Everyone in HBO’s Succession is bound together by a greedy killer instinct. Everyone, that is, except for Tom Wamsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), a character who’s part audience proxy and part comic relief: He’s the dopey Minnesota man marrying into the obscenely wealthy Roy family. Where his fiancée, Shiv (Sarah Snook), is the pitiless daughter of a corporate titan, Tom just seems generally nervous to be invited anywhere. Every episode finds him doing something odd or off kilter, like proposing to Shiv in a hospital hallway after her father’s brain hemorrhage, or giving her a goofy thumbs-up during a family spat. “Most of what Tom does is governed by fear,” Macfadyen says.
Mastering Tom’s American accent was hard for the English actor, best known for 2005’s Pride and Prejudice, but the result is hilarious: He leaves dramatic lines — about the Roy family, or the history of debauchery within the amusement-parks division he runs — twisting in the air, like he’ll change his mind to agree with you mid-syllable. “I found it difficult when I had to improvise sometimes,” Macfadyen says. “I tend to go quite high with my American voice. I kept thinking, Why am I sounding like Mickey Mouse?”
In Sunday night’s episode, “Which Side Are You On?”, Tom has a new mission: teaching Shiv’s lazy, 20-something second cousin, Greg (Nicholas Braun), how to wine and dine like the super rich. Macfadyen talked to Vulture about Tom’s role as the resident patsy, playing an American for the very first time, and his own biggest extravagances.
Tom is this guy from Minneapolis thrown into a powerful New York family. How did you approach the character?
I just go with the script, really. It’s all there in the writing. You get a feel for it. That’s the lovely thing about doing long-form TV — it builds as you work. The writers are influenced by what you’re doing a little bit, and things change when you’re improvising and playing with the other actors. It’s quite an organic feel.
Did you do lots of improv?
We did a little bit, yeah. The writers, led by Jesse [Armstrong] and Tony Roche, were really brilliant — Susan Stanton, Lucy Prebble, Jonathan Glatzer. They would always have alternate lines at the ends of scenes, so we’d shoot the scenes and they’d come in with other sides and we’d do something a little bit different, which is such fun and just keeps it fresh and exciting.
Tom has some very unnerving line readings, especially with Greg. He’ll say something totally demented and then play it off as a joke. You can’t tell if he’s being serious.
He’s horrible to Greg, isn’t he? [Laughs.] I guess he’s unsettled by Greg, but actually they end up needing each other a little bit. Initially, he’s so desperate to be close to Logan and be in the family and be accepted, but Greg coming in is a real threat.
Episode six really capitalizes on the humor in their relationship. Tom tutors Greg about being rich, starting off by telling him that California Pizza Kitchen is not a nice restaurant.
[Laughs.] Yeah, eating those little birds!
How was it filming that dinner scene?
Every scene I did with Nick [Braun], we couldn’t wait to shoot it and then we’d panic because we’ve got terrible giggles. We’d very easily break out laughing. It was quite nerve-racking because we were thinking, We’re gonna screw this up and people are going to get cross with us and maybe we’re enjoying it a bit too much, you know? We’re not being as funny as we think we are. So, it was tricky in that sense. I think Greg and Tom have ended up with a nice sort of double act, in a funny way. They’re an odd couple.
At one point, Tom also takes Greg clubbing. Were nightclubs ever your scene?
No, I’m not a nightclub person really. In my 20s I was into pubs, and now I’ve never really liked nightclubs. That’s the nice thing about acting, because you can do the stuff you never really did in your life in a really cheesy way.
What do you think Tom sees in Shiv?
He’s in love with Shiv. They make each other laugh and I think he genuinely loves her, but also it’d be a lie to say that he wasn’t attracted to the family and the money and their power. That’s part of it, too. I think he’s probably punching a little bit above his weight, actually, with Siobhan. But they seem to get along pretty well.
Speaking of punching above his weight, a few episodes ago, Tom learned about the abuse allegations in the Roy family’s amusement parks. How do you think he handled it?
I think he really does find it problematic, a little bit. It’s always that fine line of how much he’s covering himself and how much he really cares if it all just went away. But his first instinct is to get the lawyers and go to the press and make a clean start. Come clean. And then Siobhan really quickly says, “Don’t do that,” and then he buries it.
How did you imagine Tom’s personal history? There’s a hint that his mom is a powerful attorney in Minneapolis.
Yeah, his mom is also his lawyer and she’s a lawyer in the Twin Cities. You see mom and dad in the last two episodes actually, in the wedding, which is quite nice. You see Tom’s parents. [Laughs.] I don’t know when we decided he was from Minnesota, but it seemed to work.
Succession is a show about the super wealthy. What is your biggest extravagance?
In my own life? Oh God. The house. The holidays. I’ve got three kids. My wife and I like hotels and going out and that kind of stuff.
So, no $2,000 gold-gilded vodka?
No, exactly. It’s not gold-leaf vodka!
People point to Pride and Prejudice as being your breakout role, but what role was most important to you as an actor?
I don’t know, to be honest. I’ve been really lucky. I’ve loved most of the roles I play, so there isn’t one in particular that I can think of. Some roles were a bit more high profile than others, but then, you learn just as much from doing a ten-month tour with a theater company. I’m just happy that I’m still working.
Do people still ask you about Pride and Prejudice?
A little bit. Not so much.
Well, I told both my mom and my best friend that I was doing this interview and they both freaked out. It’s their favorite movie and they’re in love with you.
Oh, really? Thanks very much. It was a nice job. It feels like a long time ago. Pride and Prejudice is just one of those wonderful stories that people love.