Matthew Macfadyen (‘Succession’) on why playing Tom Wambsgans is ‘liberating’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Matthew Macfadyen is now an Emmy nominee for his performance as Tom Wambsgans in the HBO drama series “Succession.” He also starred in the limited series “Quiz” this past TV season.

Macfadyen spoke with Gold Derby executive editor Paul Sheehan before the nominations about the incredible true story of “Quiz,” the appeal of “Succession” and acting with an American accent. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Let’s start with “Quiz,” which is this fascinating true story, right? I mean, how much did you know about what happened in “Quiz” when they approached you to play Charles Ingram? 

Matthew Macfadyen: I didn’t know an awful lot about it. I remember the show very well because it was a real phenomenon at the time. It was on every single night, so everyone sat and watched it. It was, of course, before streaming or watching on demand. So it was something that everyone stayed in and watched and they got something like 19 million viewers every night at its height. But it was a fantastic story and an interesting part and I thought there were great actors involved and, of course, Stephen Frears. So yeah, I bit their arm off when they sent with the script. 

GD: Well, what’s so interesting is, James Graham started it, it was a play and every night it asked the audience, “Do you think Charles Ingram is guilty or not?” And every night there’s a different result. 

MM: I think they had keypads in the theater and they were asked in the interval whether guilt or innocence and then again at the end. 

GD: So when you start, did you think he was one way and by the time you finished filming, had you decided he was the other?

MM: The truth is, I don’t know. Sian [Clifford] and I would come in every day and go, “What do you think? Do you think they did it? Do you think they didn’t?” And eventually, we sort of stopped minding and I think the interesting thing was their relationship and what they were going through and the build-up towards it and you’re sort of busy with serving James’s script and playing the truth of that, rather than playing a wash of innocence or guilt. So the honest truth is, I don’t know. I still don’t know. But I certainly didn’t play it one way or another. 

GD: But then I think that’s what, as a viewer, makes it so interesting, because I think in the course of the three hours, my mind kept changing from one to the other. “Oh, they actually did it. They didn’t. She was guilty. He wasn’t.” And I think it’s a testament to the writing, to the director and to the acting that you have those feelings. So you’re being asked to play this notorious man. Just take us into the research. I mean, I certainly know what I did as soon as I finished watching the show was go and look at the actual episode. 

MM: Well, they never read the episode. It was never shown on TV. The ITV edit of that episode was shown and that’s the one people watch. So very often people think they’ve seen it or they think they’ve remembered seeing it, but it was never broadcast. So what they’ve seen is the ITV version of the episode. So I watched that and the ITV episode is the one in which the sound of the coughs are manipulated and brought up. So I watched that and there’s also an awful lot of stuff online with Charles and Diana. After the trial, they did some sort of reality TV stuff. That did something they called “Celebrity Wife Swap,” and they went on another game show together and there’s some other documentaries about them. So I did a bit of that. But mostly it’s the script. Mostly the research comes from just reading the script a lot and if you’ve got a good script and you’ve got wonderful actors, then that’s your roadmap, really. 

GD: Well, I have to think a lot of it, you’re helped along by the set, by sitting on that set, the intense lights. I mean, what was it like the first time you sat literally in the hot seat with those lights coming on you, you’ve got Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant across from you? 

MM: It’s great! I’ve said this before, but it’s true. There wasn’t a feat of the imagination to do that whole sequence. It was just wonderful because it’s all there for you and they had all the lighting and the music cues and the sort of heartbeat soundtrack. So it was terrifying. And the audience, we had all these SAs who were brilliant, who were there for days on end. 

GD: Well, Michael Sheen, I know you were in “Frost/Nixon” with him, you played a BBC controller. He plays David Frost. He’s made a career out of this. How eerie is it sitting across from him, those big teeth, that hair?

MM: It’s just thrilling because as an actor, I’m sort of informed by the other actors. I’m not summoning up anything from inside of me. I think when you work with wonderful actors like Michael, like Sian, Helen McCrory, Mark Bonnar, it’s wonderful because you’re sort of being fed by them. After a week sitting opposite Michael as Chris Tarrant, I sort of forgot what the real Chris Tarrant looked like. Yeah, it was a lot of fun. 

GD: I do wish that the real-life major had a better fashion sense because the shirt you’re in…

MM: It’s a beautiful shirt! It’s a nice rugby jersey with some nice comfortable jeans, Oxfords.

GD: Well it’s so interesting because so much of what you’ve done is period drama and this is period too, it’s just 20 years ago. But the scenes with Sian, you’re Charles and Diana. I don’t know if their marriage is as troubled as the other ones, but those are just so wonderful because, again, we see the scene, sometimes, different versions of them. It’s just so real and raw. I was surprised to find out that the couple’s still together. 

MM: Well, yeah, Sian and I found their relationship really to be really interesting and touching and sort of lovely, really, and certainly in the face of the treatment they endured from the press and the public before and during the trial, that they stuck together and there’s something very lovely about that. And I really enjoyed the scenes with her, especially the scenes when Diana’s coaching Charles before he goes into the fastest fingers first seat and all that stuff, and then afterwards, when they’re trying to adjust to their lives being turned upside down. But yeah, they’re still together. They came to see us on set on the last day of our shooting. They were very nice, lovely. 

GD: And that, I think, was the only time you met him, right?

MM: Yeah.

GD: That’s, I think, what is so uncanny is if anyone does watch the Martin Bashir documentary or that episode is to see how you capture the essence of the man. You’re not doing an impression of him or an impersonation. One of the things that is so appealing about this, and it’s sort of the writing and Frears’s direction as well, the little tiny comic moments. What’s that like as an actor to be given those little moments? Because Charles certainly has them. 

MM: It’s lovely. It’s bliss, all that stuff. And Stephen, he’s great. He’s got an eye for it. It’s nice to have little comic moments because life is comic and ridiculous and the situation is silly. It’s a game show and they’re prepping for a game show and he’s got a brother in law who’s obsessed with it and all that sort of stuff was good fun. But I think by dipping a toe into that, you can come back to something quite moving or quite real. I think it works, and Stephen has a really, really wonderful knack. I think the whole thing feels almost tongue in cheek at times and I think it works really well. There’s a sort of knockabout quality to it somehow. I’m not being very articulate but I felt there was also in “A Very English Scandal,” which I thought was amazing and it sort of barreled along. 

GD: Well, it obviously resonated with viewers in the U.K. I mean, “Quiz” did “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” numbers. I mean, the ratings were record-breaking.

MM: Quarantine helped, I think (laughs).

GD: Well, I’m going to disagree with you in that there are lots of more choices now than there were 20 years ago. 

MM: Yeah, that’s true.

GD: So I think it resonated and it built an audience, too. As people were talking about it, it was sort of watercooler, so congratulations on that.

MM: Thank you. It was the first time… well, not the first time, but it was the time in my memory that we all sat and there are three teenagers with us in the house and we all sat and watched it. It was great. I was thrilled. I was looking around expecting them to sort of wander off halfway through, but they didn’t. 

GD: So I know that Charles Ingram, when he came on the set, told you how much he liked “Succession.” So now I’ve got to ask you about the teenagers. What do they make of “Succession”? 

MM: They haven’t seen it. I think it’s a funny one if you’re watching it, well, my eldest, watching your stepdad or whatever in something, it’s not as interesting. He’s watching “Money Heist” now, other things. The other two are probably a little too young. 

GD: I think so. So I knew Charles Ingram likes “Succession,” but we all love “Succession” and this is you playing the outsider in a family, an American. I mean, I have to think getting the chance to play an American in an HBO series was very interesting to you. You carved out a career in a lot of period dramas. Take us back a couple of years to when they send you that script for the pilot. 

MM: It was very, very exciting because I hadn’t played an American on film. I had on stage, but never on film and that’s quite a hurdle to get over sometimes and so I wanted to see if I could do that in the right thing and it was such a brilliant script and I was a fan of Jesse Armstrong, the writer, the creator and I just felt very lucky, so it was just wonderful. It’s very liberating for a Brit to play an American and certainly to play an American like Tom Wambsgans, who’s sort of a singular character in many ways. So it’s been really lovely. 

GD: He really is, isn’t he? Because he’s our way into the family at the beginning, the outsider, who, now as it has progressed two seasons, he’s inside the family and what I think is so fascinating about the character and your portrayal of him is in one beat, he’s the most sympathetic. And then in the next, he’s the most off-putting and it’s gotta be challenging for you as an actor to strike just the right note in each scene. 

MM: It is challenging, but it’s liberating. It’s wonderful because you can flip flop, because you’re right. There are moments he’s terribly sympathetic. He’s sort of lovely and he’s the butt of everyone’s jokes and he gets bullied and then he sort of bullies Greg in kind and he’s in a strange relationship with Siobhan, Logan Roy’s daughter. I think that’s very hard. But as an actor, when you get those great changes of mood, it’s just great fun. 

GD: What resonates with me is one of the last scenes when he sort of says to Siobhan about sadness, the sadness when I’m with you or the sadness that I have without you and he doesn’t really know which would be worse and that’s heartbreaking. 

MM: Beautiful bit of writing, yeah, and when the writing’s that good, it sort of looks after you as an actor. It’s great. It’s a real gift. You don’t have to do very much (laughs). You just have to say the words and hope for the best.

GD: I thought what was so interesting, though, is you didn’t have every script before the season starts. So you don’t know, just like Tom doesn’t know where he’s going to end up. Would you prefer to know? Like, when you did “Pride & Prejudice,” you know what’s going to happen to Mr. Darcy, those sorts of things. When you do “Howards End,” you know the end of your character before you start filming. 

MM: It suits me quite well not knowing. I quite like it, because Tom doesn’t know and you can’t play anything that’s to come. I think if there was something really critical that we had to get across for the story, I think Jesse and the writers would let us know. I am much happier going episode by episode and being nimble with it and being fresh, as it would be for Tom. It’s kind of great. And then you don’t prepare so much. You’re just sort of on the fly. It’s really lovely. 

GD: So then you get a script and it talks about Tom pelting Greg with water bottles. How much rehearsal was your co-star willing to do in that scene? 

MM: (Laughs.) The props department made us these bottles. We have these empty bottles, and of course, I couldn’t throw the empty bottles ’cause they just fly around. They had to have a bit of heft. So they put a bit of glue or this gunk in the bottom that’s clear stuff which gave it a bit of weight, and also I think they couldn’t be full of water because I would’ve hurt Nick [Braun]. I think I did get a couple at his head, but they weren’t very heavy, but sort of heavy enough so I could throw them. Yeah, that was good. That was a really lovely day at work. That was a good day. 

GD: The scenes with Siobhan and Tom are the ones that you really lean in to watch because you’re both so good and I think it’s so interesting, I don’t think most people would realize that you’re English unless they’ve seen “Quiz” or “Ripper Street” or something and I had no idea that Sarah Snook was Australian. I mean, she was a newcomer to me. So, just sort of a basic question, do you keep in the American accents offset or do you revert? 

MM: I don’t. I just revert back to my own voice, partly because I’m just sort of lazy. Sarah does a bit of both. But because Sarah’s Australian, I never notice it. But yeah, I don’t, but it’s great because I’m sort of around the American actors and the crew and so I can hear it in my ear. The music of the accent is in my head, I guess, so it doesn’t feel… Sometimes I think I ought to stay in American but I can’t, and partly that’s my own actor sensibility, you’re on or you’re off. It’s like putting on a mask and taking off the mask. 

GD: I think in a way, though, the writing, it’s not all Jesse Armstrong, it’s got a British sensibility about it in so many ways, so you, Brian Cox, Sarah from Australia, there’s something that lends itself to your styles of acting and yourselves. I think you kind of inform the dialogue by not being American, if that makes sense.

MM: Yeah, perhaps. I think due to the majority of the writers being Brits, maybe there’s a nice remove, a caustic element to the script that might not be as caustic if it were all Americans. They’re able to sort of take a step back and see it with a clearer eye, or they’re less precious, much in the same way as Kenny Lonergan doing the adaptation of “Howards End.” It was an American looking at a very British thing. Maybe that’s a healthy way of doing it. I don’t know. 

GD: Well, I think the fact that you don’t get these scripts in advance, when you get the scripts that have the scenes at the dinner tables, Thanksgiving or the boardrooms, the logistics of the shooting of those, because it seems like it’s oftentimes one long take, in “Quiz” you’re in the hot seat and you know the camera’s on you, intently focused on you. What’s it like filming those scenes where you might not have much dialogue but there’s so oftentimes a reaction shot from you or from one of the other characters? The level of intensity must be intense. 

MM: It is, but it’s energizing because you’re on all the time. Often, when you’re filming around the table, it’s excruciatingly boring because the camera will go around and do a single on each one and you work your way around the table. And so for a lot of the time, you’re just sort of sitting there. But the “Succession” scenes are wonderful because they have three or four cameras and they’re all on people’s shoulders and they’re moving around and picking up bits and the operators are so skilled and know the scene so well, actually, that they can pick up, so you feel like you’re in a play. You feel like you’re being watched all the time. It’s really wonderful. It’s energizing for that reason.

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