March 2023 has been a month of comebacks and revenge served cold. Chris Rock bided his time for a full year before unleashing a ferocious riposte to Will Smith just before this year’s Oscars. At the ceremony itself, downtrodden and forgotten stars like Brendan Fraser and Ke Huy Quan emerged from showbiz purgatory to grab gongs.
But perhaps the month’s most anticipated revenge moment of all begins tomorrow night on Sky Atlantic, when we learn what happened next when television’s greatest toady, Tom Wambsgans switched sides in the final season of Succession.
Tom’s avenging of festering sores has been a long time coming. In the jostling for power at the heart of a media dynasty, he has been something of an outsider, cuckolded and bullied by his wife Shiv (a steely-eyed Sarah Snook), who demands an open marriage on their wedding night, and set up as the fall guy for a corporate malfeasance case.
In the finale of the last series – spoiler alert – it sensationally emerges that he has foiled Shiv and her siblings in their attempt to usurp their father, Logan. As the episode closes Tom embraces Shiv from behind and her eyes dart to one side like a character in a Graham Knuttel painting, as it dawns on her what has happened.
Could the family’s whipping boy, the mid-western lad mixing with billionaires, be finally, as he puts it himself, “heading away from the endless middle”?
The actor who portrays him, Matthew Macfadyen – speaking to me via Zoom from Michigan where he’s shooting for the film Holland Michigan, starring opposite Nicole Kidman – won’t be drawn on whether the character becomes the new dark prince of Waystar RoyCo, the company that’s a fictional counterpart to any number of moral-free media behemoths. But he understands why Tom’s riveting mixture of cruelty and comedy has made him the real star of the show for many fans.
“Playing him is therapeutic precisely because he is so excruciating and so much of what he does is so embarrassing – the contortions he gets himself into and the way he’s by turns so obsequious and such a bully. It’s liberating to play that because you can say these hurtful, vile and appalling things but it’s all serving a story.”
Tom is “utterly sycophantic to one character, and then will eat buckets of shit for another character, and then will bully this one until they want to kill him”.
The subject of much of his bullying is his RoyCo underling, cousin Greg, with whom Tom enjoys the most twisted of bromances. Even amid the bounty of zingers the show has thrown up, there’s no doubt their relationship has given the series some of its most memorable lines. “You can’t make a Tomlette without breaking some Gregs,” Tom tells his baffled adjutant at one point, in a moment that has spawned endless memes, merchandise and mimicry.
In another scene which seems to sum up their lovingly abusive dynamic Tom tells Greg: “Well, Nero pushed his wife down the stairs, and then he had Sporus [his boy slave] castrated and he married him instead. I’d castrate you and marry you in a heartbeat.” It’s saying something that, in many ways, theirs is the purest relationship in Succession.
At rest Macfadyen’s face has the look of someone who might have just done something terrible, if slightly comic, like a house cat that has just swallowed the pet budgie
Macfadyen says that it was one of the early scenes with Greg (played with bumbling brilliance by Nicholas Braun, with whom Macfadyen is good friends) which helped him tap into Tom’s motivations.
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“When I read the script for the pilot, there’s a bit where Tom turns on Greg and f**ks with him and starts saying: ‘Will you kick me? I’m joking. Am I joking? I’m not joking.’ And I thought, oh, OK, this is a nice little sort of characterisation of the guy and how he operates.”
The discordant and deeply funny note of weirdness was established. And yet, he adds: “Underneath it all there is real affection there. Tom and Greg get each other and they need each other.”
It’s difficult to imagine any other actor playing Tom. At rest Macfadyen’s face has the look of someone who might have just done something terrible, if slightly comic, like a house cat that has just swallowed the pet budgie. And little black jokes dance on his lips: Macfadyen says that in another era Tom could have been in charge of some terrible genocide.
“This is the death camp, come in,” he imagines Tom exclaiming, as though leading some corporate tour. “I’ll turn on the ovens.” But there are also other quieter elements of his own personality in the character.
“I recognise aspects of myself in Tom, like I want to please. And there’s this sort of insecurity that he has that I can recognise in myself. There’s always different things you can find, but conversely, it’s really fun to lean into and relish the stuff you wouldn’t do or you don’t recognise in yourself. Like addressing a boardroom and firing people and all that stuff.
“I’d rather kill myself. I can’t imagine doing that in real life. I’ve had a very weird and unstructured existence so the idea of being in that corporate system is kind of alien to me.”
Macfadyen always seemed destined to be an actor. His mother Meinir, whose family are Welsh, was a drama teacher and former actress.
“I was encouraged by my parents, I suppose, but my mum certainly wasn’t pushing me on stage or anything. She was just like, ‘oh, my little boy likes doing this’.
“I was probably quite shy and yet I didn’t feel shy when I was on stage. I think because you have that structure you have a safety net. And I guess the sort of performative aspect of it, the gladiatorial aspects of it, being up there in front of everyone and trying to make them feel something, that was appealing to me.”
His father Martin was an oil engineer and his work necessitated moving the family around a lot, resulting in a fairly peripatetic childhood. “I didn’t like the endless arriving at a new school halfway through a term, I suppose, but then who does? But overall I had a very happy childhood.
“My mum and dad, they were happy, and so me and my brother were happy. You’re happy if your parents are happy, and it was exciting, an adventure. I went to a boarding school when I was around 11.
“We lived in Jakarta at that time. And then I had a continuity of being there until I was about 17 when I left, when I did my A-levels, and so I’d go back to these lovely holidays in the Far East and various places, while my mum and dad moved around.”
After school he was accepted into RADA, a decision which “gobsmacked” him. “I didn’t think I’d get in. I thought I should sort of test myself with a big grown-up audition, and I was quite young and I got a place. That was probably the red letter day of my life at that point.”
At 20 he moved straight from RADA to the renowned Cheek by Jowl theatre group and starred in the company’s acclaimed production of The Duchess of Malfi. He was mentored by Declan Donnellan, who remains one of the most respected directors in British theatre.
“Declan is a very close friend of mine, and he’s probably the one person I think of if I feel sort of in a rut with a character or a scene or something. He’s probably the biggest influence in terms of a teacher or director that I’ve had.”
He would’ve happily continued as a theatre actor but when he was 25, Marcia Gresham (Daniel Radcliffe’s mother) cast him in BBC drama Warriors, about UN peacekeepers in Bosnia. Soon after he starred in the hit spy drama Spooks alongside his future wife, Keeley Hawes.
He recalls it as the first time he began getting recognised on the street, something that has ebbed and flowed over the years, depending on which of his series are currently being streamed.
His big break is generally taken to have been 2005’s Pride & Prejudice but he doesn’t remember it that way. “It was a break in terms of it being a big film but I was already working happily enough. I didn’t think I was very good in it. But it was fine. It was another job.”
He has worked a number of times with Hawes since meeting her on the set of Spooks, most recently on Stonehouse. He also starred in Quiz, a dramatisation of the so-called “coughing major”, Charles Ingram, who was caught cheating his way to victory on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?.
Macfadyen says “you do sort of worry” about the difficulty of working with a spouse, but actually it was a treat because so often we’re like ships passing in the night. And so to go to work with your nearest and dearest, who’s also an amazing actress, was a real treat.”
The couple, who married in 2004, have two children together and Macfadyen is stepfather to Hawes’s son from a previous marriage. Fatherhood, he says, was “lovely when the kids were small and is now [that they’re grown] lovely in a different way”. The emotions are “endless joy and worry, a mix of those two”.
He still thinks of himself as “cool” he adds, but he thinks they see him as a little fuddy duddy. “But I don’t mind that, I quite like it. That’s how it should be. I think it would probably be excruciating if I was really down with the kids. Like I said to my son the other day: ‘I’m not your mate, I’m your Dad.’”
He turns 50 next year and says: “I’m quite happy about it. I was relieved when I turned 40. I don’t mind getting older. I’m not particularly looking forward to falling to bits and aches and pains and all the rest of it. But I don’t mind, as long as I’m sort of fit and healthy, I quite like it.”
Succession is one of the ground-breaking shows of the last few years and started a trend which now runs through films like Triangle of Sadness and series like The White Lotus, of mocking the rich.
He says he agrees with one of the show’s writers, Lucy Prebble, who last year told People & Culture that all this satire hasn’t had any noticeable real-world effect: if anything, inequality has gotten worse. And he suggests the mega-wealthy may take a certain pleasure in being skewered.
“Succession is really popular with the titans of industry and hedge fund managers as well. They seem to love it. I’m certain wealthy people are not happier [because of their wealth].
“There’s that thing where if you earn over a certain amount of money, depending on where you are, the amount of noughts [on your bank balance] doesn’t make any difference to your happiness.” Stardom, he says, certainly doesn’t make you happier. “Absolutely not.”
One of Tom’s most memorable scenes in Succession was with the dynasty’s scion and the man destined to never take over, Kendall Roy (played by Jeremy Strong).
“My hunch is you’re going to get f**ked,” Tom tells him. “Because I’ve seen you get f**ked a lot. And I’ve never seen Logan get f**ked once.” Kendall revels in scandal, consoling himself that being lampooned on social media still means he is “part of the conversation”.
At times life has seemed to imitate art, and I wonder how Macfadyen felt when he saw his recent Vanity Fair interview which suggested he was irritated when they brought up an infamous New Yorker profile of his co-star which focussed on Strong’s eccentricities and method acting.
“They [Vanity Fair] said that I was visibly annoyed, but I wasn’t really, it’s just that anything that skews the attention to one thing is not healthy and sort of not correct. Because it’s an ensemble piece. It’s not all about one person’s process. But we all have different ways of working and that’s absolutely fine.”
The speculation about how the show will end has prompted endless fan speculation but has been such a tightly guarded secret, Macfadyen says, that he was never sure how the series will bow out.
“Jesse [Armstrong, the show’s creator] had a particular idea and they thought it might be the last one and they had gotten to the end of the story they wanted to tell. But then there was a doubt, so right until the end we [the actors] were wondering, ‘oh, what’s going to happen.’”
It has been a tumultuous time in his life, in which he has become very much an A-list actor, recognised on the streets of Manhattan when he walks around. “Sometimes you want to walk around and think your own thoughts and gaze, walk, and you can’t do that.”
Now that the question posed by the title of the series is about to finally be answered, I wonder how he feels about it ending.
“It’s odd, there is a sort of heartbreak because you get very close to people and it’s been a happy time. But after six years I have played every colour in this part. So there’s grief, but relief as well.”
‘Succession’ Season 4 premieres March 27 at 9pm on Sky Atlantic