'Succession' Star Matthew Macfadyen on the Secret to Tom's 'Psycho' Behavior (Exclusive)
By Jennifer Drysdale
There's something different about Tom Wambsgans. Over the course of Succession's two seasons, viewers have gotten to know the Roy family inside out. They've seen Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook) and Roman (Kieran Culkin) ruthlessly vie for the top spot at patriarch Logan's (Brian Cox) entertainment company, with eldest Roy son Connor (Alan Ruck) blissfully doing his own thing on the sidelines. Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) is on the sidelines as well, but in a different way.
Though he tries embarrassingly hard to fit in with the family he married into, the audience is constantly reminded that he just doesn't. A stench of desperation follows his "agricultural walk," as his wife, Shiv, brutally pointed out -- despite his best attempts to mask his lack of a ritzy upbringing and confidence he might actually have a shot at being Logan's successor. He's the lovable loser among the Roy gang and constantly putting on an act. "He is quite special," Macfadyen laughs, while speaking with ET.
The 45-year-old actor is calling from England, where "there's actually not very much going on with me right now," he confesses. He shares two teenagers with actress wife Keeley Hawes (Bodyguard), so life in quarantine isn't as chaotic as it could be with younger children -- or with the Roy children, with whom he was supposed to be spending time right now. The cast was set to start shooting season 3 of Succession in late April, before the coronavirus pandemic shut down productions around the globe.
Instead, Macfadyen is at home, with no start date for filming in sight. He doesn't even have a script to start working on, but he likes it that way. "There is something nice about not knowing," he says, explaining that while Cox knows the season 3 arc, he'll likely get sent a script a week before filming. "I mean, the characters don't know where it's going, so it's kind of great."
Macfadyen appears to be approaching the unintended hiatus like he's approached his career. "You can't make any plans for anything, because you don't know where you're going to be or for how long or who with or doing what," he explains.
It's been 15 years since his breakout role as Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice, starring opposite Keira Knightley. He still gets complimented for that performance, which he finds both "nice" and "odd" as the years roll on, but understands the impact of the classic story. "Lizzy and Darcy touch everybody, don't they?" he reflects on the Jane Austen romance.
Since then, Macfadyen has worked consistently in British film and television. Succession is his third time playing an American, following a 2007 play and a performance as J.P. Morgan opposite Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon in The Current War.
Macfadyen was thus "nervous" to go American (and Minnesotan at that) for Succession, though that insecurity likely only added to the character, whose self-worth is constantly hanging by a thread. Tom is engulfed in a cloud of self-doubt, even -- and perhaps especially -- when bullying Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun).
"Tom is one of those people who is very different with everyone he interacts with. He's one way with somebody and another way with somebody else, like we all are, a little bit. It's really pushed with Tom to an extreme. I really can be the most sycophantic, creepy guy," Macfadyen describes. "There's loads of people I'm scared of, and then I'm this psycho with Greg, a real bully at times. And then I'm sort of terrified of my wife."
All that is fun for the actor, who finds himself "bemused" by Tom and Greg becoming the dynamic duo of the series and reminiscing about pelting Braun with water bottles in the "wrong" panic room. He can barely get through their scenes together without breaking. "I sort of tell myself off in my head. 'Don't laugh again,'" he confesses. "It's terrible. Me and Nick have a real problem. And Kiernan breaks quite often."
Macfadyen recalls a scene in season 1 where Roman has to "come up and say something" to Tom. He can't even recollect what the line was, but fiercely remembers the pandemonium of trying to get through it without laughing. "We just laughed every time. Every single take. And I was thinking, 'They'll never be able to shoot it. Ever!' I was crying, it was awful," he says.
So, how did they get through it? Showrunner Jesse Armstrong gave the pair permission to laugh during the scene. "It instantly became unfunny. We just stopped laughing," Macfadyen says. "It was a stroke of genius on his part, because it worked."
Succession has found itself a place as a "drama with jokes," Macfadyen describes, speculating that it connects so well with audiences because there's "nothing precious" about it. The Roys are loosely inspired by the Murdoch family, with storylines both incredibly wild and rooted in believability. It's been that way since the beginning. The cast did their read-through for the pilot in New York on the day Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. "So much has happened since then," Macfadyen says with a sudden seriousness. "It's great for drama and storytelling because you can really ramp things up, and maybe that's what people have responded to."
"There are moments where it's very upsetting and touching, I think. It sort of manages to do both. I don't know how they do that, the writers, but they do," he adds.
Macfadyen also praises the writers for their "beautiful" work on Tom and Shiv's vulnerable talk in the season 2 finale. After finding the "perfect" cove to unwind from the tension of the Roy family's Mediterranean yacht, Tom unraveled. The pressure of his open marriage with Shiv, her constant need to take him down a peg and the looming threat of being named Waystar's scapegoat for the cruise line scandal forced Tom to break -- but in a new way. This wasn't the shocking "F**k off, Shiv," he delivered earlier in the season, after Shiv's comment about his "agricultural walk." This was something more raw and real. "I wonder if the sad I'd be without you," Tom says, "would be less than the sad I get from being with you."
"It was good. It felt like a sort of natural progression, because he's always so self-deprecating with Siobhan, and he backs off all the time," Macfadyen says of Tom's turn -- the first time he's volunteered so much of his true self to his wife, and the viewer. "He's trying to make it seem like it's OK, but it isn't really. I thought it was a really beautiful piece of writing. He finally says, 'I don't think I'm happy.' Who would be happy? So it was just a wonderful scene to play, really, especially with Sarah, who is brilliant."
Shiv felt the shift in Tom too, so much so that she asked her father to spare him, putting her own possible promotion to Waystar's top spot in jeopardy. Viewers will have to wait until season 3 -- whenever that shoots -- to find out whether that sacrifice was enough to keep Tom and Shiv together.
"I think they're just being super cautious, and we'll just go back when it's safe. There's no badge of honor in being the first crew back shooting just for the sake of it, especially if you can't make the show that the writers have written because of social distancing," Macfadyen says, noting that Succession's big, 15-person-plus scenes, like "Boar on the Floor," are his favorite.
"It feels like doing a play, almost, because you're doing these great big scenes with long takes, which you don't always do on film or TV," he excitedly explains, noting they shoot on film with multiple cameras, eliminating the possibility of the "endless takes" they might be put through on digital. "It's just a really lovely way to work -- it means you really have to concentrate and you're paying attention, and it goes really quickly, actually. It's wonderful."
The next time the Succession cast will reunite could potentially be at the 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards in September. Macfadyen was nominated for a Critics' Choice Award for his performance in 2019; while the show has also been recognized as a whole, it won the Golden Globe for Best Television Series, Drama, earlier this year.
"With awards, obviously it's a nice thought. It's nice when you've won and it's sort of weird when you're up for one and you don't win," Macfadyen says, confessing he hasn't "really" thought of what an Emmy win would mean to him. "I take it all with a great big pinch of salt."