I met Matthew Macfadyen on one of those days in ancient history, a couple of weeks ago, when we were still not quite sure whether to make silly jokes about elbow-touching greetings, or to fear for civilisation’s immediate future. In many ways, Macfadyen is the archetypal actor for this kind of moment, a master of shifting and ambiguous tone, whose frequent bursts of laughter often threaten to turn hollow. One of the many joys of his portrayal of the bullied and bullying son-in-law Tom Wambsgans in the HBO show Succession – arguably the defining contribution to the defining TV drama of our times – is his winning ability to switch from empathy to psychopathy in a heartbeat.
Next month, Macfadyen will bring all of that gift for nuance to the three-part ITV drama Quiz, in which he plays Major Charles Ingram, the “coughing major” who was convicted of cheating his way to the top prize on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in 2001. The show, an adaptation of the West End play by James Graham, has been directed for television by Stephen Frears. Macfadyen’s major takes the hot seat across from Michael Sheen, who adds Chris Tarrant to his repertoire of uncanny impersonations.
If I’m honest I hadn’t really expected to enjoy the miniseries, which I watched in preview. I felt I knew the story of the major, who was eventually convicted of the deception, along with his wife Diana and their coughing accomplice Tecwen Whittock, in a widely publicised court case, but I was wrong. Graham’s script and Frears’s direction – but above all Macfadyen’s characterisation – brings unexpected humanity as well as fabulous observational comedy to the events. It takes you back to a curious time when the whole nation was in thrall to the quiz show – audience figures peaked at 19 million – which was the first of a string of British TV formats to be sold to the American networks. Major Ingram emerges as a fall guy to the feverish obsessions of a different era. His million-pound appearance came the day before 9/11.
Macfadyen was sent the script when he was filming the last episode of the second season of Succession onboard a superyacht off the coast of Croatia. “I’d known about the story,” he says, “but I thought I knew more about it than I did. And I knew that Sian Clifford was playing the wife – and I was a big fan of hers from Fleabag – and Stephen Frears, of course, and it was quite different from Tom Wambsgans so I immediately said yes.”
One of the things that makes the drama so watchable is that it maintains some reasonable doubt about the scam itself right to the end.
Even Macfadyen wasn’t quite sure what to think. “Sian and I kept sort of grabbing each other during filming going: ‘They did it! Guilty! Yeah.’ Then, five minutes later: ‘No, no, no, they didn’t!’”
In some senses, I suggest, Ingram adds to Macfadyen’s gift for playing that kind of contemporary everyman who finds himself suddenly in the midst of events way beyond his control.
“Yeah,” he says. “But I think we all are like that, really. We are all living by the seat of our pants to greater and lesser degrees. Even majors in the British army.”
When I later speak to James Graham, who wrote the script, he describes his idea of it as “Mission Impossible, but set in a village in Wiltshire”; it gave him the licence to explore a curious middle-England mix of reserve and wild-eyed obsession. He and the producers and Frears knew they had to persuade Macfadyen to take the role. “Coming from the theatre, I’d known Matthew as one of our great stage actors, but vastly underappreciated,” Graham says. “But then like everyone else, seeing him appear, or emerge, in Succession was a revelation. That is the most extraordinary performance, both buffoonish and terrifying simultaneously.”
Macfadyen finds a way to play the major as both a quite conventional military man and a genuine enigma. “The real Ingram has been lampooned to a degree that I think is out of proportion to his alleged crime,” Graham says. “I think Matthew is perfect because he does have this dashing aura of a Hollywood star, but also looks and feels incredibly nice. You just like him, everyone does.”
Sitting talking with Macfadyen it is hard to disagree with that impression. Nothing he says is quite in earnest, and he has a habit of laughing at your lamest joke. You can’t help thinking some of this is performance, but then feel guilty for doubting his sincerity.
Macfadyen is married to Keeley Hawes, who he met when they made Spooks together. They have two children in their teens, along with a 19-year-old son from Hawes’s first marriage. The thought of actors off stage and at home, particularly when they are married to other actors, is always intriguing. Both he and Hawes can convincingly inhabit any shade of emotion. How do their arguments go?
He laughs. “I am really not good without a script. I’m an absolutely hopeless fibber in real life. But even when I’m acting I never feel I am inhabiting any emotion. You are just doing what the character does.”
He insists that he and Hawes are not competitive with each other, but both of them are in a rich run of TV success: Hawes with The Durrells and Line of Duty and The Bodyguard, he with Any Human Heart, and Ripper Street and Howards End, as well as Succession.
He puts it down mostly to a determination to keep working.
“I think the trick is keep doing good work while you wait for those roles where everything comes together,” he says. “I think Keeley had that with Line of Duty. And perhaps me with Succession.”
In that philosophy, I suggest, he no doubt found a kindred spirit in Stephen Frears, who once told me he had made his remarkably varied directorial career by following the principle of simply always doing the best script that came through his letterbox.
“I think so. I mean, if you’re lucky enough to get sent things and they sort of blow your hair back then, great. Quite often though my immediate thought is ‘Well, I wouldn’t cast myself as this’. Or, you know, ‘Why didn’t they ask Damian Lewis?’ But then there are some parts you think: ‘Yeah I know what makes him tick.’”
And that was the case with Charles Ingram?
“Yes. He’s a very particular kind of Englishman, self-effacing and traditional, a wearer of slacks.”
And apparently fantastically corruptible?
“Well that’s the thing, was he? The tabloid narrative was that Diana, his wife, was the sort of controller, the Lady Macbeth, but who knows? A posh cheat? We rush to know and we rush to condemn. But maybe we always need to look a bit harder.”
Macfadyen did not find it hard to remain agnostic. “You are just playing incremental moments, so you can’t add a wash of guilt or innocence anyway. Now and again Stephen would say, ‘Let’s turn the dial a bit one way on their culpability and then not so much’ – just so he had options in the cutting room.”
It is a tribute to Macfadyen’s skills that he could make every gradation of those reactions believable. I asked Lucy Prebble, one of the scriptwriting team on Succession, what it was like to write with his character in mind. “I remember once half-joking [to Matthew] on set about a particular take: ‘Yes, but Tom would feel 7% less shame,’” she says. “The next take, on the monitor, there it was, not eight, not six, but 7% less shame. And completely true. It is the most exciting thing for a writer, because it gives you a completely open field in creating. It’s what they mean when they say of an actor that there’s nothing they can’t do. There is nothing Matthew can’t do.”
Macfadyen discovered he might have that talent quite early. His mother trained as an actor and later taught drama. They did a bit of am-dram together, including Oh! What a Lovely War, and whenever there was mention of a school play, he recalls, “my heart was immediately banging away”.
His upbringing also supplied those elements of dislocation and hyper-observation that seem at the heart of his best performances. Macfadyen’s father was a physicist who became an engineer in the oil industry. They lived in places as varied as Great Yarmouth, Aberdeen, London and Jakarta. “There was a lot of me standing next to a teacher announcing ‘Say hello to Matthew, children’,” he says.
He saw it as an adventure rather than any kind of trauma. “Mum and Dad were always excited by new places, so my brother and I were excited too,” he says.
He was something of a prodigy, accepted at Rada at 17, and then into Declan Donnellan’s acclaimed Cheek By Jowl touring company at 21. He credits the latter in particular with opening his eyes to that magic potential of “really standing in someone else’s shoes”.
“Declan is a big proponent of the idea that everything that feeds you as an actor comes from outside,” he says. “The audience pays not for you to feel things, but for you to see things. You are not summoning emotions, it is all out there in front of you.”
He and Donnellan have remained friends. When I speak to the director, he recalls how he had never had such a young actor in the company before; Macfadyen starred in productions of The Duchess of Malfi and Much Ado that took them all over the world together.
“The thing that young actors often don’t realise,” Donnellan says, “is that if you want to get on, the first thing you need to look after is the group. Looking after me me me, on stage or off, never pays out. You have to give full attention to who you are acting with. Matthew always understood that.”
He stresses one other thing that has always struck him as unusual in his experience. “Matthew always had an extraordinarily close relationship with his parents, both father and mother. They were around, somehow, when we were in Rio one time. I remember once we were rehearsing and his dad came and they sat in the cafe at the next table and I was so impressed by how easy they were with each other. I’ve never forgotten that.”
Donnellan is, like everyone, addicted to Succession. “What is really wonderful about the series, is how they all are about the vacuousness of all that wealth,” he says. “It makes you want to go down on your knees and thank God that you are not rich.”
It seems a telling coincidence that the cast of Succession did their first read-through of the script on the day of Donald Trump’s election victory. It felt something like an omen, for their tale of power and its discontents. “Everyone, all the Americans, kept telling us, you know, the election will be fine, he can’t win,” Macfadyen recalls. “Then we went to the producer Adam McKay’s apartment that evening to watch the results come in. There was that truly terrible moment when it became clear what was going to happen. And everyone went a bit quiet and disappeared into their phones.”
Since that night, it has often appeared that something of the barely credible character of Trump’s America has been feeding directly into the two seasons of Succession almost by osmosis. No comic excess or private humiliation seems beyond either drama. “I hope so,” Macfadyen says. “There does sometimes seem some feedback. Like a horrible loop of shit, you might say.”
The Roy family in the drama seem most directly based on the Murdoch dynasty, but in the nastier moments of their familial struggles they also seem to reference Trump and his dreadful sons. It captures what Brian Cox, speaking of his patriarchal role as Logan Roy, has called elsewhere, “the horrible last gasp of the alpha male in America”, the extended death throes of all that concentrated wealth, which still exerts its global influence. “It is the Bible salesman arriving in a private jet,” Macfadyen says, “and people queuing up to say: ‘Yeah, I’ll buy one of those off you’.”
Among the divides in our world just now, it sometimes feels like the most significant is between those who think the worst can’t happen and those who understand that it can. Succession is cast in the no man’s land between those attitudes. Critics of the series suggest that it is hard to sympathise with any of the characters. The genius of it, it seems to me, is that however loathsome and cynical they are, you can still sympathise with all of them.
“I agree,” Macfadyen says. “The Roy children are all terrified. There is an awful absence of love from the father that has taken away all of their confidence. They can never talk about their feelings, though they want to.”
On the very edge of that orbit are Tom and his sidekick, cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), who understands even less of the vicious world in which they find themselves. The pair of them have become a kind of contemporary Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, tragically unsure of their roles, but scheming like everyone else.
“The thing is, however badly they behave,” Macfadyen says, “they still think they are heroic, or doing their best under very difficult circumstances. Like all of us, Tom is in a film of his own making called Tom Wambsgans, his trials and tribulations.”
Some of the collective angst comes from the way the series is filmed.
“We shoot these great long scenes, often with three cameras. And you are never sure whether the camera is on you. It feels like a play and it is liberating because you are forced to listen all the time, like you would in real life. I think we are much more affected by other people than anything inside us. That is the great thing about playing Tom – he is a totally different person with everyone he is with.”
He never knows what to feel?
“Except a sort of panicky ambivalence always.”
Again, that seems to capture a quite contemporary sense…
“Yes, I think we know life is quite scary but our vanity tells us we are in control – of our bank accounts and our careers and our relationships – until one day we are not.” He pauses for a moment. “It’s like, you know, my father died in November, quite suddenly, and when that happens the world tilts and changes for you. Everything goes off, somehow. And it’s like a lot of the world is like that now.”
When we speak Macfadyen is due to head out to begin six months’ work, mostly in New York, filming series three of Succession, though no doubt by now some of that schedule has been changed along with everything else. Inevitably, we move from talking about panicky ambivalence to the current crisis.
Did he have a sense of things falling apart?
“No,” he says, firmly. “Of course not.” And then: “I don’t know. Maybe. I am in that situation that perhaps we are all in, that the more I read about almost anything the less informed I feel. So I keep reading. Nothing quite seems to make sense and there is nothing you can do anyway. Apart, of course, in this case, from washing your hands.” We both can’t help but laugh for a moment – it’s catching – and then, just as quickly, on cue, shrug and stop.
Quiz is on ITV from 13-15 April
Matthew Macfadyen’s best screen roles
Spooks, BBC (2002-2004)
Long before Tom Wambsgans came Tom Quinn… After a few smaller roles, Macfadyen became known to British audiences in the first two series of the long-running MI5 drama, as the stoic chief of counter-terrorism division Section D. It was a disciplined portrayal that gradually thawed as the episodes went by, taking Quinn from stern, focused operative to questioning outlier. The series introduced Macfadyen to his wife, Keeley Hawes: they’ve been married since 2004.
Succession, HBO (2018-)
Following a career heavy on polite British period pieces, the role of Tom Wambsgans in Jesse Armstrong’s critically adored US television drama is a wildly against-type opportunity that the actor palpably relishes. As the ambitious, obsequious third husband to an Elisabeth Murdoch-inspired heiress, Macfadyen wittily plays him as both repulsive and queasily sympathetic: a hungry add-on to the Roy family who, as much as he plays their game, will never quite have their respect.