On the Friday after Tom Wambsgans became the new puppet CEO of the Waystar-Royco media empire, the actor who has spent the past five years essaying the character’s ups, downs, and withering one-liners is propping up the bar of a small boutique hotel in London’s Chelsea. Matthew Macfadyen is nursing a lime tonic and contemplating a rest after several months of hard work on Succession’s blockbusting fourth season. In some other world, one imagines his fictional alter-ego is already discovering the poison in the chalice of the job he has spent a lifetime coveting. Macfadyen, instead, is content simply to think ahead to a quiet family dinner, and to reflect on the adventure of his past half decade.
“I’ll miss it,” he says quietly of his time on Succession. “It was such a lovely, lovely job.”
So confidently has Macfadyen brought his character to life through Succession’s four seasons that it’s hard to recall the unlikeliness of his casting when the show began. The Norfolk-born RADA graduate had never starred in an American series and was better known in his native Britain for his role on the BBC spy drama Spooks [MI-5], and as the stoic Mr. Darcy in Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice, the film that first broke him out.
But Succession’s creator, Jesse Armstrong, himself a Brit, came to Macfadyen after seeing his work as the capricious Sir Felix Carbury in the BBC’s Anthony Trollope adaptation The Way We Live Now, certain that the actor could find the unbridled ambition of the scheming Minnesotan he had written… if only MacFadyen could master the accent.
“I’d wanted to do an American accent in something,” Macfadyen says. “I’d gone through pilot season hell once, and it wasn’t fun. Even if you’re known, if you haven’t done an American accent in something, people won’t put you in front of the networks.”
The part in The Way We Live Now had also afforded Macfadyen a chance to play comedy. “I’d done so much serious stuff on TV, but I think Jesse saw that and thought, ‘Oh, he can do comedy too.’”
The accent was no big stretch for Macfadyen, who had played American on stage, and he fell in love with the pilot script as quickly as audiences would. With a young family, Macfadyen hadn’t wanted to commit to a series in Los Angeles, but Succession would film in New York (and eventually travel the world). “It was this brilliant, New York, sexy HBO thing,” he laughs. “But you never know how it’s going to land. I thought I might only be in it for one season, and Tom was barely in the pilot.”
Adam McKay directed Succession’s first episode and established the show’s blend of comedy and drama by bringing across his improvisational process, banking a scripted take and then encouraging his cast to riff on the dialogue, throwing in new belittling wordplay for them to seize on. “Tom in the pilot script wasn’t necessarily the Tom that emerged,” says Macfadyen.
The making of the character happened during the pilot shoot, on a cold neighborhood baseball diamond to which Logan Roy (Brian Cox) had choppered his extended family after a birthday celebration. As his mischievous son Roman (Kieran Culkin) is taunting a young boy with the offer of a $1 million check for a home run, his son-in-law, Tom, introduces himself to Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), who is trying to crowbar his way into a job with his uncle’s company.
“I’ve got my eye on you,” Tom tells Greg. “You need any help, advice, just, you know, don’t f*cking bother, OK?” As Greg’s smile drops, Tom laughs at him. “I’m only razzing you cuz. You’re dreaming, honestly. I may look really fun, but the thing about me is I’m a terrible, terrible prick.”
As Greg discombobulates further, Tom cackles. “I got you again! Seriously… pals, yeah?” And then the scene veers off script, as Tom tests his new protégé. “Would you kiss me? Would you kiss me if I asked you? If I told you to?”
“I think they saw me and Nick together and thought, ‘Oh, this could be good,’” says Macfadyen, on the moment that would set the stage for one of the show’s most beloved dynamics. “You’re there, you’re responding to things on the day. Greg’s an interloper, Tom’s an interloper, and they’re both sort of ingratiating themselves. There was an instant something there.”
Macfadyen reflects on the joy he found with Braun especially, riffing on ways for Tom to torture the hapless Greg in each of the show’s episodes. Even in the finale, Greg can’t get it right, as Tom blows up at Greg in a bathroom, pushing him up against a wall for risking his new job, and receiving a slap back. But Tom can’t quite bring himself to ditch his favorite punching bag. “You f*cked it, man. You are a f*cking piece of sh*t. But I got you. I got just enough capital. I got you.”
“We’d get a freebie take at the end of every scene,” Macfadyen says. “They’d feed you extra lines, you’d do alt lines. It was just bliss as an actor. The alts were so funny, and there were sometimes 20, 30 alternates that wouldn’t make it through.”
If mobsters love The Sopranos and Washington politicos love The West Wing, despite both shows making no effort to present those classes in a wholly positive light, it’s a safe bet that Succession is a favorite of media tycoons the world over. The show hasn’t afforded Macfadyen much opportunity to walk in those circles, he says, but he does recall the challenge even its writers faced in trying to comprehend the obscene levels of wealth and lifestyle Succession portrays.
“On the pilot, we had a sort of wealth consiglieri — who I think we retained throughout — who operated in that world and would give production tips on what rang true and what didn’t,” he says. “One of their first notes was to ditch all the coats and gloves and scarves from wardrobe, because when you go from your private plane to your car to your penthouse, you don’t need to be swathed in cashmere.”
Macfadyen has never been able to wrap his head around such one percent behaviors, but he says it didn’t matter. “I don’t have a plan for my life. I can look back and go, ‘Oh, I did that because I was scared,’ but I didn’t know that in the moment. I think that’s quite a good understanding to have as an actor, because you don’t need to come in knowing all the answers.”
After all, Tom doesn’t fully know why he does the things he does. “I think that’s the real brilliance of Jesse’s writing, and all the other writers plugged into that.” Macfadyen can’t rationalize why Tom might take the job as CEO, having been told, explicitly, that he was being hired as a “pain-sponge” for a tech entrepreneur’s sociopathic whims.
Does he do it to level the playing field with his on-again, off-again spouse Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook), to whom he’s always been the pauper invited to the feast? “It makes sense,” Macfadyen considers. “But
it only makes sense when you look at the whole, and I don’t think he’s able to do that. The only way to survive in that world is to think moment-to-moment.” The decisions being made, simply, are too big, and too earth-shattering, to be well-considered. “Yeah, because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to move.”
Tom Wambsgans is not an easy character to love. Few of Succession’s ensemble of avaricious power players are. But Macfadyen will miss him. “I feel a mixture of relief and heartbreak, I think,” he says, less than a week out from the show’s final episode having aired. “I wouldn’t want to play the same person forever. None of us do. Inevitably, you find yourself playing familiar beats. But I’ll miss the writing. I’ll miss Jesse, and Tony [Roche], and Lucy [Prebble]. I’ll miss the cast, and I’ll miss the crew.
“Watching Episode 9 — Logan’s funeral — was hard for me. Tom is barely involved, and so I was really watching it. I found it enormously upsetting because I do feel a part of that family. It was like, ‘There are all of my buddies, and they’re all so amazing.’”