From his early days at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London) at just 17-years old to his television breakthrough playing Hareton Earnshaw in the British adaptation of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and most recently in HBO’s Emmy-winning hit Succession and AMC’s 3-part miniseries Quiz, Macfadyen’s foothold in the acting world has deep roots.
But it was his performance as the winsome and aloof Fitzwilliam Darcy in 2005’s Pride & Prejudice that made swooning in the rain sexy. Since then, he’s been bouncing from theater to television to film and back with an ease and nimbleness few actors can manage.
Macfadyen took some time out to talk with me about Tom’s complicated relationships with Cousin Greg and Shiv on Succession, the huge UK scandal in Quiz, a scary COVID-19 test result and thoughts on playing James Bond.
How are you?
Well, very well. How are you doing?
I am doing okay. Are you hanging in there through this pandemic drama?
It’s strange. Things are looking more and more normal where I am. There are people who are out and about, the traffic has picked up. Whereabouts are you?
Northern California, in a really small town. Things feel a little bit normal, getting there.
I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you first about Pride and Prejudice, which I think is probably what you might still be most known for and most famous for because as it’s had such a lasting impact on audiences. How do you regard that role and performance 15 years later?
I don’t really, I don’t really look like myself in it (laughs). But I don’t really think about it very much. It feels like another job, you know, and often as an actor, you do one project and then you do another few and then the one you did six months ago comes out and it feels like a long time ago. But people are very fond of it and that’s an absolutely lovely thing, it’s very touching.
You have a single scene in The Assistant, which just came out a few weeks ago that might be more terrifying than most horror films. Tell me about filming that scene with Julia Garner.
Yeah, that scene, we were shooting the second season of Succession and I went in on a Sunday and did that. It was an 11 page scene and we did it in one day and it was done. It was great fun. And Julia Garner, my God, she’s brilliant. Just really wonderful to work with, just a brilliant actress. I felt very pleased to be asked to come and do that.
So although you use an American accent in The Assistant, Succession was your first American role on film, correct?
On film, yes. I played an American part in a play at The Royal Court Theatre in London [Bruce Norris’s The Pain and the Itch] but yes, first thing on camera.
Why do you think it took so much time for that to happen with the just not meeting up with the right project?
I don’t know! I hadn’t tried to, I hadn’t done pilot season or anything. That’s the thing, you never really plan a career, you’re just sort of bumbling along and 20 years go by and you’re playing an American (laughs). And then this pilot came through and it all happened, so I’m very grateful.
What were your initial inspirations for how to play Tom?
I guess it was the last thing at the foot of the pilot episode with Tom at the baseball game and he sort of turns on Greg and it was this great scene and up until that point you just think, ‘Oh, he’s a bit of a sort of prat, he’s a bit of a potato’ and then that sort of wonderful scene where he turns to Greg (Nicholas Braun, “Cousin Greg”) and berates him, really. I thought that was really interesting.
Tom is often the punching bag of the Roy family and then in pretty classic textbook behavior then punches down to Greg quite a bit. But that relationship really blew up and is certainly one of the audience’s favorite parts of the show. Did you see that coming in that way?
No, no, no. The scripts just sort of came in and we jumped in and had fun with it and it was just lovely. Lovely. The writers of the characters saw the way the actors were working with each other and then they wrote a bit more and then we respond to that. And they respond to that in a sort of circular way.
A lot of Succession‘s comic relief comes from Tom and Greg, both their behavior and how they interact with each other. Did it feel that way on the page or did it turn into something else once you got in front of the camera?
On the page and then I think Nick and I just love working with each other and got on very well. He’s just the nicest man in the world and we just had fun with it. He’s such a wonderful actor and we would sort of bounce off each other in a really nice way, as to do all the actors on the show, really. It just feels like a shared company because we’ve these great big set pieces and the way we shoot is very fluid. The cameras are always on, so you sort of feel you’re in a play, you know, there’s no time to switch off. You’re paying attention all the time. And so some people are improvising or changing stuff and so you have to be aware. It’s a lovely, exciting, thrilling set to be on.
That sounds almost like how Robert Altman used to shoot where he would have multiple cameras and mics everywhere and you just kind of always had to be ready.
Yes! I think it’s great because you shoot can quickly. There’s nothing wrong with having multiple setups but sometimes it can be a little deadening in the wrong hands, doing ‘master, closeup, master, closeup.’ But some of the way you work on the TV show, we can shoot quite a lot, quite quickly and in quite a concentrated fashion and it seems to work well.
The dynamic between Tom and Shiv is a pretty volatile one at times. How do you see their relationship and sidebar, how great is Sarah Snook in this show?
She’s amazing. She is she’s just brilliant and it’s most of my stuff on the show is with her and Nick, so it’s a real treat. But the tonal shifting, it’s just fascinating, because they do love each other and they do love alone. Even though it looks like Tom is out of his league with Shiv, the idea that she needs a safe pair of hands, that he’s not going to let her down, adds an element to their relationship. And then, you know, by the end of season two, you’re aware that Tom is terribly unhappy and can’t keep up with the acceptance of the fact that this is a marriage that she’s invented, especially with the ‘open’ element. It’s quite poignant. It’s kind of sad, you know. I just thought it was a really clever bit of writing and just lovely to play with it.
I think what happens is Tom ends up being one of the more relatable characters in the show and you get to sympathize with him in a way that you don’t with everybody.
Yeah, he doesn’t want to kind of calculated as some of the others, but I think everyone is fairly sympathetic. I mean they’re all sort of struggling from the fallout of being brought up as a Roy (laughs). They’re all…fucked…and unloved or struggling with something or anther. We did think in the pilot, ‘wow these people are so unattractive’ but you kind of want to watch or invest time in them. But I think that’s the key; it’s a family, which should be instantly relatable.
I think the writing is one of the things that elevates it from being like a Dynasty or something like that. It’s not a soap opera. It’s a much more family-driven story.
So while the current pandemic has Hollywood production shut down, what might we see in the third season of Succession to tide us over before that happens?
I would love to know! (laughs)
We spoke at the end of April in New York so we’re just waiting. There’s no fear of missing out because we’re all in the same boat. So I guess, I don’t know. I’m not well-informed enough or clever enough to know how shooting will be. Because there’s a lot of stuff with insurance and unions and how do we do scenes in big groups and how do you do scenes where you’re close to somebody, you know. But that will all be revealed, I suppose.
I think all of us can’t wait for that.
I did have an antibody test, which I quite pleased with myself because I have had it.
They found antibodies, which would mean my household has antibodies as well. Maybe that’ll be the thing that gets everyone back; we can do these tests and people can develop immunity.
That must have been scary though.
Yeah, it was interesting. But I don’t know what that means. I mean, how can anybody know? I think half the thing is the more you read in the media, the more you expect to be… The less informed I feel about it. The more confused I am.
That’s understandable. Well, even though we don’t have new Succession you do have the limited series Quiz on AMC about the Who Wants to be a Millionaire? cheating scandal in the UK. What was your personal memory of the scandal before the project came to you?
It was sort of vague, really. But I was certainly aware of the show and it was a shame, it was huge. The moment when it [the show] started, it was like millions of people watching. 19 million a month or something.
Was there a certain aspect of Charles Ingram that was important for you to capture to tell the story?
I have always really just played within the script, so I think that they were very sympathetic in [Quiz writer] James’s story. They were very sweet and decent people, I suppose. Not a perfect people, but who is? And really, what was interesting about the whole thing was that they were so vilified for what they did and then afterward. He lost his job and the kids were bullied and the dog was shot and all this kind of stuff.
They were all over the tabloids and all the rest of it, disproportionately to what they had been accused of, I think. And also I find it fascinating the whole, just the themes of memory and how we … because there are three acts to the show and you see the lead, the boss of the Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and how it all started and then how they got on it. And then you see the case with the prosecution, the case with the front. So you see it from other perspectives. And it’s pretty interesting about memory and about projection and how we change memories and change narratives to suit us all the time. You hear that all the time, I think.
The trial sequence when the defense attorney for Ingram is talking to the jury about memory. I never heard it described that way and it was so fascinating. I will probably carry that with any story that I retell now.
Agreed. And I do it. When you read the paper’s line, you gravitate unflinchingly towards the stories that resonate with you naturally and your bias and your prejudices and then we look at all that you have and it’s interesting. And now more than ever, I suppose, with all the pervasiveness of social media and constant news and information and trying to know what’s what.
There’s also the sequence where one person has an idea of something that might be happening, and as they keep telling another person, it perverts a little bit until it just becomes something else. It’s fascinating.
Yeah, exactly. That’s right. If you repeat something often enough, it just becomes accepted fact.
Well, we’re seeing quite a bit of that these days.
Yeah, absolutely. And we’re seeing it every day. “China” [in a Trump voice]. James has this wonderful…I think what’s really clever in Quiz is that the idea that it does start with that reality TV thing and at the beginning of the 24 hour news cycle.
The timing of all this between the death of Princess Diana and 9/11 is a huge change in media.
Yeah. And then you draw a lot in from that to now, and we have our reality TV star in the White House and it’s fascinating and it’s culturally fascinating.
It definitely is. I understand that you’re a bit of a spy buff, you like spy stuff.
I do, yeah.
Would you ever take on the role of James Bond?
They have never, ever asked me, to be honest with you.
The campaign starts now, Matthew.
As long as I can have my false teeth from Charles Ingram.
I was just thinking about that.
Those beautiful false teeth. And the makeup maybe they’ll let me keep.
There you go. I’ll write to the Broccolis and we’ll see what we can do.
Okay, lovely. If you can set that up for me, that’d be wonderful.
Season two of Succession is currently streaming on HBO Max and Quiz is available through AMC.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.