The Sympathizer: Is Robert Downey Jr’s Claude Inspired by a Real CIA Agent?

Image Credit: Hopper Stone/HBO

In HBO’s ‘The Symapthizer,’ Robert Downey Jr. appears in the interesting role of a CIA agent who is posted in Vietnam during the war. There is a lot about the character that remains in the shadow, which makes him mysterious and untrustworthy, but the protagonist, known as the Captain, knows that it is not so easy to shrug him off. Because the story focuses on real events and all of its markers are things of historical importance, a question is posed to every character about their real-life counterparts. SPOILERS AHEAD

Claude is Fictional But Inspired by the CIA’s Involvement in the Vietnam War

‘The Sympathizer’ adapts Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name, in which the author used the lens of satire to shine the light on the various issues surrounding the Vietnam War. The show relies on historical events to push its plot forward, and while Nguyen has drawn from real-life people to construct the many characters in the novel, he has imbued them with fictional colors, asserting some creative license when it comes to telling an overall fictional story. In all of this, Claude remains a mysterious but made-up character.

Telling the story of the Vietnam War without America would have been impossible, but one of the things that Nguyen wanted to focus on was the Vietnamese perspective. Over the years, he had noted that the narrative surrounding the war was heavily biased by an American lens, which focused on the country’s involvement as heroic but reduced the story of the locals, for whom there were actual repercussions to live during and following the war. Still, the story could not be told without the American army and the CIA in the background. This is where Claude’s character comes in.

It is common knowledge that the US got involved in the Vietnam War due to the threat of communism. The French occupation had come to an end, and the country seemed divided between the communists in the North with the South Vietnamese Army fighting for control since the French departure. The CIA had already been keeping tabs on the development in the country, and it became clear to them that without intervention, the communist forces in the North would take over the South as well. At the time, the US was already trying to curb communist powers, and with the approval of the State, the CIA lent a hand to the leaders in South Vietnam to have a stronger foothold in the war. So, what may have started as a civil war for the country turned into a proxy war that America led against the communist threat.

Image Credit: Hopper Stone/HBO

A possible inspiration for Claude could be General Edward Lansdale, who was known to have served as a consultant to the South Vietnamese army while also developing a close friendship with Ngo Dinh Diem. However, for the most part, Claude appears to be an original character that Nguyen created, keeping the themes of the story in mind. He is presented as an archetype who is there to serve his own purpose rather than actually being concerned about what happens to the people he is working with.

Nguyen kept a string of American archetypical characters throughout the book, viewing different events in the story from a lens that tends to remain pretty much the same, and yet succeeds in presenting a rather interesting point about the characters themselves. In bringing the book to screen, co-creator Park Chan-wook, who also directed the first three episodes of the show, knew that this commonality in the archetype needed to be represented by a single actor, as it would underline Nguyen’s intent with the characters in the book. So, Robert Downey Jr. was brought on board, and he brought his own twist to Claude and the other characters, often improvising to make things more interesting.

Read More: The Sympathizer: The Real-Life Viet Cong Spy Who Inspired the Captain