Entertainment

Matthew Macfadyen on Tomelettes, Greggs, and the Funniest 'Succession' Episode Yet

tom wambsgans
HBO

This week's episode of Succession taught viewers an important lesson: "You can't make a Tomelette without breaking some Greggs." The revelation that Tom Wambsgans, the Roy family punching bag played by Matthew Macfadyen, sent Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) an email with that subject line 67 times over the course of a single night is easily the most hilarious revelation to come out of the congressional hearings that could spell doom for Waystar Royco. It's also more proof that Tom is the most tragically pitiful character on the series, a blustering idiot who crumbles under immense pressure as he's called upon to answer for misconduct in Waystar's cruise division, evidence of which he directed Greg to destroy back in Season 1.

The second season has been building to Tom's utter humiliation. We've already watched as his two allies, wife Shiv (Sarah Snook) and lackey Greg, have demonstrated their willingness to throw him under the bus. It's a credit to Macfadyen's performance that you somehow feel for Tom even though you know he's just as craven as his in-laws. I hopped on the phone with Macfadyen to discuss his big episode and the yacht trip the Roys take in the finale.

Thrillist: Tom has done horrible things, but I keep finding Tom's story more and more tragic. Seeing him break down after that testimony was really heartbreaking in a strange sort of way.
Matthew Macfadyen:
It's quite sad, isn't it? It's quite scary because he sort of knows that he really hasn't done well in the congressional hearings at all. Even though he's sort of saying "I didn't get enough media training" and "I'm the patsy," I think he knows that the cruise stuff is coming back to bite him. And also the whole thing with Shiv: I think he suspects that he can't really trust [her], and the idea of their open marriage doesn't work. As much as he would like to say it's an enlightened way to be married, it's sort of killing him, I think. And Greg trying to break up with him... So I don't know where Tom's breaking point is, but he's heading toward it, I'd say. It was really fun doing that episode. You really don't have to use your imagination when they build a set like that. It was all in the studio. You walk on your heart starts banging because you think, Oh my god. I've been watching the C-SPAN, and the stuff with [Michael] Cohen and Elijah Cummings and all that stuff. It was really like, oh wow, if you really were testifying in front of all these people and you really didn't know what you were talking about, like Tom, it's scary.

The testimony is so funny, but it's the scene afterward that hits you hardest. Tom's so full of bluster so much of time that seeing him in this state of panic is scary. How did you embody that panic?
Macfadyen:
Like anything, it's all there in the writing and the storytelling, so even though we shot those things out of sequence, I could remember the feeling of horror after the car crash of the testimony, after the cross-examining. I just pushed it as far as I could. That's a horrible feeling of walking into a room. You don't really have to do much. You allow it to affect you. I walked in and there was the man that Tom's most frightened of, Logan, sort of gazing balefully at him and Kendall, and all these really clever people, and Gerri, and Hugo the PR guy, and Shiv, as well. He thinks maybe she's stitching him up. Can he trust her? Does she care if he takes the bullet for the company and all that stuff? Whatever came out was a consequence of seeing all those people. It's a sort of controlled panic.

There's that moment where Brian Cox looks at you and it's completely terrifying. How terrifying is that in the moment?
Macfadyen:
It's terrifying and it's brilliant. It's just really lovely. The funny thing about acting is, as a thing to do well, it's quite hard because it's so simple. Really the simplest thing and the loveliest thing is just paying attention to the people you're working with. What you have to say is not of any consequence. It's your response to what people are saying to you. When you are lucky enough to work with Brian [Cox] and Sarah and Jeremy [Strong] and Kieran [Culkin] and Nick [Braun], they tell you who you are in a funny way. And then you tell them who they are. And if it works it all sort of clicks. It feels like a company of actors doing the show. It's sort of lovely. We all sort of gel. There isn't an awful lot of rehearsal or anything. We just sort of jump into it. 

I think I squealed when I first heard "You can't make a Tomelette without breaking some Greggs." The fact that Tom emailed that to Greg 67 times over the course of a night...
Macfadyen:
And you can just imagine somebody do that. It's just delicious, isn't it? I shouldn't say this, but there was a scene that was cut. I might get in trouble for saying this. When I go to this apartment and get the papers that Greg's stashed, or demand the papers, I say, "I'm going to stay here tonight with you because I can't trust you." We shot a scene where I sleep in his bed and I make him sleep on the floor and I say, "You can't make a Tomelette without breaking some Greggs." We shot that. I think it's funny in the reportage.

tom succession
Tom, in a state of panic. | HBO

That brings me to something that I wanted to ask you about the evolution in Tom and Greg's relationship. During the episode with the active shooter at ACN, Greg essentially asks to have an open relationship with Tom in a similar way his wife Shiv did. Tom has obviously abused Greg so much, but it's still heartbreaking. 
Macfadyen:
It is. What struck me about that scene is it's really quite tender until he goes mad and starts throwing water bottles at his head. It's really tender in the way Greg very sort of delicately and meanderingly and thoughtfully tries to extricate himself from working for Tom, and says, "I love it here and you're amazing, but I don't love the human furniture and the Nazi stuff." He's really trying. It's really brilliantly written. It's really odd and sort of lovely. I think Tom's world is rocked because he realizes that something he thought was stable, his friend and colleague is doing what his wife has done to him.

You don't really want to feel bad for him, but seeing all these people break up with him is pitiful and makes you feel strangely bad for him.
Macfadyen:
I know. I know. [Laughs.]

Do you think that's something that's on the page or do you also find that in your performance?
Macfadyen:
I don't know. It's certainly on the page and then you just bring whatever comes to you to it, I suppose. I don't know it's a weird one. I think the truth is everybody has redeeming qualities. They are all humans, right? Logan Roy is a monster in many ways but who knows the horrors of his childhood. All the siblings, the sons and daughters, they've got this sort of absence of love. There's a real vulnerability to them all, which you see flashes of and is what makes it interesting. And it's a family. It's not actually about the money. It's the family and it's about power and control and love and fear and all that stuff.

Do you see Tom and Greg ever getting back to their strange buddy relationship? Or has Greg asserted his independence too much?
Macfadyen:
I don't know. I really don't know. I think whatever they do have down the pipe for us will be fabulous. Whenever I worry a bit about that, Nick and I sort of grab each other and go, "I hope we're not in different camps." Just selfishly because it's so lovely acting with him. But whatever they have will be fantastic. You find yourself and reading and going, "Yep, I'll do that. I'll say that."

One of the best parts of the hearing is when Tom pretends not to know who Greg is.
Macfadyen:
[Laughs] And he's sitting right behind him!

What was doing that like on the day?
Macfadyen:
It was hilarious. There was little bit and I think it was cut as well where he handed me a note. So I'd actually interacted with him just before [Gil, played by Eric Bogosian] said, "Do you know Gregory Hirsch?" And I say, "Nope." It was even more ridiculous. It was just totally silly. It was just a joy doing that, the real indecision. It's written like a really tight black comedy. It's like a sort of a demented Neil Simon. It's a really clever bit of writing. There's a great confidence and structure in which to play with. I can mess around with all that terrible fear. He starts saying, "Did you mean in that sense? Like I know him. What did you mean? I knew of him." And then he says, "I know him and I know his face." And he's right behind him.

Demented Neil Simon is my favorite interpretation of the show I've heard yet.
Macfadyen:
It's like a demonic Alan Ayckbourn. It's so taut, the writing. It's so clever and so funny and spare. There are moments which are really tender and really beautiful.

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Tom, squirming, wishing he could break some Greggs. | HBO

One of the things we know about the finale is that it takes place on the "grand Mediterranean yacht" of the Roy family. We haven't yet seen that location. What was filming on a boat like?
Macfadyen:
It was really special. It was really lovely. It was really sort of. I've been doing this for almost 25 years and it was really like, "This is nice. This is really nice." We were all pinching ourselves, just walking around with big grins. It was just a preposterous yacht. It had five stories, and this sort of extraordinary teak floor. It was just bananas. There were 24 really lovely staff looking after us. It was like a joke, it was hilarious. We would go to work on a boat from Korčula, which is this little island in Croatia, or Dubrovnik and get on a little speedboat and whisked to this yacht, which was moored. It's not really work. It was really good fun.

You weren't staying on the yacht?
Macfadyen:
We said, "Can we stay?" They said no. But it was lovely.

There's something very poetic about this last episode taking place on a boat when cruises have been the source of all the consternation going on. Can you say anything about the tension that's unfolding as they are trapped on this boat?
Macfadyen:
It was bizarre because we were on this floating palace, but the drama of it gets very tense, certainly toward the end. It was just a brilliant juxtaposition between floating about and actually someone has to walk the plank. It was a really clever thing to set it there. It is all those billionaire tropes of yachts and jets and all that sort of stuff. I haven't seen it. I hope it works and it's dramatically satisfying. You never know. You always have different memories of the shooting. Very often I don't watch stuff I've done. Not because I'm not interested, but because the real pleasure of doing it is the shooting of it, is the doing of it with people, and then you watch it six months down the line and it feels like a different person or something. Because we really just finished shooting [Succession], I wait for every weekend and then gobble up the episode.

Do you watch it as fan as well?
Macfadyen:
I kind of do, yeah. Also, you want to see what the other actors have been doing. Very often you don't know.

How did you find Tom's voice? It's so specific and strange.
Macfadyen:
I don't know, is the answer. I worked with this dialect coach in London, who is brilliant, for the pilot. Then I just sort of dove in and hoped for the best and waited for someone to gently take me away and put me in a room with an accent coach and they didn't. I just carried on and hoped for the best and maybe I've got away with it. I did think there was that funny, quite sort of folksy, Midwestern thing, which he has sort of cut by moving to the city and being sophisticated, so I tried to do a little bit of that. That's it, really. I sort of just slip into it on set. I don't walk around being an American the whole time I'm there, which some actors do and is great and I probably should do that. Sarah, Brian, Hiam [Abbass] and I are the only non-U.S. actors.

Do you have a favorite Tom turn-of-phrase?
Macfadyen:
There are little bits and pieces with Greg. I find myself saying, [slips into Tom's accent] "Attaboy, Greg." It's really the word "Greg" in all its different permutations. "Greg. Buddy!" It's all the notes on the scale of "Greg."

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.