Of all the questions that one could ask about the HBO series Succession—including “who is the fictional Roy family based on?” “which of patriarch Logan’s rotten children might succeed him?” and “how much worse can these people get?”—one of the biggest just might be, “what the hell is going on with Tom?”
After all, Tom Wambsgans (played by 44-year-old Matthew Macfadyen) is one of the show’s most complicated characters. Yes, he’s married to Shiv Roy, the sharp-elbowed, terminally unfaithful daughter of one of the world’s most powerful media moguls, but he’s also a steadily rising executive at the family firm. From episode to episode it can be hard to determine whether he’s the most clueless of the group or perhaps the most wily.
Sometimes he seems like Shiv’s lovesick sidekick, destined to be a pawn in a game far beyond his comprehension, but in other moments it seems almost as though he’s a Master of the Universe himself. Almost.
“I never quite feel like Tom is in control of what’s happening to him,” says Matthew Macfadyen, the actor who portrays him—and whom you may recognize from films including Pride & Prejudice (he was Mr. Darcy to Kyra Knightley’s Lizzie), Anna Karenina, and Frost/Nixon. “None of them are, I suppose, but I think he’s winging everything and hoping for the best.”
This season, that best includes a new job for Tom as head of the Roy family’s Fox News-esque cable television operation and all the accompanying headaches—from badly behaved anchors to political protests and frosty receptions from liberal-leaning members of the Roys’ social circle.
Will it put Tom in line to succeed Logan himself, or at least get him closer to the inner sanctum he’s so desperate to inhabit? Here’s what Macfadyen told us.
At the end of the first season, after Tom has been more or less trampled by the Roy family, we finally see him show a bit of backbone when he kicks the guy Shiv’s been cheating with out of their wedding. What do you think his mindset is going into this second season?
At the end of the first season, he doesn’t end up in a bad place considering his fiancée has just confessed to adultery on their wedding night. He’s thinking it’s all OK because he’s part of the family now. He desperately wanted to be part of the Roy clan, and now he is.
Technically, but will he ever really be one of them?
Even on the way to their wedding rehearsal, he said, “I’m happy to be Tom Roy; I’d take your surname.” He knows he can never compete with the siblings.
Tom and Shiv have such a complicated bond. How would you describe what’s between them?
I think deep down, Tom really loves her, and I think they do have moments when they really are happy with each other. With all of the Roy kids, because of their father, none of them are really able to be open or vulnerable or emotionally available. Tom and Shiv will always be sort of blocked, so it’s a really interesting relationship to play. Her father has a lot to answer for, because none of his kids have any confidence. They’re given money and responsibility but never any real affection.
Will marriage change anything?
In the second season, you see them together and he’s struggling. On the surface it looks like he’s handling their new marriage, but it becomes clear that maybe he’s not as easy with it as Shiv is. All these characters are constantly shifting and reevaluating their positions. There’s not an awful lot of trust, even between Tom and Shiv.
This season, Tom seems to think there’s an opportunity for him to really advance in the company. He suspects his big break is coming and that maybe he and Shiv are on an even playing field.
The further he can rise up in the company, the more heft he has in the relationship, which is why I think he likes the idea of her working in the world of politics. If she’s potentially heading toward the White House and he’s at the family company climbing as high as he can, that’s safer for Tom than Shiv joining the family business.
As of this week’s episode, he’s running the cable network and desperate to make his mark. Is he any good at his job?
It’s a job that Shiv got him. I don’t know how good he actually is at any of this. It’s a difficult line to tread; Jesse [Armstrong, the series creator] often comes up to me and says, “We have to remember that this man is running a billion-dollar arm of this empire. He can’t be a complete moron.” But he obviously is a moron, so it’s not easy to do.
He’s got so much going on—he’s powerful but insecure, very serious and unintentionally hilarious—how do you prepare to play him?
I learn my lines. The writing is so good that it’s all there for you. You have to be inept to fuck it up, because it’s such a gift for an actor to have this material and these situations and ludicrous characters.
So much of the series is about jockeying for power and besting the people closest to you. Will Tom and Shiv ever be equals?
I don’t know! That’s the joy of the show. Whenever the scripts come in, it’s so exciting because I trust the writers such an awful lot. It’s great not knowing where they’re going to put us and how far they’re going to push us. The idea of Tom turning into a demented kind of Patrick Bateman isn’t unbelievable, nor is the idea of him having total breakdown. Maybe he’ll achieve equal status with Shiv as time goes on or maybe he’ll grow a bit of a spine; I can’t wait to see.
Styling by Sarah Conly, Produced by David Murphy, Hair for Sarah Snook by Mary Guthrie, Grooming for Matthew Macfadyen by Nina Soriano. On Snook: Dress, Bernadette at www.mytheresa.com. Shoes, Aquazzura. Hat, Rachel Trevor-Morgan. Earrings, Of Rare Origin. On Macfadyen: Blazer and pants, Todd Snyder. Shirt, Scotch & Soda. Shoes, Florsheim. Pocket square, Armani. Bowtie, Brackish. Pin, Of Rare Origin. Hat, Robert Graham.