Until now, “Pride & Prejudice,” “Howards End,” and “Wuthering Heights” were just a few of the decidedly English period pieces that Matthew Macfadyen was best known for. But it’s as the vulgar and goofy (and American!) Tom on HBO’s “Succession” that the U.K. actor has proven his Royal Academy of Dramatic Art–trained range once and for all. In conversation with Backstage, Macfadyen reflects on his 20 years of screen work and what he’s learned along the way.
How did you first get your SAG-AFTRA and Equity cards?
[For] my SAG card, I did a film in Los Angeles, “Frost/Nixon.” My Equity card came with my first job, which was in ’95; it was a touring production of “The Duchess of Malfi” with a company called Cheek by Jowl. That was a 10-month tour. It was an amazing first job. It was thrilling and terrifying all at once. I couldn’t believe I’d gotten into drama school, and then I couldn’t believe I got a job and was walking around thinking I could call myself a professional actor.
What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever done to get a role?
I remember sending a drunken fax to a director demanding he give me the part—but I knew him quite well, and he did give me the part. There have been no threats of violence or blackmail—not yet.
What is your worst audition horror story?
It usually involves forgetting my lines mid–screen test or midaudition or sitting on a really uncomfortable bit of furniture. There are none that were spectacularly embarrassing. I’ve probably washed them from my mind.
How do you typically prepare for an audition?
I make sure I know the lines as well as I possibly can. I try to do my best. I do think it’s out of your hands, because they know what they’re looking for, usually. They pretty much know as soon as you walk in the door. You realize it’s not personal; it’s not about how good you are. It’s pretty cosmetic, putting people together, assembling a cast. After you’ve been at it for a few years, people know you don’t have a lisp, they know you can speak English. They can watch your work to get a flavor of you. There’s not a lot you can do apart from doing the scene as well as you can.
Somebody said to me once, ‘They’re really willing you to be the one.’ When you’re sitting in the room, the casting director’s thinking, ‘I hope they like this guy,’ and the director’s thinking, ‘I hope this is the one.’ There’s good will when you walk in the room. It’s useful to remember. They’re not thinking, ‘Ugh, another actor’—maybe they are, sometimes. [Laughs]
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would tell myself not to worry so much about things that are out of my hands. And it’s probably not a good idea to smoke so many cigarettes because you’re nervous before an audition. I have a tendency to be a little bit diffident and self-effacing. I would say to myself, “You could be a little bit more self-promoting.” The industry has changed an awful lot since I started. There’s a lot more of that self-promotion. People use social media. It was considered a little bit garish and embarrassing to put yourself forward for stuff. I think now, that’s how the business works more and more. I wish I’d been a little less diffident about that.
I heard a terrible story about this guy who was offered a big job, a studio picture. They did a diligent scroll through his Twitter or Instagram [from] when he was 13 or 14, and they found something that was particularly unpalatable—because he was 13 or 14—and he lost the job because they didn’t want to deal with the fallout if it ever came out [and] the film did well. Which is sad. There are different stressors and strains on young actors right now. That didn’t even enter our heads when we were in drama school. There was barely any TV training, let alone any self-promotion or image.
What performance should every actor see and why?
I really loved Steve Martin and those comedies that were rigorously tight. At the same time, I was obsessed by Robert De Niro and Al Pacino and Nick Nolte and Christopher Walken and that American style of acting, which had no sort of fantasy and it wasn’t showy. I think “Q & A” with Nick Nolte—it’s like there’s no camera there. [It’s] this living, breathing, messy man. I also loved a film called “Fanny and Alexander,” which I watched again and again. It’s a wonderful demonstration of a company of actors working together.
Do you feel like you’re able to bring some of that style to Succession?
Acting is not something you do by yourself. Some people try, and the results are never really brilliant. It’s a collective thing. You need to be in a room with people, whether it’s a theater or a set, and that’s what makes it brilliant when it works. You develop a real shorthand and an understanding with people and a fondness for people you’re working with. I walk on set and I see Sarah Snook or Jeremy [Strong] or Brian [Cox], and I think, That’s my fake family. You watch them work and they’re all sensational actors and it’s really wonderful. We’re doing a TV show, so we don’t rehearse that much; we’re betting into the more we do, the better it gets.
What has playing Tom on “Succession” added to your acting skills?
It’s allowed me to flex some muscle that I haven’t flexed in a bit. He’s very funny, but he’s not just a comedy character. There’s something quite sad and sweet about him, as well. It’s allowed me to play an American onscreen for the first time—I’ve done it in the theater, but not onscreen. Actors love to play different parts. My vanity, if I have one as an actor, is I’ve got lots of people jumping around inside of me. I think every actor gets frustrated if they’re not allowed to show what they can do. You never want to play the same thing all the time. To do something so different is thrilling.
This story originally appeared in the August 1 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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