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Bringing ‘The Sympathizer’ to life was going to be hard. Susan Downey & Amanda Burrell, the women of Team Downey, liked that

<i>Hopper Stone/HBO via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Robert Downey Jr. in 'The Sympathizer.'
Hopper Stone/HBO via CNN Newsource
Robert Downey Jr. in 'The Sympathizer.'

By Alli Rosenbloom, CNN

(CNN) — When Susan Downey and Amanda Burrell were initially approached to co-executive produce HBO’s new Vietnam war-era spy thriller “The Sympathizer,” they didn’t immediately say yes.

And if you’re familiar with author Viet Thanh Nguyen’s book, it’s easy to understand why. The gorgeously nuanced complexities of this sprawling tale can at times be a dense read. Imagine adapting it for TV.

After multiple reads of the book and a detailed comb-through, a packaged concept was presented to them by the series’ co-showrunners Don McKellar and Park Chan-wook – which included a pilot script, an outline for the series and the backing of production company A24 – and they agreed to come on board.

“I wish we could take credit,” Downey told CNN in a recent interview, laughing. “But the truth is, we were fortunate that others had kind of paved the path a little bit, at least a starting point and then we all got on the journey together.”

But there was still a lot to build on, including figuring out how it would make sense for Downey’s husband – Oscar-winner Robert Downey Jr. – to play multiple roles, how to bridge language barriers, structure time jumps and everything else that goes into adapting an award-winning novel. None of it looked easy, but this was the appeal.

It was just another day for Team Downey.

“We like hard stuff,” Burrell, Team Downey’s president of production, said. “Robert loved the ambition of that.”

Taking place in the 1970s at the end of the Vietnam War, the series, like the novel, in some ways satirizes America’s depiction of the war in popular culture as it follows the nameless central character known only as the Captain (Hoa Xuande), a half-Vietnamese, half-French communist spy secretly working for the North Vietnamese while seeking refuge in Los Angeles with a faction of the American-allied South.

His confession, through a series of time jumps, is the mechanism in which his journey is illustrated and requires some mental acrobatics to follow.

“I think from a structural standpoint, it’s incredibly ambitious,” Burrell said. “We’re going back in time, forward in time, we’re kind of swirling and revisiting through memory. It was a really daunting task to tell this story with a deep level of cinematic coherence, but also kind of emotional impact.”

One of Team Downey’s biggest challenges was the language realities and the subtitles. Despite Nguyen’s novel being written in English, Vietnamese and French had to be spoken and subtitled in the show.

“Sometimes you’ll read something and it’ll be very complicated on the page and you’re like, ‘Okay, I know when it’s up there, it’s going to make sense.’ People will be able to follow it visually,” Downey said. “This one had a little bit of the opposite reality.”

‘We had to get it right’

It was Chan-wook and McKellar who proposed the idea of Downey Jr. playing multiple roles, among them a movie director and a secret agent. But the actor needed convincing.

“He wanted there to be a reason that the same actor was portraying these,” Downey said. By the end of the season, however, Downey assures that viewers will have an understanding as to why “all these men had these similarities.”

The other role they had to get right was that of the Captain, ultimately played compellingly by “Cowboy Bebop” star Xuande, an Australian native born to Vietnamese immigrants.

The Captain is a man who is, generally, torn – whether it’s between his dual identities as a spy, his biracial ethnicity or the differing political points of views of his two best friends Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan) and Man (Duy Nguyen). At one point, he experiences an identity crisis.

“You’re not half of anything, you’re twice of everything,” the Captain recalls his mother telling him in both the book and in the show.

Downey Jr.’s multiple roles each act as a conduit in propelling this crisis forward, with the characters he embodies collectively serving as a White, male, American archetype that exploit and infantilize the Captain to their own benefit.

When Downey Jr. took on “The Sympathizer,” he had just finished work on “Oppenheimer,” in which he played former US Secretary of Commerce Lewis Strauss in a role that would win him an Oscar. The heightened nature of the roles he was tackling on “The Sympathizer” was, Downey said, a shift for him, to say the least. Still, he tackled playing what Downey described as “the pillars of the patriarchy [with] a little bit of the worst of America reflecting through,” but with a grounded goal. “They couldn’t be complete caricatures,” she said.

The challenge was to strike a balance by giving dimension to at least two of the characters who have the most screen time: Claude, a slithering, blue-eyed CIA agent, and Nikos “the Auteur,” an ostentatious Hollywood director who hires the Captain as a consultant on his American movie about the Vietnam War.

Downey Jr. truly thrives as Nikos. (Downey jokes: “I think the unchecked artist in him would be a little like ‘the Auteur.’”)

The crazed artiste is directing a movie akin to “Tropic Thunder” – which famously featured Downey Jr. in one of his most eccentric roles – and more directly “Apocalypse Now,” in a string of episodes that satirize the American depiction of the Vietnam War in cinema.

The most important part of filming the “Sympathizer” episodes that focus on the movie, however, was that when it came to the show being visually represented on screen, Burrell said they felt strongly that “we could not be the tone deaf Hollywood representation of this and we had to get it right.”

Author Nguyen was involved every step of the way, but Team Downey did their due diligence to hire – and properly utilize – consultants on their sets who could advise on translations and cultural references.

“It really is from the Vietnamese point of view and we had to be rigorous about that,” Burrell said.

“The Sympathizer” debuts on April 14 at 9 p.m. ET on Max. (Max and HBO, like CNN, are a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.)

™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

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