Matthew Macfadyen has slept under the radar for far too long. Despite turns in Joe Wright’s “Pride and Prejudice” (as Mr. Darcy, no less), Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon” and a career that has also spanned theater, television and, yes, radio, it took Jesse Armstrong’s “Succession” for the world to truly pay attention. And not only did viewers notice, but his peers.
Along with co-stars Brian Cox, Kieran Culkin, Sarah Snook, Nicholas Braun and Jeremy Strong, Macfadyen earned a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for his work on the HBO series. His first Emmy nod, but clearly not his last. Especially if Armstrong continues to write Macfadyen’s character, Tom Wambsgans, as wonderfully convoluted and subtly complex as he has during the first two seasons of the show.
The still youthful Macfadyen (he insists he’s getting old during our conversation, but we’re not letting him get away with it) jumped on the phone earlier this month to discuss the bromance of Tom and Greg (Braun), Tom’s troubled marriage with Shiv (Snook) and whether Tom really knows what he’s aiming for in the fictional Waystar media empire.
The Playlist: Hi Matthew, how are you doing?
Matthew Macfayden: Hey there, how’s things?
They’re as fine as they can be. I saw you did an interview last with “Late Night with Seth Meyers” while on vacation. Are you still in Sicily, or are you back in the UK?
I am home in the UK. Yeah. The Italian oddity is over.
Was it nice to get out of the country?
It was lovely to be away. Yeah, it was good. We’ve got builders in our house, so it was good. Well, outside the house, so it was just good to sort of be away. The whole year has felt weird, like a sort of suspended reality.
It’s just odd, isn’t it? So it was kind of nice being out in the middle of nowhere and people speaking different languages.
I live here in the states, so clearly we can’t really travel anywhere, but I recently traveled with some friends to another part of the state for a bit and it was just nice to just see some different scenery.
I don’t know if you were in Sicily you found out about the nomination, but what was your reaction?
I was delighted. It was very nice. It’s very nice. It was before we went and I think it was sort of mid-afternoon, I think. I can’t remember. Yeah, it was lovely. It was really lovely. And very, very gratifying that so many of us got the nod.
It’s incredibly well deserved for all of you. The series has such an international cast for a story that, in theory, is an American patriarchal tale. How did you get involved?
Well, from the get-go, Jesse Armstrong, we had met before, but I think he’d been aware of me and he liked things I’d done. I think I was on his radar and then it was just one of the pilots that came up. And it’s like four years ago now, 2016, and I thought it was such a good bit of writing and it was so exciting to read. So it just happened in that sort of way. But you’re right, it’s a typically American family, but with lots of different…well, I guess Sarah and I and Brian.
And Hiam, who played Marcia, we’re not Americans. But that’s quite nice in a way, it sort of gives you a bit of distance. And I think maybe there’s a nice notion that actually, a lot of the writer’s room are Brits and there’s perhaps you’re able to sort of see things that are happening when it’s not your countrymen would, maybe. I don’t know.
For sure. And so much of it family dynamics anyway and that’s universal.
It transcends. Exactly.
Obviously you read the pilot but did Jesse ever tell you anything more specific about Tom other then what was on the page?
No. I mean, I think originally in the pilot he was sort of older, he was an older man, maybe 50, late 50s’ so he was sort of odd. I mean, I think he was even more of a sort of safe pair of hands for Shiv and then changed a bit. But he was just this sort of, a bit of a lunk, who was gauche and sort of ambitious. But I didn’t really ask and Jesse didn’t really elaborate, partly because you don’t know whether it’s going to have a life after the pilot, so those conversations are always a little odd. There was a discussion about whether I should play him as a Brit and I quite fancied playing him as an American, and they were fine with that.
Now that you’ve shot for two seasons, has the subject of Tom’s background been discussed? I always think of him as a textbook example of nouveau riche.
Yeah, he’s not old money. I think he had a comfortable upbringing but he didn’t go to those schools and he wasn’t part of that club and he would have had a much less rarefied upbringing than these Upper East Side schools and country clubs that Shiv would have had. And they sort of mock him for that as well. Keiran’s character, Roman mocks, says it’s like a pig farm that’s walked into Brooks Brothers.
Exactly. So outside of being incredibly wealthy and “power” what do you think Tom’s motivation is through all of these episodes to try to run Waystar?
I don’t know, actually. I mean, in a sort of mental way, I don’t know any more than I know about my own ambitions in most situations. I don’t think he knows. I think he’s ambitious and he loves Shiv even though there’s all kinds of problems in their marriage and relationship at the moment. He’s ambitious and he loves the reflected glory of being her husband and climbing up the pole at Waystar. But I don’t know. I don’t think he has a sort of burning light at the end of the tunnel that he’s trying to get to. I think they have a sort of plan that they talk about, but it’s not easy being married to Shiv, I suppose.
No, it doesn’t appear to be.
It’s not easy being Logan’s son-in-law. And he sort of insinuates that a little bit at the end of the first season. I do think that if she sort of turned around one day and said, “Hey, let’s go and run a bar in the Bahamas.” He’d go, “O.K.”
I was always unclear how much he actually loved her or was using her to get further in the company, but there’s that great scene in the last episode of season two, which I feel is like one of the most dramatic scenes you’ve had an opportunity to do. It’s the scene on the beach where they’re basically talking about their broken marriage.
Yeah, and he said he’s unhappy.
How did you process that scene and when immediately after there is an amazing juxtaposition of the bizarre chicken-eating moment in front of Logan? Maybe that’s the show in a nutshell.
[Laughs.] I think it’s just unpredictable, like life, and I don’t think he knows he’s going to do that. I mean, I don’t really think he knows he’s going to say anything to Shiv. Often it just comes out like a sort of [gibberish sounds] and they’re ridiculously looking for the perfect covers and sulking and embarrassed about the threesome. And then I think something just happens where he feels able to say to her that he’s not happy and maybe they shouldn’t be together. And also they’ve got this dreadful [fear] about who’s going to take the fall for the company. So she says, at the end of that scene, “I’ll talk to Logan.” And he says, “No, I’ll talk to Logan.” And I don’t know, I don’t think he knows what he’s going to do or say. I think he just knows he has to speak to his father-in-law and be a man and then he takes his chicken. As soon as I read it, I go, “Of course. Of course. Perfect.”
And I know you often get asked about this, but how would you describe Tom and Greg’s relationship?
I don’t know. I often think that Tom really loves Greg on lots of levels. And on other levels, he finds him intentionally infuriating and aggravating and annoying, and a weird sort of threat, because he’s blood family, Greg.
He’s sort of constantly fighting the urge to kick the cat with Greg, but I don’t know. Tom likes being a sort of mentor, so he thinks. Likes being the sort of guy to show him the ropes. It’s sort of ridiculous, but I love acting with Nick. I love all that stuff so much.
You guys have such great chemistry and I’m very curious about the next season because it feels like there’ve been moments in season two where Greg wants to fight back.
He even tells Tom to shut up, once.
I mean, it’s pretty interesting because there are flashes of great, real morality with Greg. He’s trying to do the right thing. I mean, even Tom, when the cruise thing breaks, he tries to do the right thing and hold a press conference and gets shut down. Greg finds himself working at ATN, which is that sort of toxic news channel and wants to move. Nothing’s black and white.
Compared to the shows you’ve worked on in the past, especially in the UK, what has your experience been like on “Succession”?
It’s definitely been a highlight so far, but I’ve been doing this for 25 years now and I have been very lucky. I’ve had some really lovely jobs, but “Succession” is certainly up there. And as always, it’s the writing and the part you’re playing, for an actor, and it’s such a joy playing this part. I just love playing this type of character and I’d hadn’t always had the chance to, certainly not on screen, to play someone so ridiculous. Who isn’t a clown, but is sort of ludicrous in many ways. And also, the quality of the actors and the crew, they’re just world-class. They’re really wonderful and nice people as well, which is a bonus.
I talked to Kieran last week, in fact, you’re the last member of the cast that I’ve spoken to that’s been nominated this Emmy season. But Kieran said that he believed you guys were coming back in October. I know you guys were about to shoot season three and then the stay at home happened. In your mind, is that still going to happen?
I’ve heard October, I’ve heard November. I think November was the last thing I heard, but it changes every week. And I don’t know what to think. I’ve got a bag packed in the hall. I haven’t, but I have got an imaginary bag, which would be weird because it’s been so lovely being at home for such a long time with the kids and family and my wife. We’ve had a really lovely time, but they’re going back to school in a few weeks and I need to get back to work. But yeah, I’m hoping it’s November, but you never know with these things and it changes all the time, the situation.
The most pressing and most important question for you regards the Emmy’s will take place very late at night if you still happen to be in the UK. Are you going to stay up for this virtual ceremony or are you going to record something in case you win?
I haven’t decided yet. I don’t know. It’s really peculiar. It’s just an odd thing, so I don’t know. Yeah, it’s quite late and I’m getting quite old now.
You are not getting old.
I really don’t know. And I don’t know what format the ceremony will take and how it’ll work. They’re not pressing me for a response yet. But it’s a nice thing. I’ll miss seeing everybody in the flesh. That’ll be a shame.
That will definitely be a shame. Next year, hopefully. Next year things will be hopefully better.
Hopefully, yeah. Fingers crossed.
“Succession” Season 2 is available on HBO and HBO Max.