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David Duchovny Went Full Psychopath in The Sympathizer

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The following story contains spoilers for Episode 4 of The Sympathizer.

HBO’S THE SYMPATHIZER, based on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel of the same name, is a spy show. But it’s also unlike any spy show you’ve ever seen, because it’s willing to go entire episodes with… absolutely zero spycraft or espionage.

Case in point: the show’s fourth episode, “Give Us Some Good Lines.” After the last episode found The Captain drawn deeper into his CIA contact Claude’s (Robert Downey Jr.) world, he got a new assignment—help hotshot director Nicos Damianos (Downey Jr. again) make his new Vietnam war film, The Hamlet, by serving as its cultural consultant. Most of the episode is spent embedded on the set of that film as it enters production in California’s Wine Country, but it doesn’t take long to realize things are headed for sure chaos. Is it a diversion from The Sympathizer‘s main storyline? Yes. Is it fun and entertaining nonetheless? Hell yes.

Grove Press The Sympathizer: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) (The Sympathizer, 1)

The Sympathizer: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) (The Sympathizer, 1)

Damianos, loosely based on Francis Ford Coppola, is a cocky auteur filmmaker who has such a massive ego that it’s hard to see anything going swimmingly while the movie is in production. But things get even wilder upon meeting the actors he’s cast. One of them, James Yoon (John Cho, in a delightful guest appearance) is a rare Asian-American mainstay in the film industry, someone known for showing up in token roles in major films and almost always dying shortly thereafter; The Captain was excited to meet him before he even got there. There’s also Jamie Johnson (Max Whittington-Cooper), a popular singer-turned-actor in his very first movie.

But neither are anything compared to Ryan Glenn, as played by the great David Duchovny. Glenn is, to put it simply, an absolute maniac; he’s introduced as someone who never gets out of character for as long as the movie is in production. His character, the lead in Damianos’s movie, is a paranoid man named Captain Shamus, and when we meet him, he’s already clearly losing his marbles. And things don’t get any easier as the episode continues.

Throughout the episode, some people—like Yoon, for example, and The Captain’s friend Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan) when he shows up and gets to be an extra—are having fun. But Ryan is just out of control, at one point chastising his costars and the crew for not being as committed as he is, and eventually going AWOL from the set, forcing production to halt, and returning with a dead deer draped over his shoulders.

He’s clearly a complete mad man—and Duchovny is having a blast. In his decades in the industry, you can tell that the former Californication lead and Twin Peaks guest star has run in with at least a handful of Ryan Glenn-esque method actors, and in The Sympathizer he expertly lampoons just how much of a nuisance they can ultimately be.

David Duchovny plays Ryan Glenn in The Sympathizer

76th directors guild of america awards arrivals

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While he remains most famous for playing Fox Mulder, the ’90s icon and conspiracy nut lead of The X-Files, Duchovny has always had a good sense of humor about the industry that’s made him a star. In recent years, that’s meant playing a number of self-depreciating actor roles: this includes a hilarious version of himself in Netflix’s The Chair, and also another actor seeking past glory during a pandemic in Judd Apatow’s The Bubble.

In The Sympathizer, Duchovny embodies a different kind of pain-in-the-ass actor: a method actor. If Robert Downey Jr.’s Nicos Damianos is meant to be a stand-in for Francis Ford Coppola, and The Hamlet is meant to be Apocalypse Now, then we can make the jump to say that Duchovny’s Ryan Glenn is based on some combination of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now and Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter. Both actors have famously embraced the never-get-out-of-character “method” nature, and both movies are centered on the Vietnam war and have since become legendary.

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