Defining Success: Matthew Macfadyen is The Rake's Issue 94 Cover Star

The boldest Shakespearean drama of our time, Succession, has taken its curtain call, and Tom Wambsgans has slipped away with the crown. So what will Matthew Macfadyen do next — and what will it mean to him? He talks it over with Stephen Wood.

 Defining Success: Matthew Macfadyen is The Rake's Issue 94 Cover Star

Can the American mind comprehend Matthew Macfadyen? It’s doubtful. Consider some of the comments left beneath YouTube clips of Macfadyen describing what it was like to become Tom Wambsgans, television’s favourite midwesterner on the make. 

omg hes not american? wild
why is he british
His voice, his EVERYTHING
The British are famously nice people and he played such an incredible American jerk.
Of course Payton Manning is British

We’re being ironic, we might add. It was one of the defining qualities of Succession, HBO’s pitch-black satire of U.S. familial wealth and power, that Macfadyen should disappear absolutely into his role as Tom, the peasant who would be king of the Roys. And a confession: so accustomed had The Rake become to seeing Macfadyen as Wambsgans — clean-shaven, besuited, calculating, corporate — that when we met Matthew on a bright spring day in south-west London, we needed a moment to adjust. Macfadyen had grown a beard (in preparation for his next part); his hair was not combed but ruffled (intentionally or otherwise); and he was dressed in casual attire of denim slacks and a comfort-fit Henley. Over the course of an hour by the Thames, he sprinkled our conversation with the rather un-Tom-like adjective ‘lovely’, and he exuded the opposite of Tom’s nervous energy; his imposing frame (he is 6’3”) was never imposed. 

It’s possible he was feeling that frame a little more than usual on this particular morning: he’d just returned from a three-night visit to New York, where he and his wife, the actress Keeley Hawes, had attended the Met Gala. Those are the kinds of circles Macfadyen moves in now, aren’t they, now that Succession has elevated his profile far beyond British shores? He laughed. “It doesn’t feel glamorous — you’re sweating in tight clothes,” he said. 

“But it was great. Sort of bonkers. There are so many very famous people, it’s exhausting in itself trying to get them all into your eyeballs. You arrive and we walked up this huge staircase, and at the top is Anna Wintour and the hosts, Chris Hemsworth, Jennifer Lopez, Bad Bunny... The entrances are staggered, so you feel as though you’re the only ones there. It’s completely surreal. And the Met is empty and beautiful. It feels like a real magic trick.” 

The world is absurd and awful and hilarious and full of love and everything, so Succession worked. 

Succession is no more: it ran for four seasons between 2018 and 2023, cannibalising awards shows and internet memes on the virtuosic strength of its writing and ensemble performances. The final episode aired last May, so Macfadyen has spent the past 12 months moving on. In July he appears alongside Ryan Reynolds and Hugh Jackman in his first Hollywood blockbuster, Deadpool & Wolverine, and 2024 should also see the release of Holland, Michigan, a dark thriller for Amazon in which he joins Nicole Kidman and Gael García Bernal. He’ll spend the summer shooting Death by Lightning, a Netflix series that tells the wild story of President James Garfield’s assassination at the hands of Charles Guiteau in 1881. Macfadyen plays the killer. 

Cream linen 9oz safari jacket, linen Henley and pocket-square, Anderson & Sheppard.

But until those projects see the light of day, Succession retains a hold on the imagination. Not least for the audacious way Macfadyen was able to deliver a supremely American character and, through those doe eyes and ductile face of his, portray the multitudes of Tom’s desperation — at first for acceptance within the Roy clan, and ultimately for pay dirt at the Roys’ fictional media conglomerate, Waystar Royco. No wonder Sarah Snook, who played Tom’s wife, Shiv Roy, said she didn’t know how Macfadyen had made “such an obsequious and bullying character likeable”, or that Colin Firth said of his friend’s performance: “I can’t see him anywhere in it, and I don’t know where it came from.” 

Macfadyen was helped, as he acknowledges, by a script from Jesse Armstrong and his team of writers that spoilt the cast and audience with zinger after zinger (“Buckle up, fucklehead!”; “Like a closed-loop system”; “You don’t hear much about syphilis these days... Very much the Myspace of STDs”) as well as some finely judged pathos.

The Rake tells Macfadyen it still finds itself recalling memorable lines or scenes from the show and smiling randomly in public. “I do too,”he says. “I go into a little reverie every now and then and think, Oh, that was fun.” He laughs again, one of his two signature laughs, a wonderful bass guffaw (the other occurs when his amusement chases itself into an entertaining high-pitched chuckle, as though he and Cousin Greg — Tom’s sidekick, played by Nicholas Braun — are up to no good again). 

Macfadyen maintains he doesn’t get tired of talking about Succession (a good job), even though, from the read-through of the pilot episode, which took place on U.S. election day in 2016, it dominated more than six years of his life. “It was a real pleasure, honestly. You’d get these scenes and go, ‘Fantastic, when are we doing this? Thursday? O.K., can’t wait.’ Nick and I’d call each other and say, ‘We can’t laugh, we can’t laugh’. Sometimes we met the day before [shooting] to run lines, to try and flush the laugher out of the system, because otherwise we’d be wasting time [on set], it’d be terrible.” 

Not surprisingly, he seems conflicted about the end of the show. At one point he says that leaving behind the best jobs is like a “mini-grief ”, then examines his emotion from another angle: “I miss playing Tom, but you can’t play the same part for ever, so in a funny way it was a relief to let that go.” 

Bespoke wool jacket and trousers, Elia Caliendo; shirt, madder tie and pocket-square, Budd Shirtmakers.
Bespoke wool jacket and trousers, Elia Caliendo; shirt, madder tie and pocket-square, Budd Shirtmakers; Gondolo, Patek Philippe, Matthew’s own.

This even-handedness, this attempt to balance competing emotions, messages and perceptions, is very Macfadyen. It might even help us ‘see’ him outside of the many strong characters that constitute his 30-year career in theatre, film and T.V. He sometimes trails off towards the end of a sentence, struck, presumably, by another thought and the need to appraise it. 

He is also modest and self-aware. The Rake mentions examples of praise for him — variously from The Guardian: “The limits of his career now appear to be stratospheric”; Macfadyen’s is “arguably the defining contribution to the defining T.V. drama of our times” — and we wonder whether he feels as though, in light of Succession’s glory, he has mastered the industry. He accepts the compliments as “nice”, but issues an inimitable corrective. “It’s cobblers,” he says. “I don’t know what that feels like. “[The end of Succession] does feel different in that you’re surfing on a lovely wave of love for it, and you have a bit more agency if you’ve had a hit. But it’s not always easy because you’re thinking, What’s the best thing to do next? And you might make three films on the trot and they’re all crap and that’s that for a bit, and the wave you’ve been surfing on goes... ” He trails off. He appears to be, well, level- headed about it all. “It’s the only way to cope with the oddness of the business,” he says. “Otherwise you’d go mad. 

“I wouldn’t have known how to approach things differently after Succession. As an actor you’re waiting for things to come in and hoping for the best... It’s the condition of being a gun for hire, really. Some actors create their own stuff, and they have production companies, but I wouldn’t know how to do that.” 

Such a quintessential ‘Brit’ couldn’t share any traits with his alter ego Wambsgans, could he? “I must do somewhere,” he says, before adding, almost pleadingly on Tom’s behalf: “I mean, there are good qualities to Tom: he’s quite sweet, in a way. He works hard. He’s diligent. He’s not a total fool — now and again Jesse [the show’s creator] would come up and say, ‘He’s not a total fool’, I think probably because he had an eye on the end game, which I was blissfully unaware of. So in my really stupid moments he’d say, ‘Maybe tone it down a bit’... Like, I need my ending! 

“I will say it was very good for my mental health, playing Tom, because I could be a total prick on set and do all these excruciatingly embarrassing things and feel quite unbranded at the end of the day.” 

As Macfadyen points out, the tone of Succession's writing is “acid, ugly, strange, but really gripping”. How on earth did it work? “I don’t know,” he says, chuckling again. “That’s the thing — you think, No one’s going to watch this... But I think because it was so unsentimental, and it was so muscular and rigorous about its unsentimentality. There was nothing cosy or neat, there’s no redemption, people didn’t change. And it was fucking hilarious. And because pain and tragedy and comedy are two sides of the same coin, it was very moving as well, I found. That’s the real genius of Jesse and his team: they deeply understand that there’s no comedy without pain, and vice-versa. The world is absurd and awful and hilarious and full of love and everything, so it worked.” 

Lightweight tech wool car coat, Dunhill; linen shirt, wool trousers and neckerchief, Anderson & Sheppard; suede desert boots, Edward Green; sunglasses, Cutler and Gross.
Suede jacket, Ralph Lauren Purple Label; chambray shirt, Polo Ralph Lauren; 5172G Chronograph, Patek Philippe, Matthew’s own.

When The Rake asks whether that really is it for Tom and co., whether there is any chance of Succession being brought back, he sounds as definitive as at any point in our conversation — sort of. “I don’t think there is. I’d be amazed. No. I think it’s, erm, no.” Would it risk ruining its legacy to resume with a fifth series?“ Yeah, it would be weird; it would feel strange. The way we left it was so clever, because nothing’s wrapped up, the camera goes away and they carry on... ” 

I’d go jogging in Central Park... People would run alongside you. You feel anxious and weird. 

The impact of the show’s success lingers. Macfadyen is recognised more regularly, particularly in the U.S., and it has forced him to manage the antagonism between fame and privacy. He mimics a member of the public interrupting him while he’s going about his day: “‘Tom!’” he booms in a generic American accent. Then back to Matthew: “The truth is, sometimes it’s quite nice, but it’s weird because I would never do that as a punter. I would never ask for a selfie. Here as well [in the U.K.], it’s the same.” He slips effortlessly into a gruff mockney accent to shout: “‘Selfie O.K.?’ ... And you think, No, not really. 

“All the Succession cast felt the same. I remember Jeremy [Strong, who played Kendall Roy] saying — we were laughing about it — he used to walk up and down the West Side Highway, by the Hudson, learning his lines, and he says he can’t do that [any more]. Or I’d go jogging around the reservoir in Central Park and it became a bit — slightly anxious, because people would run alongside you.” He returns to his American everyman: “‘Hey, buddy! Greg? No, Tom!’... You think, O.K., I’m going to go to the hotel gym. You feel slightly anxious and weird. I’m not at work, I’m jogging. You try and be a good egg or just carry on.” 

It’d be enough to make you run faster, The Rake suggests. “Or stop and give up,” he says. 

Cream linen 9oz safari jacket, linen Henley and pocket-square, Anderson & Sheppard; sunglasses, Moscot.

All this fuss about Succession might imply that Macfadyen has not been around the block before, or has hardly taken on the mantle of a leading man. As he would say himself: cobblers. 

He secured his headline breakthrough in 2005, having just turned 30, by producing a delightfully stern Mr. Darcy in Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice. He’d graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art a decade earlier, where, aged 17, he’d been accepted at the first time of asking. (At Rada he remembers being “obsessed” with De Niro and Pacino; watching the neo-noir thriller State of Grace “on a loop”; and for the way the institution would “break you down to build you up again”, as he described it on the Backstage podcast in 2022.) His postgraduate work gave his career momentum: roles in The Duchess of Malfi and Much Ado About Nothing for the director Declan Donnellan’s theatre group, Cheek by Jowl, and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the RSC. 

Macfadyen’s father was an engineer in the oil industry, which meant that when Matthew was young, his family moved around — to Scotland, London, Lincolnshire, and then, when Matthew was eight years old, to Jakarta in Indonesia. He returned to England to attend boarding school in the Midlands, close to his grandparents. This is where we pick up the scent. His grandfather was passionate about amateur dramatics, he says, and his great-grandfather was a Welsh chapel minister who was “quite well known as an orator in that world”. His mother trained as a drama teacher in the sixties, and also got involved in amateur dramatics. Matthew found he enjoyed taking part in school plays, and
his path was apparently set. 

“I was probably quite shy,” he says. “Acting gave me a structure to be in the spotlight without having to... I’m sitting here being tongue-tied and gesticulating in this interview, but if I’m playing a part and I’ve got this scene, something in me completely relaxes and changes because I have that safety net. It’s a wonderful drug. Or if you’re standing on stage in front of 600 people, you have this wonderful poetry or writing — you’re with people in a room, you know, and that’s really addictive and weirdly relaxing.” 

Macfadyen has, according to a profile in Vanity Fair, “a very British approach to acting that doesn’t require him to marinate in his own wellsprings of emotion and experience”. He would concur. He told Backstage that, as actors, “there is nothing inside us; we don’t walk around in states of rage or sorrow or joy”, and that, “so often I’ve seen actors going, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, the scene’s wrong’, and it’s just fear... fear of committing and jumping in”. He builds on this now when he tells The Rake: “I’ve never met any tortured actors; the truth of it is that most actors are well-adjusted people. You can’t be an arsehole as an actor for long, certainly not in the theatre, because people are like, You can’t work in a room together. I don’t think acting has anything to do with exercising your own personal demons. It’s not useful, it’s not interesting. If I work with anyone who’s doing that, the results are never good.” 

I was quite shy. But if I’ve got a scene, something in me relaxes because it’s a safety net. It’s a wonderful drug. 

In 2002 he embarked on the BBC series Spooks, which was how he met Hawes, who played Zoe Reynolds in the long-running MI5 drama. Hawes was married at the time, and so, Britain being Britain, the tabloids became interested in the story of the new couple. After Hawes divorced in 2004, she and Macfadyen married in November of that year. The Rake asks him to reflect on himself as a twenty- or thirtysomething. “My thirties were strange,” he says. “[Having] kids was seismic. Twenties to thirties felt like a big shift. 

Pride & Prejudice was an odd thing — a big, splashy thing, and you think, God, what do I do now? I probably should have just done something straight away and not worried so much, but I tried to be canny and work out what to do, and sort of didn’t really do anything for a bit.” 

Bespoke Holland & Sherry, Anderson & Sheppard; shirt and pocket-square, Budd Shirtmakers; tie pin, property of The Rake; paisley tie, Ralph Lauren; socks, London Sock Company; suede brogues, Edward Green; Constellation Globemaster 39mm, SednaTM, OMEGA.

It was a blip. By 2008 he’d joined Michael Sheen in the Oscar- nominated Frost/Nixon, and a year later he produced a Bafta-winning performance in the second series of the BBC’s Criminal Justice. 

Any Human Heart, the Channel 4 adaptation of William Boyd’s novel of the same name, followed in 2010. Macfadyen took on the middle-aged Logan Mountstuart, a fictional writer who comes to a couple of grand conclusions about life: that we don’t stay the same (because we’re changed by the things that happen to us), and that our lives are, in the end, just an accumulation of good and bad luck. At 49 and a half years of age, Macfadyen has the perspective with which to judge his counterpart’s theories. “I agree [with them],” he says. “I do [feel like a different person]. I’m sure my characteristics are the same, but I think events change you.

“And I really subscribe to the idea that life is luck. I find that very comforting, because it sort of plugs into — I’m sorry if it sounds waffly and silly — plugs into what I was trying to articulate earlier, about being an actor: it’s so out of your hands, it’s so chaotic, and you’re trying to manage the chaos and the uncertainty of it all. Once you accept that you can’t control everything, it’s O.K. 

“A director I worked with early on, Declan Donnellan, had the most influence on me. His philosophy was also very good advice for the art and craft of acting: if you try and control a performance or a thing... ” He leaves the end of the sentence unsaid, but he means: expect failure. “It’s about paying attention to the person you’re with,” he adds. “It’s sort of bad news for people but good for actors. 

“The vanity is that I’m in control of my narrative and my life, and actually we all know we’re not. Bad news comes out of the blue.” 

This is a banner year for Macfadyen. Already he’s taken home a Golden Globe (his first), an Emmy and a Bafta for his work on the final season of Succession; in October he turns 50, and the following month he and Hawes will celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary. Thoughtheremightnotbeawholelotofcelebratinggoingon.“We haven’t got any plans, no,” he says of the anniversary. “We always forget it and go, ‘Hey, last week we were married’... I’m not a big birthday party person. I always was a bit like that: even when I was little, my mum tells me, I’d go into a state of terror before my sixth birthday or something... ” 

I love the idea of surprising people. Probably because my vanity is that I think my range is bigger than it is. 

Mention that his own children will, in the next year or so, have all finished school and be throwing themselves into their adult lives, and you can expect a different reaction. “It’s like a third act,” he says. “It’s exciting. We [he and Hawes] are like, ‘O.K., mini breaks!” Macfadyen has a stepson, Myles, a teacher, from Hawes’s first marriage; Macfadyen and Hawes have a daughter, Maggie, 19, and a son, Ralph, 17. Matthew says: “When you’re in the trenches when they’re little, it’s like, ‘This is it for ever’, but of course it’s not. Then you realise, luckily, ours are really lovely, funny humans who are making you laugh and telling you off.” 

If Macfadyen is embarking on a third act, it is difficult to predict how he’ll use it. What he won’t do, it seems, is change. 

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