Entertainment

Matthew Macfadyen and Succession’s Tom Wambsgans Have Nothing in Common

Romance developed between Macfadyen and Hawes while shooting MI-5. She had very recently married the father of her young baby son. “Matthew just came straight out with it and said ‘I love you’ in the rain one day. I thought, Oh dear, here we go,” Hawes later told a reporter. The British tabloids and paparazzi swarmed the couple, closely following Hawes’s divorce and 2004 wedding to Macfadyen.

He tells me he doesn’t understand people’s desire to pry into the lives of actors, even though he once pored over his heroes’ biographies. “If you get too much information, it takes away…” Macfadyen lets his sentence trail off, as he often does. Takes away from the mystique? Or the actor’s ability to disappear into the role? “You just want to see them on a silver screen.”

Being a successful actor in the U.K. means that sooner or later you’ll find yourself in a costume drama. In 2005, Macfadyen shot to the top of the petticoat heap when he took on Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice—a famously brooding role previously perfected by Colin Firth. Macfadyen brought an intense shyness and vulnerability to Jane Austen’s character and became an instant heartthrob, inspiring fan fictions and lovestruck Tumblrs. “I wish I had enjoyed it more,” he says now, attempting to gracefully take a bite from a croque monsieur sandwich oozing cheese on all sides. “But I did feel pressure—maybe it was a self-imposed pressure of, you know: This is a big film, don’t get it wrong.” He says Pride & Prejudice was the first time he’d been fed through the publicity machine. “Which I didn’t like and I didn’t understand.”

Macfadyen recalls showing up late in an unironed shirt to an event for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association—the controversial group that runs the Golden Globes—where an old gentleman told him, “You won’t be nominated. Keira will be nominated.” He winces slightly as he continues, “I had a little baby, and I just wanted to be at home. I wish I’d had someone to [tell me]: This is how this works. This is the game.”

During the Pride & Prejudice shoot, the studio put him on a special diet and had a personal trainer whittle him into svelte Darcy mode. “I didn’t feel very Mr. Darcy–ish,” he says now. “I felt like a bit of a middle-aged dad.” But Firth, the Gen X Darcy to Macfadyen’s millennial Darcy, instantly grasped his successor’s appeal. “I finally understood the character!” he tells me via email. “I had to write a fan letter. Definitely my favourite Darcy.”

Macfadyen didn’t parlay the moment into a big Hollywood career. Instead, he chose to play roles such as a pedophile in British TV movie Secret Life. “I sort of ended up [being offered] a lot of things that are similar to Pride & Prejudice, and I thought: I mustn’t do that, I should try and do something different.” He pauses and looks at me in a way that feels genuinely searching. “Maybe I should have done it?”

Oyelowo recalls them having a heart-to-heart years ago when he told Macfadyen: “The reality is that you are a full-bore, indisputable leading man, and you keep hiding in the corner.” He adds now, “You have to persuade him he’s a leading man or that he’s good-looking or that he’s as talented as he is. And I’m just glad that opportunities have continued to come along to sort of drag him into inhabiting roles that are worthy of that talent.” Firth, who recently worked with Macfadyen on the Netflix movie Operation Mincemeat, agrees. “Even with my high expectations, I wasn’t prepared for his performance in Succession. I can’t see him anywhere in it and I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so surprised by an actor.”

Tom Wambsgans seems so utterly American that it’s hard to believe he’s being played by an Englishman, or that he was dreamed into existence by the series’ British creator, Jesse Armstrong. Macfadyen worked briefly with a dialect coach in preparation for the pilot but mostly just winged it. He’s delighted when fans tell him, “You sound like my Auntie Jean from St. Paul!” because he wants Tom to be a blank slate onto which the audience projects. “He’s like jelly,” Macfadyen says, splaying himself languidly across his red velvet chair.

I didn’t immediately understand Succession’s tone: a cringe-inducing satirical dramedy that exponentially raises the discomfort levels of shows like Veep and its U.K. inspiration, The Thick of It, both of which Armstrong wrote for. “It had a very ugly energy to it,” Macfadyen says of the Succession pilot. “Like: Am I allowed to laugh?” That tension is a crucial element of the show. “That’s what makes it so delicious and excruciating at once. And that’s also what makes me laugh hysterically. But it’s not a normal laugh. Like, I have to be led off set. I become incapable.”

Wambsgans himself rarely emits a genuine laugh on Succession except when he’s with Greg. The characters have become soul mates, or perhaps cellmates, in the Roys’ existential prison. The duo’s relationship is anything but straightforward, as was signaled in the very first episode, when Tom asks Greg to kiss him—a disorienting fake-out. (Or was it?) “I think Jesse’s really good at setting up a potential dynamic and testing it,” Braun says. “By giving us that scene in the pilot, he knew he could then get into the weirdness with us.” That culminated last season with Tom asking Greg to be Sporus to his Nero—a reference to the Roman emperor marrying a castrated slave boy named Sporus after killing his wife.

Macfadyen brings up the “homoerotic overtones” in Tom’s reference to Nero and Sporus, which adds fuel to audience fantasies of a Tom-Greg romance. “That’s great fun to play,” he says. “But again, that’s projection. If I look at Greg, I’m just looking at him. I mean, all I’m doing is just gazing at him.” You’re gazing at Greg the same way that Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy gazed at Miss Elizabeth Bennet, I point out. “That’s the fascinating thing, as an actor, because it’s all swirling around, and so people can just sort of see what they like.”

Braun hesitates to get too “gushy mushy and whatnot” but admits that he and Macfadyen are tight off-screen. “He’s a mentor and really just such a good friend,” he says. “He’s really there as a guy for me, and I am for him. I just fucking love the guy.”

COURTESY OF GRAEME HUNTER/HBO.

When he talks about Tom, Macfadyen takes on the tone of an affectionate uncle discussing a rogue nephew. “He’s not without ambition and vanity,” he says. That’s an understatement: The last season of Succession ends with him betraying his wife and seemingly gliding into a new position as de facto right-hand man to Logan. As Macfadyen quips, “Tom would open the gates to the death camps.” Tom is a good bureaucrat happy to shred evidence of sexual assaults and go along with Logan’s plan to smear the president and pick a new, more fascist candidate to replace him. Spending so much time in his character’s head during the past five years has made Macfadyen look at politicians differently. “That’s the really depressing thing about the Republican Party. You think: I don’t believe you, you’re just a Wambsgans! You’re just doing this to toe the line.” We agree that Wambsganning should enter the common parlance. “Wambsganning! If you just are dumb and bigoted, that’s [one thing]. But if you’re just spinning it, then it’s really contemptible.”

One of the show’s writers recently compared Tom to Princess Diana, which left Macfadyen trying to decode the parallels. Like Di, Tom is “slightly other,” he says—an outsider who never quite gains admittance to the inner sanctum. Macfadyen experienced something similar as a young man. His nomadic youth left him feeling like a kid from everywhere and nowhere. In drama school, his best friend was an actor from Liverpool. “I envied him,” he says. “He had such a sense of self and place.” But this rootless upbringing set him up well for inhabiting Tom, a chameleon precariously clawing his way up the Waystar Royco hierarchy.

Macfadyen does have a very British approach to acting that doesn’t require him to marinate in his own wellsprings of emotion and experience. When I bring up The New Yorker’s Jeremy Strong profile, which portrayed the actor as someone who stays inside the bubble of his suffering character while others decompress between takes, it’s the one time in our nearly three-hour conversation that Macfadyen gets visibly irritated. “I find it slightly aggravating because—it makes [the show] about one thing, and it’s an ensemble piece,” he says of the article, noting the costars who play Gerri and Connor. “You think of J. Smith-Cameron and Alan Ruck, who are fucking extraordinary actors. [Strong] is not the main event.”

Macfadyen is annoyed by the implication that actors who don’t stay in character “aren’t as invested, or as involved, as someone who’s weeping in a corner.” And the steeped-in-suffering approach to a character just generally baffles him. He doesn’t need to stay inside Tom, because the minute they start shooting, things click into place. “I look at Jeremy—that’s Kendall Roy, and so my heart starts banging a bit faster. Because I’ve made the imaginative leap. Because that’s my job. It’s not about what I’m feeling or what state I’ve got myself in before, or any of that. That’s not to say that’s wrong. That’s just not useful.” He describes shooting the famous boar-on-the-floor scene with visible delight. “We’re in this hall in this incredible, powerful, scary, hilarious, and awful scene…. It’s gladiatorial, because you’re there at this table. And you’re thinking, Fuck!” It’s not hard to feel the right feelings “because the writing is there for you and Brian is shouting at you!”

Macfadyen is amused by the way fans treat Succession like Lost, searching in its folds for Easter eggs and clues to how long Tom was in league with Logan. Did it begin when Logan went “piss mad” and Tom took him to the bathroom, or were they in league before that? Was he the one who tipped Logan off to send doughnuts when the siblings were meeting early in season three? “I suppose it is possible,” he says offhandedly, “but I certainly didn’t know that.”

According to Macfadyen, the writers keep a file crammed with scenes and possible relationships that haven’t yet panned out. Isn’t he dying to see it? “No, it’s kind of nice not knowing,” he says. “There’s nothing more thrilling than waiting for episode four [script] to come in when you’re shooting episode three. Because we don’t know what’s going to happen.” He has his own ideas about Tom’s betrayal of Shiv—“it’s an accumulation of stings and belittling and humiliations”—but insists he has no idea where the writers will swerve next season. “I can imagine Tom perfectly well saying, ‘I wasn’t hurt, I just made a practical move!’ ”

Between Succession seasons, Macfadyen has taken on interesting but not exactly sexy roles—he played a real-life former army major who cheated on a game show in Quiz and a mustachioed, real-life British World War II intelligence officer in Operation Mincemeat. Because he and Firth had never been onscreen together before, it was a meeting of Darcys. Macfadyen jokes, “I’m the young Darcy, and I’m not going to let him forget it!”

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