Matthew Macfadyen on Succession S3

7 January 2022

Matthew Macfadyen on Succession S3

Before Succession, British actor Matthew Macfadyen was better known as a romantic hero – but he’s playing completely against type as ambitious Tom Wambsgans. Craig McLean spoke to Matthew about the role as Succession ramped up in Season 3.

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How did we leave Tom at the end of the last season?

“We left him having had the sort of awful scene on the beach on the Shiv, where he says that he really might not be very happy in their relationship, and might be happier without her. But he says that in his own unique way. Then he eats Logan’s chicken. Then suddenly there’s this dreadful trail from Kendall in New York. 

“So season three picks up and they’re all in crisis mode. So Tom and Shiv don’t really have time to process what’s happened between them. Everyone’s in panic stations trying to work out what to do, what’s going to happen to the company, who’s going to be the new CEO, or will there be one at all, all that stuff.

“So they’re all a bit unmoored. They’re all a bit at sea.”

You mention the dialogue in the beach scene. It was brilliantly nuanced – Tom says: “I wonder if the sad I’d be without you would be less than the sad I get from being with you.” How much of a treat, but also a challenge, is it to have such finely calibrated words to read and act?

“It is just a treat. It’s a real privilege to have that. I guess the challenge, if there is one, is to make the most of it, and not waste any opportunities that come your way with those scenes. 

“It’s a dream job for an actor, because you get wonderful writing, wonderful actors to work with. It’s lovely to play this character who is so different from me. Well, every character I play is different from me, but it’s a nice departure from what I’ve been doing lately. It’s good fun.”

How traumatised is he by Shiv’s rather brutally practical take on their marriage? 

“I think he’s probably more traumatised than he thinks! On the wedding night, her having the idea of an open marriage, is a shock. I think he’s realising the sort of people he’s involved with. But it’s hard, because he loves her. And he’s not daft enough to not realise the effect that Logan has on all those kids – and on Tom. Yeah, it’s interesting. But it’s tough for him to take.”

What are Tom’s aspirations over the arc of the third season?

“I think he’d like to get further up in the company. And I think he’s doing quite well at ATN. I think he’s doing very well at ATN, actually. But it’s all thrown into confusion and up in the air because of this takeover bid and the Kendall stuff. 

“And also, he’s got the threat of jail-time looming over him, because he realises that he’ll probably have to take the rap for the cruise lines stuff. They’ll have to offer someone up to serve a custodial sentence as a punishment for these historic company abuses and scandals. So he’s sort of haunted by the threat of that and what’s going to happen to him.”

Does Tom want to be, in his great phrase early in the third season, “King Potato”?

“I think he does! He wants Shiv to be, but he’s also not shy about putting himself forward. He’s probably more canny than we think, Tom.”

Early in season three, we get another brilliantly vivid exchange between Tom and Cousin Greg: “Logan is going to fire a million poisonous spiders down your dicky.” How fun is it to shoot those scenes, exchange those barbs, with Nick Braun?

“Supremely delicious to do that sort of stuff! The worry is not to enjoy it too much as an actor. Sometimes you see actors and you think: ‘Oh, you’re having a bit too much fun here.’ 

“They’re just great lines, and I think the trick is to play them deadly seriously – especially in that scene. Otherwise it becomes like a sketch. But I think he really was trying to put the frighteners on Greg, in that scene for example. And it works. 

“I say this a lot but it’s true: I find it very easy, because the lines go in my head and I get the scenes. Because I want to say them. It’s not a chore to memorise this dialogue.”

You also make J. Smith-Cameron (lawyer Gerri Kellman) corpse and crack-up onset more than any other actor, even more than Kieran Culkin. This is a woman with deep, deep New York stage experience. What’s your secret? 

“Ha ha! I’m never knowingly undermining! But I’m going to ask her as soon as I see her! She is the consummate professional, she’s brilliant.

“I think it’s Wambsgans – he’s just ridiculous. He just comes out with dreadful, gauche, inappropriate things all the time. That’s part of it. 

“And Kieran is deadly quick. I find it very difficult to keep up with him, if we’re ever in a situation where we’re improvising. And I find it very difficult not to crack up with him. He’s very funny.”

On set, Jesse, the other writers and the directors have you act out the scenes as scripted, but then they also let you film takes where you have some freedom to improvise lines. How thrilling, but also daunting, is to have a finely detailed script to work from – but then also have the option to run looser with a scene?

“Oh, it’s wonderful. I think people assume it’s very improvised. But it really isn’t – 99 per cent of it is scripted, and to a T. We’re quite accurate with the lines. And if we’re not, we realise that it’s much better to say what’s been written.

“Then you have these ‘alts’ that come in – alternative lines for freebie takes at the end, when we’ve got the body of the scene [completed]. That’s great fun. Because then you can play with it. And I never feel shy about suggesting something. It’s a lovely way to work, it really is.

What are your memories of first hearing about and auditioning for Succession?

“I think they wanted to hear my American accent. And then I thought it was such a brilliant thing to read. You never know what’s going to happen to a show because you’re just shooting the pilot, and you never know if it’s going to be picked up. And I hadn’t done an American TV show before, and I hadn’t played an American on screen before. So they were things I was keen to do. It was a challenge, and something exciting and new.

“But it was just such a brilliant and interesting thing to read. There was a scene at the end of the pilot which I thought was just fascinating, where Tom just turns on Cousin Greg. I thought: oh, this is a real hook.

“So it’s been very lovely to see it grow. And of course when you’re shooting a series, you don’t know what it’s going to be like, you’re shooting incremental moments. It’s only when you start reading the later scripts that you think: wow, this has got a real identity, a real feeling, this is really good.

“But even then, you don’t know how people are going to react to it in the culture. So it’s been very gratifying and really exciting to be part of it.”

What do you remember of the first table read, in November 2016?

“We were in New York, and it was the day of the American Presidential Election. I remember just being terrified, and I was really nervous, of doing the read-through. They’re scary things, for me anyway. And I was doing an accent that wasn’t mine. So, yeah, it was frightening.

“And with the backdrop of this crazy election that we all thought was going to work out fine. Then we all went to a party at Adam McKay’s house afterwards, to watch the results come in… and the atmosphere changed!

“So we’ve had four years of a bonkers, dysfunctional family in the White House, and with the Roys as well – that family echoed with the Trumps! It’s been an interesting time to be telling this story.”

Not to overstate that element but did broadcasting during a Trump presidency rather than a Hillary presidency gave the show more cultural traction and political heft?

“Maybe, yeah. We’re aware of how powerful the media is in changing what people do and what they think and how they vote, and what medicines they want to take or what precautions they take against the whole… It’s fascinating, actually. But I’m sure it’s given it extra traction, yeah.” 

How was Tom described on the page in the earliest notes and scripts you saw?

“Oh, he wasn’t really. I think he was older than me – he was Shiv’s much older, late fifties, sort of like an uncle boyfriend type. An older man. But there weren’t great descriptions of any of the characters, really. They revealed themselves as the actors started playing them.”

As the sole Brit on the floor, as an actor, do you think there’s a British sensibility to this show, given it being led by Jesse Armstrong and his insistence on keeping the writers’ room in London?

“I don’t know, is the answer. I used to think there was maybe a scabrous quality, or a less reverential quality, that was more British. But now I’m not so sure that’s true. American humour can be like that, and there are plenty of American writers on the show, like Susan [Soon He Stanton] and Will [Tracy]. So I’m not sure that’s true now. I just think they’re really good writers!”

You’ve shot myriad UK TV shows. What are the differences between shooting British and American dramas?

“There aren’t really. The nuts and bolts of it are the same: you go in, you go to make-up, you get your costume on, you go to set. And the shooting is the same. There are glamorous locations, and less glamorous locations. Different qualities of catering, but that’s about it.”

Why do we love these far from lovable characters?

“I don’t know! But I think we’re fascinated by the extremes of wealth and society. So I guess there’s that. The context in which the story is set is interesting, because it’s not normal flying around in private jets and having all this money and power. So there’s that.

“Then it’s even more interesting, and reassuring, because they’re not happy, and they’re going through the same familial squabbles and jealousy and fury and resentments as anybody else.

“And it’s family, that’s the key, I think. It’s family, so it’s universal.”

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