This ‘Sympathizer’ Star Wasn’t Sure He Was Right for the Job

Some three months into shooting “The Sympathizer,” Robert Downey Jr. sat Hoa Xuande down. He had something to show him.

“I remember Rob walking in — he had this cheeky grin,” Xuande recalled on a recent afternoon in Los Angeles. A teaser trailer for the HBO series, an adaptation of Viet Than Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, had just been cut. Downey, who is the show’s executive producer and plays multiple roles in it, saw definitive proof of a star-making turn in “The Sympathizer.” He wanted Xuande, the star in question, to see it too.

“There’s only one time that I’ve had this experience before, and it’s when I saw the teaser that we brought to Comic-Con for ‘Iron Man,’” Downey said. Seeing himself onscreen in the Iron Man suit was what finally convinced Downey that he had done justice to a daunting role.

“And because I’d had that experience,” he said, “I knew that he needed it.”

In many ways, Xuande (pronounced Shawn-day) did. A 36-year old Vietnamese Australian actor who had one Hollywood credit to his name, he still wasn’t sure he was the right choice to lead a series with such an impressive pedigree: an HBO adaptation of an acclaimed novel, produced by the Oscar-winning art-house studio A24, directed by the revered Korean auteur Park Chan-wook and co-starring a screen legend in Downey. He needed all the encouragement he could get.

“I made him watch it six times,” Downey said.

Based on the novel of the same name, “The Sympathizer” stars Xuande as a double agent and Robert Downey Jr., right, in multiple roles.Credit…Hopper Stone/HBO

Seeing himself in the trailer had finally quieted his doubts, Xuande said, over lunch at a Venice restaurant. He had flown in from his home base in Sydney hours earlier and had barely settled into Downey’s spare live-work space, where Xuande sometimes stays.

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