Robert Downey Jr. Compares His Role in ‘Oppenheimer’ to a Needle in a Haystack

The newly-minted Oscar winner explained that his freewheeling role in “The Sympathizer” was a needed change of pace after the precise experience of working with Christopher Nolan.

Robert Downey Jr. in 'Oppenheimer'

Robert Downey Jr. is currently on one of the hottest runs of his four decade acting career, following his Oscar win for Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” with an unprecedented turn in Park Chan-wook’s new HBO series “The Sympathizer” that sees him playing four different characters.

The two projects showcase opposite sides of Downey’s talents. His performance as Machiavellian political operative Lewis Strauss in “Oppenheimer” was an exercise in subtlety, relying on slight gestures and layered glances to provide the ideal foil for Cillian Murphy’s J. Robert Oppenheimer. “The Sympathizer,” on the other hand, relies on the cocky screen presence that made his Tony Stark the most beloved fixture of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In a recent interview with Esquire, Downey used a very colorful metaphor to explain that shooting “The Sympathizer” right after “Oppenheimer” allowed him to recover creatively from the precision that was required to work with Nolan.

“I knew that playing Strauss, in ‘Oppenheimer,’ was going to be like picking fly shit out of pepper — that it was going to be extremely exacting, that it was going to be … not confining, but liberating by its varied implicit limitations of what my usual toolbox is,” Downey said. “So I had a feeling that, like a coiled spring, ‘Sympathizer’ would be my unwind.”

“The Sympathizer” stars Hoa Xuande as a Communist spy working undercover in the South Vietnamese military alongside American intelligence officers during the Vietnam War. Downey plays all of the major white men on the series, including a brash CIA operative and a Hollywood director, as a way of illustrating the way that their interests are fundamentally aligned no matter how superficially different they might seem.

“Here, he plays no less than four roles, all of whom form their own relationship with the Captain, and all of whom represent a distinctly American blend of arrogance, charm, and power,” IndieWire’s Ben Travers wrote in his review of the series. “As the director, he’s happy to depict the horrors of war so long as he can still relish its bombast and brutality. As the professor, he cloaks his fetishistic obsession with Asian culture behind academic bonafides. And as the Captain’s CIA handler Claude, he just likes pulling the strings, so long as he can sever any connection before it yanks him off his lofty perch. ‘I’m whoever I need to be,’ he says to the Captain. ‘Just like you.’”

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