A deep dive into the character of Tom Wambsgans on the eve of Succession‘s fourth and final season? Yes, please! Alan Siegel talks to actor Matthew Mcfadyen about playing the show’s most consistently hilarious character — in the opinion of this Longreads curator — and his comedic inspiration:
When we first meet Tom, he’s standing outside a luxury jewelry store in New York, earnestly strategizing with his future wife about an 80th-birthday gift for her father, Logan. When she tells him that her dad “doesn’t really like things,” he blows right through her warning. “It needs to say,” he replies, “‘I respect you, but I’m not awed by you. And that I like you—but I need you to like me before I can love you.’”
That kind of moment — wild, tormented, funny — has become Tom’s signature. When asked, Macfadyen can’t think of other acting performances that helped him develop the character’s frenzied aura, but when he ponders playing Tom, Steve Martin sometimes comes to mind. “There’s a Steve Martin thing he does in various films, and he’s just sort of improvising wildly to try to get what he wants,” Macfadyen says. “He’s such a brilliant actor. There’s a sort of terrible panic about not getting what he wants and trying to do the right thing and pleasing.”
Early in the pilot, Tom tries to hand his still-unrevealed gift to Brian Cox’s Logan, who ignores the gesture. The far-too-eager-to-please future son-in-law finally gets his chance at the family’s annual celebratory softball game. Along with a five-figure Patek Philippe watch, Tom delivers a joke to Logan: “It’s incredibly accurate. Every time you look at it, it tells you exactly how rich you are.” Unimpressed, Logan says, “That’s very funny. Did you rehearse that?” Macfadyen improvised Tom’s response, first letting out a painfully awkward laugh, then saying, “No. Well, no. Yes, but …” Then Tom stops himself, forces a toothless smile, and shakes his head.
“That reaction he had to Logan Roy is an incredibly difficult thing to pull off because you’re going to say, ‘No,’ and then you’re going to betray yourself because you’re so intimidated you tell him you actually practiced it,” says McKay, who directed the episode. “People do that in real life. But traditionally, when you see a moment like that, it’s played for high comedy. Macfadyen’s a master. It’s a comedic moment, but still, it felt real.”