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Matthew Macfadyen Keeps Chewing His Way Through ‘Succession’

The British actor behind Tom Wambsgans previews Season 3, breaks down some of his favorite scenes, and explains what it was like devouring chicken in front of Brian Cox

HBO/Ringer illustration

If there’s anything laudable about the largely loathsome characters on Succession, it’s their consistency. To the extent that they evolve at all, they somehow manage to become more of themselves with every episode. Cousin Greg moves up in the professional world while always finding himself center stage as the clownish comic relief. Roman detonates his personal relationships—as well as a satellite rocket launch—with increasingly cringeworthy behavior. And Shiv keeps pushing toward an open marriage that only one person in the union is actually cool with.

That last part has been tough for Shiv’s husband, Tom Wambsgans, a Minnesota transplant who just wants to be regular bored like every other obscenely wealthy corporate executive trapped in a loveless marriage with the offspring of a billionaire who owns a mega corporation. Is that really too much to ask? To hear Matthew Macfadyen tell it, apparently so. During a recent chat with Macfadyen, who plays Tom with equal parts sad-sack sympathy and belly-splitting deadpan humor, he hinted that any silver linings Wambsgans might otherwise find in the forthcoming Season 3 will most likely be obscured by the ominous storm clouds that forever hover over the Roy family.

Which sucks for Tom, though Macfadyen is doing just fine, thanks. And why not? He earned an Emmy nod for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Series for playing Wambsgans, and he’s a key cast member on a show that shoots in some of the most beautiful and outrageous locations in the world. Not to mention that, despite the often grim subject matter—sexual assault scandals, corporate malfeasance, a crumbling love life and the specter of going to prison—the part affords Macfadyen plenty of opportunities to laugh. During our conversation, we talked about all of that—what might be in store for Tom and the Roy clan in Season 3, how hard it is to keep from breaking during some of the more absurd scenes, and the perks that come with being on a show about billionaires. And food. We talked a lot about food.

So how do things go for Season 3? Does everybody get along and resolve all their differences?

They do! They do. Everyone is a happy family and it ends with a big party at Logan’s house and we decide to all be CEO together. It’s a really lovely, democratic, kind of egalitarian ending for them. It’s great.

I’ve always wanted that for them. For Tom, were you surprised he didn’t take the fall? Obviously in Season 2 he seems sort of surprised—and relieved.

Yeah, I think he thought it was coming and he was relieved. And of course he realizes that he’s not really happy in his marriage and doesn’t really trust his wife. And then Season 3 starts immediately after that. That’s sort of the result of him and Shiv and this terrible threat of the company being taken over and Kendall’s betrayal and the rest of it. Everyone is sort of in crisis mode.

Per usual. I wanted to commend you, by the way. Angry Tom, before Kendall takes the fall, where he’s literally eating Logan’s lunch, was just excellent. I’m always curious about when actors eat in a scene. How many times did you shoot that? How many chickens did you eat? Do you even like chicken?

The first time I did it I got a big bit of chicken breast, and I put too much in my mouth. And I had to just say, “Thank you for the chicken.” Brian [Cox], who plays Logan, never breaks. Never cracks up. Very rarely. And he lost it. And so I lost it. And I was thinking, “I can’t do this.” So the next take I took a chicken leg and had a little bit. It was less kind of, you know, hard.

It’s an occupational choking hazard and you have to work through it all.

Soon after I decided I would really eat in a scene, and then I remember being sick because I had just eaten mounds of kedgeree in this one TV thing I was doing. Because I thought—actors will pick at their food in scenes, usually, in films and TV. And there’s a reason why they do that.

This is all of a sudden a culinary interview. We’re just going to talk about food. I asked my friends who watch the show if there were any questions they wanted me to ask you, and the main one was you eating Logan’s lunch. But the other question was from Season 1 where you had the small bird, the ortolan. Did you actually eat the ortolan?

That was just a joyful scene to do. It was so funny. We had little marzipan ortolan made, amazingly, by the art department.

Oh, so it’s fake.

Totally. Yeah.

That’s probably for the best.

Yeah. I think it’s illegal to eat them. They’re little songbirds. They’re protected.

You mentioned how Brian never breaks, and I was wondering about your interaction with Nicholas Braun. You’ve turned into this great buddy comedy duo. When you’re going through a scene like the ortolan or other great exchanges, what’s that back-and-forth like, and who breaks more?

Sometimes we get into a state where you think, “Oh, it’s irretrievable and we can’t sober up.” Because some of the things are so funny. He makes me laugh uncontrollably. Sometimes, most of the time, we work through it. Because you realize that the crew is getting impatient. Because it’s not that funny. It’s only funny to us. Out of guilt and shame we get it together and manage to do the scenes properly. Sometimes, if we’re worried about cracking up in a scene, we’ll meet the day before and talk through it and run it through a few times so we have the giggles out of our system.

I find that guilt and shame are primary professional motivators.

But it doesn’t always work, that’s the weird thing. You sort of think about burning children or whatever and it doesn’t sober you. Nothing really stops it. And the amount of trouble you’ll get in if you don’t stop laughing is sort of proportional to the difficulty. I had it once with Kieran [Culkin]. We were shooting a scene and we both couldn’t stop laughing. And [series creator] Jesse [Armstrong] brilliantly came up and said, “You know what? I think you can laugh in this scene. For the characters, I think it’s OK. I think it works.” And it immediately killed it. We did the scene without laughing.

Obviously you’re British. You gave an interview where you said you and Sarah Snook “feel like terrible frauds”—those were your words—because of the American accents you do. In addition to being fascinated by actors who have to eat on set, accent work is like wizardry to me. It’s magic. Were you naturally good at it? Do you drop it in between scenes?

I drop it between scenes, yeah. I probably shouldn’t. It’s probably more consistent if I didn’t but I just don’t. I think I’ve got quite a good ear, but it’s hard doing an American accent. It’s hard improvising in an American accent, too, sometimes. But because I’m surrounded by American accents I can kind of hear the music in my head. And hopefully it’s getting better. It’s a great release for an actor. It’s like putting on a big hat or something because it’s so far away from the rhythms of how I speak. The timbre of my voice is different when I’m doing an American accent. The music of it is totally different from a British accent, which is totally staccato and all consonants. And Americans are long and languid and full of vowels.

Having known many Americans in my life, I think it’s the first time anyone has described our accent as lyrical or musical. Most of the time it’s just obnoxious.

[Prolonged laugh.] Yeah.

You mentioned Tom and Shiv’s relationship picking up where it left off in Season 3, but toward the end of Season 2 there’s some really powerful and dark moments between them—darkly funny as well. “Shanghaied into an open-borders free-fuck trade deal.” Again, I don’t know how you pulled that off without laughing hysterically.

With those funny parts, you just have to play them deadly straight. Especially in that scene, he’s really hurting. He’s sort of saying, “You brought up the notion of having an open marriage on our wedding night.” That’s just bankrupt, morally. It’s just awful. It’s really sad. But you’re right, it’s hilarious. She talks about having a bit of “side dick.” And he doesn’t want to have a threesome. It’s just beautiful writing.

The line that might have gotten the most attention: “I wonder if the sad I’d be without you would be less than the sad I get from being with you.” To spin that forward, is Tom still sad as we go through Season 3?

He is, yeah. He’s maybe hardening himself for what’s to come. He’s also got the threat of prison looming over him. And feeling like he’s on quicksand with his wife and his relationship and his job. There’s the terrible threat of the company being taken over and everyone losing their jobs. There’s a lot going on.

I don’t want to end on such a somber note, so: I know it’s part of the job, but it would seem like it’s a very cool perk where the locations you shoot in include mega mansions and super yachts and, in Season 3, Italy. I know Italy famously sucks.

Especially July in Tuscany. It’s horrid.

For my job, at The Ringer, they sent me to Cleveland. It’s just like Italy.

Right? Just hilariously beautiful. I’d never been to Tuscany before. That was a real treat. It was just really nice. Really nice. That’s the perks of shooting a story about a billionaire family. They’re all really nice locations. And also we were in Florence. I’d never been to Florence. And of course we were there with no tourists, because of COVID. I had lunch one day and there were no tourists. Normally you’d have to queue for three hours. We were pinching ourselves.

But gelato—apparently if you eat gelato every day, your clothes sort of shrink. It’s really weird.

I told you we were going to make this mostly about food.

Yeah, we’ve come back to food. Full circle.

This interview has been edited and condensed.