The “Excruciatingly Embarrassing” Process of Playing Tom on Succession
On this week’s Little Gold Men podcast, Matthew Macfadyen talks about playing the sweet and sympathetic—but also revolting—addition to the Roy family.
On this week’s Little Gold Men podcast, Matthew Macfadyen talks about playing the sweet and sympathetic—but also revolting—addition to the Roy family.
- Q :Well, I have the pleasure of sitting across a pretty, actually wide table from Matthew Macfadyen, who is just one of the most beguiling parts of Succession. Matthew, thank you for being here.
A . Thank you for having me.
Yeah, I was just telling you before we started recording that I was rewatching some of the later episodes in the season just to refresh, and I hadn’t forgotten what a weirdo Tom is, but I was happily reminded. Just where the hell did he come from? How did you kind of make him in your head and then give it up to the world?
Well, it’s all there on the page really, but it did strike me that actually we all, to varying degrees, we all are different with different people in our lives and Tom is just sort of an extreme version of that. You know, he’ll be incredibly sycophantic and obsequious and crawling to anyone he wants to impress and then he really kicks the cat with other people who can. He’s sort of revolting to Cousin Greg, and I’ve met people like that in my life. He was sort of plausible and charming and then really sort of ugly in other ways. I thought that’s just Tom. Because he’s really sweet and sympathetic as well as being revolting.
He’s got this really keen sense of, I guess, the power dynamic in any sort of room, in any situation. He reacts, he completely changes himself depending on where he stands on that, which I think is kind of an interesting . . . It’s why it’s such a vital energy to the show, which is all about sort of power and excess and all that.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. He’s totally happy to be this sort of doormat and be crapped all over and then he . . . But he sort of shows a bit of spine with other people and it's fascinating.
__Yeah, I mean, thinking in particular toward the very end, I hope that—well, spoiler alert, if people haven’t watched it, but when he gets to kind of go down into the wedding and really give it to the—Nate.
Nate. You know he’s being ridiculous, but you’re kind of like, “Well, good for him."
Yeah, good for him. Yeah, yeah. Even though he’s, yeah, he’s tried to attack Greg on the morning jog because Greg tries to, you know—
Right, yeah, yeah.
Well, that kind of mix of rooting for someone but also being put off by them is sort of the feeling of watching this show because these people are either from this ridiculously, kind of almost criminally wealthy family or, in Tom’s case, trying to sort of get their foot firmly into that world. We’re living in an age when wealth inequality and all of that is such an important topic and eat the rich and the 1 percent and all that stuff—
And yet, we’re sympathetic to these characters. How did you, yourself, but in working with directors and writer in the show, how do you calibrate that where you’re not all just these horrible monsters, but you’re also not heroes really either?
No. Well, I think, because nobody is truly a horrible monster, I mean, nobody is. If you start from that way of thinking about it, I suppose, and they’re human beings and they have got more money than God, but you could argue, they’ve had a sort of weird upbringing and not much love perhaps from their father. And so none of the siblings really have much confidence in that way, the confidence you get from knowing you’re truly loved and adored by your mother and father, I suppose. And so inevitably, you see their frailties and their insecurities and the rest of it, and it’s a family, I think that’s the key to it. As a viewer, you think that’s my scary sister or that’s my frightening dad or that’s my annoying, dickhead brother or whatever, so that’s a sort of way in.
But we did, you’re right. We sort of think these characters are so unattractive and so revolting in some ways, why is anybody going to care especially in this day and age? But, I think that’s the trick. That’s how, I think, Jesse Armstrong, the writer, really succeeds in finding that balance because you don't know really what show you’re watching. You sort of think, is it comedy, is it drama, is it a satire, is it . . . I still don’t really.
Yeah, the show really creeps up on you. I think when I started watching it, I was like, “Oh, so it’s going to be kind of like Billions, and it’s all this kind of fast-talking . . .” And then it’s not that. It’s not a veneration of wealth, it’s not a complete tear-down of world either. What spoke to you when you first read the pilot script? I mean, what about it grabbed you?
The ridiculousness of it, and it was funny. I mean, it’s really laugh-out-loud funny. It’s so funny, well, I have a sort of problem anyway with laughing in the middle of scenes, so this is really hard, especially with Nick Braun who plays Greg.
It got really chronic last year. We sort of, we would meet the night before shooting and sort of go through the scene in order to try and take the giggles away, just so we’re sort of bored of it before we started, but it’s great. I just sort of believe it, and the more ridiculous it gets, the more I believe it because people are ridiculous. Look at what’s going on now. We did the read-through of the pilot on election night in Manhattan in 2016.
Whoa, that’s on the nose.
Yeah, but you sort of think, “Well, it’s kind of great for the show,” arguably as bad for . . . humanity. But it’s kind of great because you think, “Well, we can really push it,” as ridiculous things happen and you never would believe some of the things that have occurred, so yeah.
Yeah, and it really does feel in some ways like one of the first TV series of this sort of Trump era, the Brexit era. It has that flavoring while also not being—I think that’s something that people, before I had seen the show, it was like, “Oh, it’s the show about the Murdochs.”
It’s maybe partly inspired by, but it’s not that exactly.
Yeah. I had no idea that so many families control so . . . I mean, it’s so many instances of single families or single siblings control so much, so many media platforms.
Which is how, it certainly . . . Local TV for example, which is how a lot of people get their news; and therefore, their politics maybe, so that was interesting.
Yeah, what else have you learned about this world since, obviously, you’ve gotten to be in some fabulous houses and all that?
I’ve learned that some—yeah, we’ve been in a lot of very expensive apartments and houses, and not all of them do you want to stay in for longer than a few hours, so it’s quite interesting. You think, “Hmm.” Yeah.
I’m curious, this is a contemporary piece. You play an American, which is, you’ve done a lot of period stuff in the U.K. and you know. Was that at all part of the appeal? Was it like, oh I can kind of be in a different time and person and—
Totally. Yeah, totally. I think as an actor, you’re always on the lookout for doing something different. I’d probably, I don’t know, I felt like I had played a lot of period characters, a lot of waistcoats and tweed and facial hair. I sort of thought, ugh, and this came along and it was perfect. It was miles away from what I’d just done, which was Howards End. I played Henry Wilcox in Howards End which was lovely. But that’s the joy is jumping into to totally different worlds and it’s challenging. It’s quite scary playing an American, you know.
Yeah. Well, I mean, you do it well.
You’re very kind. Thank you.
Yeah, yeah. I think another thing that I would imagine appeals in some ways, obviously the writing is so strong, but in order to make that writing really sing, you need the kind of right ensemble of actors. Something that's wonderful about Succession is how you all bounce off of each other. I like that everyone gets little scenes with each other, that they kind of mix and match the pairings and groupings of characters.
They’re the most supremely talented cast, among the most talented I’ve ever worked with or could ever hope to work with. They’re really, really brilliant, and the real treat of the show for me, apart from anything else is . . . You know we shoot these scenes which are sometimes six, seven, eight pages long, it’s like a play; and one of the tropes of Succession is these great big family sequences, like a big Thanksgiving dinner or sort of boardroom scenes. We’re shooting five-minute takes and it’s really exciting. It means that you’re really, really paying attention to what’s going on, especially, people are sort of improvising, so it’s thrilling.
By the same token, the crew and the camera operators, you realize how skillful they are because they know the scene as well as you do because they’re picking people off and whizzing the camera around, and usually there’s two cameras at any one time. So it feels like a real collective endeavor. It’s not sort of your regular, you know, like cameras working their way around the table, that sort of.
So with something like that, I would imagine that means it’s not like the kind of where you’re doing coverage and one person can kind of not worry about what they’re—
In this case, you have to be on and in it at all times.
Yeah, it focuses the mind incredibly, but also enables you to just completely relax and ignore the camera because it could be anywhere, so it might as well be on you even though it might not. So it’s wonderful, it’s wonderful.
Yeah, that sounds really exciting, I think.
An interesting melding of theater and film stuff.
Yeah. Does that kind of rapport between performers, is that just like, “Well, they cast it well and so we had it right away?” Or do you have to work at that? What was the process like before you started?
It doesn’t feel like we worked at it at all. I think they just cast it well, and the writing is good. And when the writing is good, and the actors respond to it, it’s a joy, it’s a real pleasure. The good writing looks after you as an actor, and you sort of just jump in, and it sort of takes care of you. Like, I don’t know, like Shakespeare, you have to kind of jump into it and it looks after you, but if you sort of back off, and you’re tentative, then it’s hard.
It’s very funny. I’m not aware . . . I was talking about this with Nick Braun and Sarah Snook the other day and we find that we don’t . . . It’s not an effort to learn the lines. It never feels like, ”Well, I’ve got to learn my lines.” They just sort of go in because you want to say them. I walk around sort of with them in my head even after looking at them, sort of reading a script cursorily, and it’s interesting.
Has there been any moments in Tom’s arc thus far where he’s like, I don’t know, disappointed you or something, or done something that you’re like, “Oh, it’s going to be hard for me to be . . . ” Anything like that?
There are moments when me, Matthew, has been sweating with embarrassment because he’s been so excruciating. There was one bit where I had to do a sort of C-3P0 impression to Kendall and I was just—yeah, it was just excruciatingly embarrassing, but that’s kind of great. I mean, that’s fab because I have left my vanity a long way in a locker room far, far away.
But you can still feel that. Sometimes, something I ask people who are in scary things, “Is it scary to film a lot of times?” They’re like, “No,” because you’re sort of not—
Yeah, it’s a technical thing, sure.
—you know it’s effects. But like when you’re filming something that’s so squirm-inducingly awkward, does it feel that on set?
Sometimes, yeah. People are sort of wincing behind the monitor.
Especially because sometimes you’re going up against Jeremy Strong, who is playing this very sort of serious character, and Brian Cox, who’s this towering figure, and it makes Tom seem all the more like this weird, wet dog who’s just, you know, because everyone else is so still.
Brian described Tom as having a sort of panicky ambivalence, which I thought was kind of good. Yeah, you’re right, especially with Brian and Jeremy because you think, “Am I in the right show? Am I in the same show as . . . ” And you just have to trust in the grown-ups who are directing it and writing it and putting it together. I think you are because we’re all in the same show. I mean, in life, everybody's, you know . . . and then often you see sort of behavior from people that if you put in a TV show or a film you gasp too much, you know. It just . . . Yeah.
I think that’s why Tom resonates the way he does is because we’re in this world that very few of us have any real interior knowledge of. But Tom keeps doing things where we’re like, “Oh, yeah, I could see myself doing that,” or feeling that or who knows, you know. So I think that even though he’s playing a guy who can be really slippery and slimy and not the best guy, he’s relatable—
. . . in a way that, you know, and I think the show is challenging in that it asks us to find people like that relatable. I don’t think it’s an effort to defend them but humanize them.
Yeah, yeah, exactly, exactly because they all are human, and I think they all are. Yeah, otherwise it would be boring.
Yeah, right. It would be something kind of like soapy beyond sort of any realistic—
Yeah, yeah, exactly.
So the show, I don’t know what your experience of it has been, but from where I’m sitting, the show was this kind of sleeper hit. People were not really sure what it was when it wasn’t getting the fanfare of Game of Thrones, necessarily, because people just didn’t know what it was. But then as the course of the weeks went by last summer, people were really, really into it. Did you experience that kind of build too as one of the stars of the show? Did more people start recognizing you after a certain point or . . . ?
A little, yeah. I was sort of aware that it became the show that perhaps you haven’t seen but you ought to see, which I suppose is better than a great bit hoo-ha and then it dribbles away.
So, yeah, yeah. I got a lot of lovely feedback from people that I hadn’t heard . . . you know, actors and directors and producers, who I had worked with, got in touch and that always doesn’t happen. I think because, in a way, it appealed to a lot of people in the industry, I suppose, because it feels a very free, organic, kind of artless thing, especially with the way it’s shot, but with some sort of heft with helicopters and heft behind it, and shooting on Madison Avenue. So it’s quite something to watch, I think, and the writing is so rich and twisty and caustic and filthy. It’s a lot of Brits writing it, interestingly, and often the script supervisor will come up and say, “What does this mean because this is not . . . This is a Britishism.”
Yeah, there was one between you and Sarah Snook when she’s kind of confessing like, yeah, it did. She’s like, “I had a number,” I think she says to you, and you’re like—
“Oh, I had a little number.”
“I had a little number.” I’m like, “That’s so weird,” but I love it.
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, because you sort of get away with it. Well, you think now so maybe that’s what those kind of people say.
That’s what rich people say.
Yeah, yeah, exactly. But it’s interesting though that it’s a lot of Brits writing for it because you look at something else like Veep. Armando Iannucci coming and really dissecting—I mean, there are venal politicians in the U.K., there are super, super rich people in the U.K., but the way that Succession deals with stuff, it feels American in a sort of particular way. And yet, the Brits maybe seemingly have some different insight on it because—
Well, I think, American culture everyone—Brits certainly embrace American culture. It’s a funny thing, when I first arrived in New York when I was 21, when it was my first job on tour, and I felt like I’d been here before because I’d absorbed so much of it through film and television that you instantly feel sort of connected to it somehow even though you’re . . . And perhaps that’s it and perhaps it’s less complicated because you’re outside it, so you can sort of comment on it, or I don’t know.
Yeah. No, I think that makes sense.
You’re less precious about getting it right, perhaps.
Right. Yeah, exactly.
What was the first show that you were on tour with when you were 21?
I did a touring production of Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, with a company called Cheek by Jowl.
So a light kind of, easy—
Just a light, little comedy of manners.
Just rivers of blood. In which, I was really bad and really boring.
When you were this young actor starting out, was your thought like, “O.K., I’m going to be a theater actor,” that was the plan or did you have sights on other things or?
No, I didn’t entertain the idea of doing television, or certainly not film, but perhaps on telly. But I just wanted to be a theater actor, I suppose. My heroes were people like Michael Gambon and Paul Schofield and Judi Dench and people I’d seen on stage, and Mark Rylance. So yeah, that’s why as long as I did three world tours because business has changed so much since I left drama school.
It’s very different and we talk a lot about the so-called Golden Age of TV or we have, because with all these different platforms onto, which allows for more good things to be made. Yeah, and you see people like those venerable British stage actors who can pop up in something or do like a mini-series like Howards End or something. Do you think it’s a better time to be an actor or do you think it’s just the—
Yeah, I think so. I worry about the state of theater in Britain, but I don’t think theater will ever die. It’s just the way of telling stories. There’s a lot of stuff being made and there’s a lot of demand for new stories and that horrible word, content. But you know, certainly in the U.K., it feels like there’s a lot going on and it seems more democratic in the sense that you don’t have to . . . You know, actors sort of throw themselves on tape for something. Where in Vancouver or L.A. or here or Atlanta, there seems to be so much going on. Like all the studios in London are chockablock, so that’s a good thing. And it’s a good thing for the industry, you know, drivers and electricians and caterers and, you know, big business.
Of course, yeah. You’ve done series before, but how does it feel to have this thing become a hit and really critically acclaimed and then you’re like, “O.K., well, now we have to go do it again for how many more episodes.” What is that feeling like when you kind of show up back to set on the first day for Season 2?
It felt like we hadn’t really had a break.
In a good way, we were just straight back into it. Everyone was sort of going, “Oh, this is nice. I remember this.” It was like a sort of warm bath. It was really lovely. So yeah, I hope, I mean, we all really love. I mean, at the risk of sounding sort of smug and self-satisfied, if I had to sort of create the ideal gig for me at this time of my life, it would be this because it’s something a little different. I wanted to do an American series, but having a family in London would have prevented me from doing it, probably on the West Coast, would have been really hard, so I nip back and forth to London. It’s 10 episodes, the writing’s great, the actors are great, people seem to like it, so touch wood, you know.
Do you have any time to enjoy New York City or were you too busy filming?
I have lots of time, yeah.
And I’ve got lots of friends here and it’s lovely, it’s lovely.
Yeah, I’m sure. I mean, they’re either . . . a lot of actors in New York.
Yeah, yeah. If you throw a stick down into the West Village—
That’s right, yeah. Have you got to see any theater?
No. My stepson, the big boy came recently to New York to see his friend in Brooklyn, his girlfriend, and I managed to wangle them tickets to Hamilton, so that’s the closest I’ve been.
I didn’t go, but I was covered in glory. It makes me win..
Absolutely. That’s the move. Well, that’s kind of a Tom move in a way.
It is, yeah. Because I’ve got leverage now over him, yeah.
Right. I know you’re definitely not allowed to spoil anything, but can you give us any vague sense about where Tom’s headed? I mean, he’s now—
Well, he’s married now.
He’s married and—
He’s a sort of Roy.
A really incredible scene where Sarah Snook is just like, “But love can be something different,” and they’re just so into this idea even though his heart’s a little broken, I think. Are good things coming for Tom or are good things coming for anyone on that show? I can’t really tell.
I think . . . I don’t know. I think they are, they are and they aren’t. Yeah, I think there are challenges ahead, but yeah, he’s in the family now and they’re married. I think they’re doing their best. I think they’re trying to do their best with this new sort of business/marriage arrangement that they sort of agreed on. Yeah, he’s angling for a bigger job. Yeah, I’m wary of saying too much because I’ll get in trouble.
Do you read all the scripts ahead of time?
No, no, we get them—
Oh, you get them as you go.
We get them day before the table read and then we start shooting, yeah.
Yeah. O.K., so it doesn’t sound like you have a ton of time to stew in it, so it has to be more reactive.
Yeah, which again, exciting, kind of.
There’s no time to sort of attached to anything or pressures about. It’s great.
Right, yeah. Well, we love watching you on it and if people who are listening to this haven’t caught up with Succession, really do it. I mean, and your performance in particular, Matthew, is really unlike anything I’ve seen before. I don’t mean this in any pejorative to your past work, but unlike anything I’ve seen you do which is cool.
Well, that’s really kind of you. Thank you.
Thank you for doing this.
Not a bit.
And enjoy New York.
- Fan extraordinaire
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Age : 67
Localisation : Toulouse ou ailleurs
Date d'inscription : 11/03/2009
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