'Succession' Star Matthew Macfadyen on Real-World Parallels and What's Ahead in Season 2
The actor opens up about playing the power-hungry Tom Wambsgans on HBO's breakout hit: "He's a different type of fish."
Matthew Macfadyen may be best known for his swoon-inducing turn as Mr. Darcy in 2005's Pride & Prejudice, but with his role on Succession, he's embarked on quite a departure from the gentlemanly types he often portrays. "Mr. Darcy was a long time ago, but I did get to play a lot of Englishmen," says the British-born actor, 44. "My idea of heaven is doing two so incredibly different characters." As Tom Wambsgans on the HBO drama, he plays the deviously obsequious fiance turned husband of the only daughter to Rupert Murdoch-like figure Logan Roy (Brian Cox). With filming on the series' second season almost halfway complete — and production about to leave the show's home base of Manhattan to shoot in Iceland, Scotland and Croatia — THR caught up with Macfadyen about the series' real-life influences, the amusing Tom and Cousin Greg dynamic and what to expect with the drama's return in August.
Have you felt pigeonholed as an actor because of Pride & Prejudice and some of your earlier roles?
No, not at all. It's more that I think you just have to be canny and try to mix it up a bit. Otherwise, inevitably, people will go, "Oh, well that's what they do. They're good at playing this. They're good at playing a spy or someone in a pair of britches or a policeman," and then you get offered a slew of policemen or you get stuck in a classical theater rut. You want to feel like you can do anything and play lots of different colors of different people. With Tom, there's lots of different people jumping around inside him. You know when you see friends being wildly different with different people and you think, "Wow, how much do I do that?" To do that with Tom is a joy because I can just push it and push it.
What were your initial thoughts about the character of Tom?
Well, originally Tom was quite a bit older. I think mid-50s. He was a much older guy that Shiv [Sarah Snook] was with. But in the pilot, a lot of people's characters were developed naturally with what the actors brought to them. I think the writers saw the group of actors they've got together working and responded. It's certainly like that with me and Nick Braun's character, Greg. That felt like an interesting relationship that perhaps wasn't all on the page necessarily. But that sort of evolved throughout the series through the way Nick and I respond to each other.
A lot of the comedic elements in the show come from the Tom-Greg dynamic. Is it tough to not break during some of those scenes?
Oh, God. It's so hard. (Laughs.) Often we'd meet the day before a scene in a panic, thinking, "How are we going to get through this?" But he's just so good. In one scene, I accuse him of double-crossing me and I had to scream in his face, "Did you bitch me out, pig-man?" I was right up close in his face and if there was one little flicker from Nick, I'd be gone and we'd have to start again. But that's the real fun of it.
How much banter is ad-libbed?
A little bit is ad-libbed, but the kernel of it is in the script. Now and again there's improvised things. Sometimes the writers will come in at the end of a scene and give us alternative lines to say. But it feels like a pretty free environment to try stuff and experiment with different lines.
Do you consider the show a drama or a comedy?
I don't know what I consider it, really. It's sort of weirdly unclassifiable. It's a bit of everything. It's quite satirical at times. It really takes your legs away sometimes with situations, I find. Some of it is really, really laugh-out-loud funny — and it's funny because it's true. You look at what's going on [in the news cycle] at the moment, it's ludicrous.
Since you split your time between the U.S. and the U.K., what's it like to see the political parallels?
It's interesting and sort of unsettling and depressing. It's like two madhouses. There's real polarization and there's no nuance. It seems there's very little appetite for compromise or debate. It's all about staying in power.
I'm sure you actors have all gotten quite close. What do you do when you're not filming?
New York's where everyone disappears a little bit. If I have a little time off, I jump on a plane and go home. We just had 10 days in Lake Placid upstate. It felt like a sort of mountain Alpine retreat, which it kind of was in the story. But it was great, I had like three days' [work] on 10 days, so I did a lot of eating out and wandering around the lake and hanging out. It was fun.
Do you have a text chain going with the other castmembers, too?
Yeah, we do. There's a lot of Succession text chains. Speaking of text chains, I met a lady at an afterparty a while ago and she came up to me and said, "My friends and I have a Greg and Tom appreciation thread." I thought that was good.
You get to film at some luxurious locations, like that spot in New Mexico from the first season.
We didn't get to stay there, but, yeah, that place was amazing, kind of bleak and beautiful. There were just endless extraordinary locations. We filmed in this house in the Hamptons, which was bananas. It was on the market for something like $119 million. And of course we film at these various houses and apartments in Manhattan, which you would never see except on a show about multimillionaires and billionaires. It's fascinating.
Everyone associated with the show has been very hesitant to say that it's about a specific family, whether it be the Murdochs or the Trumps. Who do you think the main influences are?
There was a brilliant article in The New York Times recently about Rupert Murdoch and his sons and his daughter and his M.O. over the last however many years he's been doing it — and it's really fascinating when you look at it in respect to the Roy family. But certainly in the U.K., Murdoch is the one we've heard of. In the States, there are plenty of single families that own a lot of media and own these enormous companies, which have enormous influence. That's a really interesting perspective, but as far as actually playing Tom and doing the show, we never think about the Murdochs or who we might be [inspired by] because it's a fictional family — but of course, like with all fiction, you can find parallels and similarities everywhere.
What do you think Tom's play is in the show? What does he want?
I think he would say that he wants to be as successful as he can be and he wants to have a happy marriage and he wants to certainly be within the family and be useful and important and respected. But he's a different type of fish than the others — he doesn't come from that elite wealth. But he's got together with Shiv and they sort of rub along well enough to stay together — he doesn't present a threat to her, which is probably why they're still together. At the end of the last season, they reached a business arrangement for the marriage, which he sort of struggles with in the second season. That's all really good fun to play. They do have a plan. She's in the world of politics and their business model is that she pursues that, maybe even toward the White House, and then he's still shimmying up the greasy pole at work.
What else can you tease about where the show might be heading in the second season, which premieres in August?
It's the fallout from the big set piece at the end of last season. Now that Logan has sort of got Kendall under his thumb really, it's where it goes with that. I think Tom is just trying to cope with this new [open] marriage. He's looking at it like, "Have you had sex with someone else? Are you allowed to do that? Am I allowed to do that? I don't really want to do that." And that's all ripe for hilarity.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.