As soon as Matthew Macfadyen hops on the phone to discuss the Succession finale, he admits he hasn’t had the chance to watch it yet. He’s calling from London, where it’s currently bleak and rainy, and he promises he’s going to watch “once the children are back in school and safely ensconced their bedrooms or whatever.” Still, he’s delighted to share his memories of filming the twisty, sun-drenched finale on a giant yacht off the coast of Croatia, where he got to wear nice linens, slide off a waterslide, and film extended scenes with a cast of actors he admires.
Macfayden’s experience on the yacht, it must be said, was a lot better than his character’s: Tom Wambsgans spends most of the finale fearing for his job after a disastrous congressional hearing, or getting increasingly fed up with his wife, Shiv (Sarah Snook), who insists on extending their open marriage into having a threesome. Finally, Tom snaps, tells Shiv he thinks he’d be happier without her, and starts stealing chicken off Logan’s plate. In advance of his own viewing of the finale, Macfadyen broke it all down for us.
Tom goes through a lot in the finale, but I want to start by asking about the moment where he takes a piece of chicken from Logan and says, “Thank you for the chicken.” What do you remember about that scene?
The first time I did it, I grabbed a really big bit of breast of the chicken off Brian’s plate and I almost choked. We managed for about two and a half seconds and then we just cracked up. He rarely giggles, so if he goes, that’s it. Game’s over. I had to really concentrate, and I took a smaller bite of the leg. I ended up with a drumstick, but I had quite a lot of chicken. It’s so batty and odd and so Succession, that moment. Tom’s really at a low ebb. He thinks, Fuck it, you know?
Tom reaches a point where he can’t take it anymore, with Shiv and with the whole family. Did you talk much beforehand about what would finally push him over the edge?
The less talking about those things the better, unless there’s confusion or if there’s anything that’s really opaque. Most of the time, Sarah and I can’t wait to shoot the scene. Then, in the shooting of it with Mark Mylod, the director, things occur to you in the moment.
It must be fun to shoot a breakup scene on a lovely beach in the Mediterranean. Were there any moments with Sarah in the shooting of that scene that changed your performance?
I just love acting with her. She’s wonderful. It’s such a treat that we have these great big family scenes, and often they’re very long scenes. The big one on the yacht was almost ten minutes — it was a whole magazine of film that we used. It’s really exciting working with such brilliant actors, ’cause you’re forced to pay attention. We have maybe three or four cameras, and they’re so skillful at picking up bits and pieces and moving around. You never really know how much you’re featuring in that take of that scene. It makes you concentrate.
When I watched the episode, I initially thought, Good for Tom, finally standing up for himself! But then I got worried. Would Shiv and Tom really get divorced? What might happen to him if he’s on the Roys’ bad side? Have you thought about where things might go next season?
No, I really don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m pretty passive about it. They must be tucked into the writers’ room now, but I don’t mind where they decide to go.
You don’t worry about what might happen?
Because there’s nothing I can do. He’s not my baby. It’s not my character. It’s Jesse Armstrong’s and the writers’. When the script’s coming home, then my job starts. Till then, it’s out of my hands.
There was a lot of speculation about who the “blood sacrifice” would be in the finale. Were you and the cast invested in that?
[Laughs.] Yeah, there was muffled chat about it throughout the preceding episodes. Someone would say, “Oh, I’ve heard it’s this person.” Someone else would say, “Well, it’s definitely not going to be them, it may be you.” We didn’t really know until the read-through.
What was your reaction to the twist ending, when you learned that Kendall would sell out Logan?
I thought it was really clever. You go, “Kendall’s gonna take the hit,” and then that wonderful final twist. It’s a very satisfying conclusion.
It makes the company much more unstable, which must hard for a company man like Tom.
He just wishes he was in a nice, stable, multibillion-pound-a-year company. Not one that’s so on the waves. It’s an interesting dynamic because it looks like Greg has perhaps gone onto Team Kendall now. My only selfish worry would be not seeing more of my friend Greg. [Laughs.] My special friend Gregory.
I was jealous that you all got to spend time on this big yacht and wear linen clothing and everything. Did you actually stay onboard?
We asked, obviously. It was brilliant because we’d jump on a speedboat and have a 20-minute ride to the set — which was the yacht, every day. It was a joke. The next time I’m filming in the rain, or in a city environment, or in the filthy gray back countryside, I’ll remember that. I’d almost say it was no imagination required because you’re aboard this enormous floating palace. It’s very easy to think, Oh, this is where I vacation. It has ruined any kind of yacht experience for anybody who was there for the rest of their lives.
All other yachts will be smaller and disappointing.
They’ll look a bit mean in comparison.
You also had to go off the inflatable slide down the side of the yacht, which is a pretty funny acting challenge. How do you look sad while going off the side of a yacht in the Mediterranean?
I did a couple of takes! [Laughs.] Such fun, just a silly, silly day of work.
In the congressional hearings, we learn that Tom has routinely harassed Greg by sending him emails that say, “You can’t make a Tomelette without breaking some Greggs.” I was wondering if you knew how Tom spelled “omelette”; was it British or American spelling?
I think it was a European spelling, like with the E-double-T. I think properly it was a nod to the British contingent in the writing room.
Before Tom snaps, he’s dopily trying to go along with everything the Roys suggest on the yacht. What was it like playing that?
He really tries to please. He tries to be a good guy and wants to be popular and wants to be useful. He likes the trappings of wealth and status and all the rest of it, but it’s a scary environment.
There are these moments earlier in the season, like when they’re in their room at the Pierce estate, where you can see a bit of tenderness between Shiv and Tom. But when they’re actively playing the game, she switches that tenderness off.
It’s a gift for an actor, those wonderful big swerves of tone. Slightly unhinged, but it’s wonderful.
Speaking of those swerves, there’s a debate in our office about whether Succession is a drama or a comedy. What side do you fall on?
Well, the actor’s job is to play everything dead straight. Truthfully. The situation is funny, but life is funny. Life is ridiculous. Life is a farce. Look at the clown in the White House. You couldn’t make it up. So I would always err on the side of saying it’s a drama with jokes. Life is inherently preposterous and scary.
When I talked to your wife, Keeley Hawes, last year, she said she might be the only person rooting for Tom. Is that still the case?
She’s a good wife, very loyal! She has been working her socks off, so she hasn’t been watching. I think she’s seen the first episode, so she’s a little behind, so hopefully she’ll be rooting for me this season.