If you’ve watched “Succession,” HBO’s drama about an obscenely wealthy media dynasty, chances are Tom Wamsgans, the striving Midwesterner played by Matthew Macfadyen, has done something so pathetic, so mortifying, so desperately ingratiating it made you want to grab a shovel, dig a hole to the center of the earth, and bury yourself there. All while laughing out loud and maybe even feeling sorry for the poor sap.
Perhaps it was the time he joked about the cost of the Patek Philippe watch he’d just given his billionaire future father-in-law as an 80th birthday present. Or when he squealed with pleasure as his fiancée, Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook), handed him a prenuptial agreement. Or the episode in which he dragged a naive relative into a potentially criminal coverup in order to keep his hands clean.
Macfadyen cringed right along with you.
The moment that still makes him wince is when Tom, obsequious as ever, does an awkward robot dance after his fiancée’s brother, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), orders him to be the C3PO to his Darth Vader.
“That was excruciating. If I have to do something really horrifying, there is a sort of ass-clenching where you think, ‘God almighty. Thank God I’m only doing this on set,’ ” Macfadyen said with a sigh, followed by an aftershock of anxious laughter. The setting was apt: a slick conference room inside HBO’s new headquarters at Hudson Yards, the lavish real-estate development and billionaire enclave on Manhattan’s far west side.
Though technically a supporting character, Tom is central to the queasy appeal of “Succession,” which returns for a second season Sunday. Created by Jesse Armstrong, a British writer previously best known for the cult comedy “Peep Show,” “Succession” is a viciously funny drama about the 1% — make that .01% — that invites sympathy and stirs repulsion in equal measure.
It’s a departure for Macfadyen, perhaps best known in the U.S. for playing the brooding Mr. Darcy in Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of “Pride & Prejudice.” (Tom, a weasel through and through, has more in common with the sycophantic Mr. Collins.)
More recently, Macfadyen has played other characters with “a lot of British reserve,” such as Victorian detective Edmund Reid in the BBC America series “Ripper Street” and the starchy Henry Wilcox in an underappreciated adaptation of “Howards End” for Starz.
Starring in “Succession” is “like sweeping out the cupboard,” he said.
In fact, Tom is the first American Macfadyen’s played on television, and the actor, 44, seems delighted to leave the stiff upper lip behind. His natural speaking voice is deep and velvety, with a crisp private school accent. But when he switches into an exaggerated version of Tom’s nasal register, sounding like someone who’s just inhaled helium from a balloon, his whole bearing changes: His face lights up, his eyebrows lift and he chuckles giddily.
“Americans sort of say every word, you know,” he said. “So it’s kind of liberating, because you’re on the front foot as opposed to the back foot. It’s totally different and it’s really energizing. Which is why Americans are kind of wonderful, because they’re just in the room. Hi. What’s going on? As opposed to” — he affects a posh lockjaw — “Isn’t Brexit awful?”
“Succession” is also firmly of the moment. Recently nominated for a drama series Emmy, it follows the Roy family, headed by patriarch Logan (Brian Cox), founder of Waystar Royco — a vast media and entertainment conglomerate whose holdings include a right-leaning cable news network, a film studio, newspapers, cruise lines and amusement parks. When Logan is hospitalized after a debilitating brain hemorrhage, his adult children scramble for control of the company.
Although the Roys are clearly inspired by a certain Australian clan with a conservative news empire, they also bear a resemblance to a number of infamous American dynasties. Season 1 ends on a tragic note reminiscent of the Kennedys, and the dynamics among the Roy children — despite her superficially liberal politics, Shiv is her father’s favorite — are distinctly Trumpian.
“Succession” shares some creative DNA with “Veep,” and like that recently concluded political satire, it’s most brutally effective when skewering those in tantalizing proximity to power as they go to humiliating lengths to acquire it. From an average family in Minnesota, Tom is an outsider economically and culturally — “a corn-fed basic from Hockeytown,” as a rival memorably puts it. Even his last name — pronounced “wommzganz” — is clumsy.
But Tom is learning the Roy way.
In Season 1, he helps bury evidence of rampant sexual abuse aboard the company’s cruises by manipulating Shiv’s dopey cousin, Greg (Nicholas Braun), into destroying incriminating documents. Their scenes together are some of the funniest — and most damning — in the series. Tom sees himself in Greg, the “try-hard dork,” Macfadyen said, and doesn’t like it.
Tom is also a cuckold: Shiv is cheating on him with her ex Nate (Ashley Zukerman), a floppy-haired political operative. Tom is smart enough to figure out the deception eventually, but is either too in love with Shiv or too enamored with the lifestyle she enables to fight back. He also knows that he is, as Shiv’s mother devastatingly puts it, a “plausible” partner for her and, therefore, useful.
Macfadyen has “done a brilliant job of creating this hard, calloused protection for someone who is quite a softie,” Snook said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever met someone who is so different from their character.” Season 2 further explores the relationship between Tom and Shiv, now married. “We discover the bully is often the bullied,” she added.
“Tom knows that he’s punching above his weight a bit with her. But he knows he makes her feel safe and unthreatened,” said Macfadyen, who is married to actress Keeley Hawes. (His phone case, created by a fan, features a Bitmoji avatar of her character from the Netflix series “Bodyguard.”) “So he takes on the infidelity, he takes on the [expletive]-eating and takes it out on Greg and the various office minions. There’s a lot of that in this series.”
But Macfadyen is reluctant to pass judgment on Tom. “He’s very quickly a different person with whoever he’s with, which we all do to varying degrees. Tom sort of flips between being spineless to quite plausible; really, really vile to quite sweet and sympathetic. And he really is all those things. That’s what we all do however much we think, ‘No, I’m me, and this is how I am.’ We’re all just sort of muddling through.”
Macfadyen plays Tom “with total conviction from the inside out,” Armstrong said in an email. “What I always cherish most in the edit is what he can do without even speaking. When you cut to him, he’s always being full Tom and his face is so wonderfully readable. Even when Tom is trying to put on his best alpha act, you get these layers of sadness and dis-ease that I love.”
Macfadyen’s performance is full of these silent but telling gestures. Armstrong points to the scene in which Tom gets down on one knee to propose to Shiv in a hospital corridor — a “courtly and misplaced” detail that was not scripted.
Macfadyen also improvised another memorable moment early in Season 1, in which he’s working up the nerve to tell Cousin Greg about the cruise scandal and leans his forehead against a glass wall, leaving a splotch of grease that he wipes off with his hand — a perfect metaphor for his slimy character. (The wipe was all Macfadyen.)
Armstrong had been particularly impressed by Macfadyen’s “terrifying” performance as a controlling husband in the series “Criminal Justice” (adapted into “The Night Of” in the U.S.) and by his portrayal of the “bumptious young swell Sir Felix Carbury in an adaptation of Trollope’s ‘The Way We Live Now’ ” for the BBC. “His entitled self-confidence in that role always stuck with me.”
Macfadyen says he was offered parts in “lots of dodgy rom-coms” after “Pride & Prejudice” and still gets recognized as Mr. Darcy by “ladies of a certain age.” “Succession” may change all that: Macfadyen tells a story, imitating a bro’s drunken slurring, about a man who approached him on the street, calling him Greg and apparently confusing him with his costar.
If there’s a downside to his breakthrough role on “Succession” — other than all the cringing, that is — it’s the danger he’ll be asked to play “lots of dorky, embarrassing Americans, which is the last thing I want to do, because it won’t be as good as this. And as an actor, you know, there’s lots of different people jumping about inside you.”