Robert Downey Jr., Vietnamese lead show. Way too good to be true. But it turns out we’re here so it’s real.”

Ky Duyen (Madame) said: “Not only do we feel seen and heard in the story but I also feel seen and heard by Hollywood. Usually, when there’s a Vietnamese role, it is given to some other Asian.”

Ky said that the Hollywood stereotype of Asian men is “either nerdy or some professor” while Vietnamese women “are always the bar girl, the old mom or the poor mom taking care of the kids.”

“And here we are, it’s the first time I’m driving down Sunset Boulevard and I saw a big billboard with a Vietnamese actor (Hoa) standing in front of Robert Downey Jr. So, it’s all that, the story, the production, made all of us feel seen and heard,” she said. “Vietnamese roles are played by Vietnamese actors. For us, it’s historical in a lot of senses, not just in the history of the war but just everything else.

Ky elaborated, “Vietnamese actors have always been the underdog. When they cast someone, they would cast the Chinese, the Koreans, and all of a sudden, now this underdog – boom! – got this big exposure. So, it’s just incredible.”

Toan Le (The General) said, “We can be ourselves now instead of just being other Asian people.”


Vy (Lana) said: “We’re moving in the very right direction. There have been more and more projects with a full Asian cast. It’s about visibility. It’s time for us Vietnamese to be out there, to be seen.”

Phanxinê (Major), a Vietnam-based filmmaker who makes his American acting debut in The Sympathizer, said, “A couple of years ago, it’s hard to imagine one show in Hollywood would have an all-Vietnamese cast to play lead roles.”

“But there’s a new wave of Asian-American cast members becoming leads in many Hollywood movies and series. So that’s why I think this is a good time for The Sympathizer.”

Kieu (Major’s Mother), at 86 the veteran among the Vietnamese cast, is noted as Suyuan, one of the mothers in Wayne Wang’s classic, The Joy Luck Club.

She shared, “Years back when The Sympathizer book just came out, I went to a reading by the author, Viet Thanh Nguyen. He recognized me in the audience.”

“He said, ‘Oh my God, ladies and gentlemen, we have our legendary actress Kieu Chinh here in the audience. I hope that someday if my story comes to the screen, for sure Kieu Chinh will be one of the characters.’ ”

“And here I am. We didn’t know that the story would be on screen.”

Susan and Niv were asked if there are plans to also adapt The Committed, Viet’s sequel to The Sympathizer. “We’re staying very focused right now on getting The Sympathizer out there,” Susan answered. “Hopefully, the audience finds it and loves it as much as we do.”

Niv said, “Of course, I’ve read the sequel. But as Susan says, it’s a whole other project that literally, we’ve not spoken about to anybody yet. So, hopefully, maybe, but we don’t know.” –

Catch The Sympathizer on HBO and HBO GO. Subscribe to HBO GO online at or the mobile app via the App Store or Play Store. Or access HBO GO via CignalGlobe, and Sky Cable. HBO GO is also available on Android TV, Apple TV, LG TV, and Samsung Smart TV – and comes with AirPlay and Google Cast functionality.

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.