Owner of the best surname in TV memory – as well as being a subject of our number one Succession quote – Tom Wambsgans’ awkward disposition, workplace bullying and twisted bromance with Greg have made him one of the show’s standout characters. With Season 3 officially up and running on NOW and Sky Atlantic, we spoke to Matthew Macfadyen about playing Tom, achieving authenticity on set, and what makes these godawful rich people so damn compelling to watch.
READ MORE: Succession Season 3 Review
PILOT TV: So the last time I saw you, we were talking about Quiz, and as an aside you said you couldn’t wait to start filming Succession. Did shooting Season 3 live up to your expectations?
MATTHEW MACFADYEN: I still feel that way, I haven’t deviated from that. It was, like everything, more difficult to film with all those restrictions, and a bit less convivial, I suppose, but we did it. And with travel restrictions we were probably a bit more Manhattan-bound than we might have been, but I don’t feel like it’s affected it in a bad way. It still feels like Succession.
It does, 100%. In Season 3, we get to see another side to Tom. After the hearings of Season 2, the threat of prison is hanging over him. Was that fun to explore?
He’s really haunted by it. It’s scary for him. I was talking to Jon Brown [executive producer] and Tony Roche [executive producer] about how there are plenty of prison blogs you can go on, and sort of work out what’s coming for you. And so there’s some stuff in the show, like ‘toilet wine’; that’s all real. He has a prison consultant [laughs], and I don’t know whether that’s real, but I don’t see why it shouldn’t be.
Tom refuses to tell Shiv [Sarah Snook] that he loves her in the first episode. What’s going on there?
He’s still reeling from the scene on the beach, and her throwing him under the bus in the big conference scene on the yacht. He’s really rocked by that. I mean, he’s endlessly rocked by her, since they’ve been together I suppose, but that’s really affected him, the idea of taking the fall for the company. And they haven’t had time to digest that and talk about it, because they go right into crisis mode after Kendall’s [Jeremy Strong] betrayal. So yeah, he’s not on solid ground at all, I’d say.
The scenes where he’s back with Cousin Greg, that’s where he at least gets to have fun – even if it’s at Greg’s expense.
Yeah exactly, but then it’s also a sort of weird fear of Greg maybe outgrowing him. That still lingers. I think Tom would quite like to see Greg do well, and to have a hand in it. I think he imagines Greg thanking Tom later in life, and saying ‘Tom Wambsgans made me the man I am’. I think he really cares about Greg, but he doesn’t want to lose control.
You don’t start a take thinking ‘I’ve gotta get this right’ – you just start and see what happens. It’s energising and galvanising in that way.
Did the writers talk to you about Tom’s character arc before you started on Season 3?
A little bit, but not specifics. Jesse [Armstrong, showrunner] and I had a lovely chat before we started shooting but nothing felt definite. I never feel precious about that sort of thing, and certainly not in episodic TV. I don’t feel proprietorial about it because it’s not my character, in a way – it’s theirs. I just do what comes my way, and that’s the joy of it for me. Unless something really doesn’t ring true, but that never happens, because they’re so wonderful. I did have an idea, but was more than happy for it to deviate or change or become something else. I quite like getting the scripts at the last minute and going okay, let’s do this.
Can I ask you the old ‘relatable’ question that people often bring up? About how these people are all horrendous. Tom is, to some extent, a bellend – if I can use that word?
He’s an absolute bellend, yes [laughs].
And people say they can’t watch it, because they’re all bellends – but that’s why it’s so entertaining.
I mean, apart from anything else, it’s funny. It’s really deeply funny, and interesting. And there are bigger questions about extremes of wealth and power, and the media’s influence, because it’s a huge media empire controlled by one family, essentially. It ultimately changes the way people vote, how they behave towards other people and all the rest of it, so that’s all fascinating. But really, it’s the family thing, I think. What’s really compelling is thinking, that’s my dad, that’s my sister or my weird little brother. It’s this lack of love and attention, or absence of love, and how that makes people behave. That’s the thing that interests me.
Watching this new series, I’m reminded again of how incredibly authentic it feels. What do you think is the secret to achieving that?
I think Adam McKay really set the tone for the show with the pilot; it was really scary but exciting. We’d improvise – well, there’d be takes and he’d shout things out to do, so it felt very fluid. He created an atmosphere where you didn’t feel afraid to fuck it up. You could try something, and had the right to fail. So you don’t start a take thinking ‘I’ve gotta get this right’ – you just start and see what happens, and it’s energising and galvanising in that way. And it’s stayed like that. We do these great big grandstanding 11-page scenes that Jesse and his team write, and it’s just thrilling. It feels like doing a play. There’s three cameras, and as an actor, you’re on throughout the whole take, and always paying attention to the other actors. So it’s lovely, it’s great fun to shoot.
Do you think ahead about what you’re going to do with Tom when you’re doing a big scene, or do you just let it go?
I try to let it go, yeah. I mean, sometimes I have little ideas, but usually the ideas you have beforehand go out the window. What’s interesting is, if I’ve got a scene with Sarah [Snook], I can’t wait to run it with her and start shooting, because what she does informs what I do, and vice versa. It’s the same with Nick [Nicholas Braun], and everybody really. And when you do a scene with Brian [Cox, who plays Logan], Tom’s so afraid of Brian that I don’t have to bring much, you know. Or like the sequence in the senate hearings, it was sort of wonderful because there’s no preparation required, no imagination required. You’re on this set, being fired all of these questions, and you have this magic dialogue, this excruciating dialogue, so it’s just great.
Without spoiling anything, is there a scene in Season 3 that was particularly fun to film?
I loved a scene with Nick, who plays Greg, in his office, where he’s been reading a book he bought about Nero and Sporus. Sporus is a slave boy of Nero’s. Nero kills his wife and makes Sporus his wife, dresses him up as his dead wife, and Tom says to Greg, ‘I’d castrate you and marry you in a heartbeat’. And Greg just doesn’t know what to do with it [laughs]. That’s another example where you can’t overthink the scene, because it just looks after you. It’s like, let’s just say it and see what happens, you know.
What did you think of the audience reaction at the London Film Festival?
Quite overwhelming. Quite choking, actually. We all came out of it a bit shocked, in a lovely way. It was really… gratifying doesn’t come close. It was quite moving.
Do you have any feelings about where Tom could go in Season 4? Do you ever talk to the writers and have suggestions, or just leave it completely to them?
Leave it completely to them. My sensibility is that the writer is – maybe it’s a British thing, and comes from theatre – but the writer is the boss. They’re the source and I’m the conduit. Inevitably, an actor brings colour and stuff, because it’s you doing it, which hopefully feeds back into the writing process as well, but no, I haven’t made any suggestions.
The writers seem to be writing for the cast members, and your strengths. Do you feel that?
I do, yeah, and that’s really thrilling. It’s like, Gerri [J Smith Cameron] and Roman [Kieran Culkin] are a great example of where that’s completely true. They just sort of checked out each other’s arses one take, and the writers saw it and thought, how brilliant. What a brilliant bit of plot, this burgeoning, weird thing between those two.
So you could check out a random character’s arse, if you wanted to advance that relationship.
I know, [laughs].
Who would you choose?
[Laughs] Greg! Yeah, has to be. [Imitates looking] ‘You been working out Greg?’ [laughs].
READ MORE: The 20 Best Quotes From Succession