‘Succession’ Star Matthew Macfadyen on Shiv’s Motivations and Tom’s Future: ‘It’s Just Another Move in a Corporate Nightmare’

SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers from “With Open Eyes,” the series finale of HBO’s “Succession,” now streaming on Max.

Tom Wambsgans of St. Paul, Minn. — an unrepentant striver, the broken-hearted lover of Shiv Roy, an unconscionable careerist, a yearning potential parent, an abuser of Greg, a Disgusting Brother: Matthew Macfadyen played the “Succession” character in all of his shades. 

In the end, it was Tom’s boot-licking abilities that made him irresistible to Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård). When Shiv (Sarah Snook) tells Matsson that “Tom will suck the biggest dick in the room,” the eyes of the unhinged GoJo founder light up. Then, when Matsson shares his worries about Shiv with Tom — basically, that he wants to have sex with her — Tom takes that, too, weakly offering an excuse about the weirdness of Matsson confessing that, of all things, to him, Shiv’s husband “We’re men.”

And so Tom becomes the American CEO of the subsumed Waystar Royco, sort of becoming the successor that’s promised in the title “Succession.” He brings along his lackey Greg (Nicholas Braun), the Sporus to Tom’s Nero, and triumphs over his brothers-in-law Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and Roman (Kieran Culkin), and his own wife, Shiv, who also wanted it.

But at the fateful Waystar board meeting, Shiv is the deciding vote against Kendall, telling him — among other things — “I just don’t think you’d be good at it.” Yet if Shiv was also deliberately backing her husband (and also the father of her future baby) for her own gain at that moment, the final image of the pair of them in the back of a car pulling out of the Waystar garage — looking shellshocked, if not miserable — undercuts that theory.

Macfadyen won the Emmy for supporting actor in a drama last year, and is already leading the pack in this year’s race — but to mention that both illustrates and diminishes his achievements in this role over the show’s four seasons. While always giving credit to “Succession” creator Jesse Armstrong and his team of writers, Macfadyen has made Tom real, whether he was stabbing Shiv in the back in the Season 3 finale, speaking with her lovingly on the phone as her father died or tearing into her on the balcony of their home on election eve. In the sometimes-heightened world of “Succession,” Tom was tangible — because Macfadyen made him that way. 

At fuck o’clock on the morning after the “Succession” finale, as perhaps someone on the show might say, Macfadyen spoke with Variety about saying goodbye to Tom, that Tom-Greg fight in the finale, the TikToker who guessed the ending correctly — and what he thinks drove Shiv to reject Kendall.  

When did you find out that Tom was going to be the one to “win,” so to speak? 

Maybe halfway through? Jesse was very open with us all on set, and said, “If you want to know, come and see me.” Sometimes you don’t want to know — the other two seasons, I hadn’t known.

But I sort of knew it was coming to an end. And so I thought, let’s find out.

Did he then tell you how long he’d had this version of the ending in mind — for Tom to end up being the CEO? 

No, no — he just laid it out, and explained it. And it was quite complicated, but it made sense dramatically.

What did he tell you that was complicated? 

Well, complicated in the sense that because this was only Episode 4, I hadn’t seen the scripts for those episodes. So it was lots to digest — the whole thing of Shiv being in cahoots with Matsson, and then him betraying her. All the endless iterations of their alliances, the siblings and all that. So that was a lot to follow.

And also, you as an actor — I’ve said this a lot, and it’s true — but you sort of forget the details. Because it’s quite useful to forget them in case you get over-attached to them — because they may change.

Did he want you to adjust your performance at all, knowing what was coming? Or did you find that you did? 

Not at all. That’s the reason not to find out, because you can’t play the end. It’s seven months, eight months’ work, and you’re doing episode by episode, and the idea of telegraphing something that’s going to happen in six months’ time is impossible. And not useful for an actor. Tom doesn’t know what’s going to happen, and so you can’t play the end of the story in that way. 

What was the final table read like?

It was a wonderful thing to read, and also a very sad occasion, in many ways, because we sort of knew it was the end. It was quite poignant.

The physical fight between Greg and Tom, when Tom finds out that Greg called Kendall. Did you shoot it in a bunch of ways? 

I think we did, like, four or five takes, and a couple of angles. It was only a tiny bathroom on the set, so the operator can only get in one corner or the other. And we had a stunt coordinator, but we just decided to go for it and hit each other. It was really good fun. 

You hit each other for real?

That was real slapping, yeah! We just thought, “Oh, let’s go for it.” I trust Nick implicitly, and vice versa. He really hit me — you can see my shock, because he just conks me on the face. He slaps me on the face in that take they used.

Why does Tom forgive Greg? Is it because Greg has so much shit on him, or does he just like having Greg around?

I think he likes having Greg around — he recognizes a kindred spirit in Greg. They’re both outsiders. And they’ve both taken a lot of shit from everybody, even though Tom would never admit that. They have a lot of secrets together — they’ve done a lot of stuff together: They’ve covered up the cruise line stuff.

And I think Tom sort of admires Greg, in a demented mentor way. 

Really?

Yeah! Greg is not without deviousness, and ambition, and all the rest of it. He’s pretty slippery, and snake-like, and Tom can’t help but admire that — and is like, “Well, better stay with me.”

That last image of Tom and Shiv holding hands, like a dead fish placed atop another dead fish. How did the two of you decide what that handholding would look like?

I’m going to try and find my old script, but I think that was in the stage directions that Tom offered to hand, kind of regally. And then she doesn’t take the hand, she just puts her hand on top. We didn’t do many takes, we just played it very simply as it was written. It was a very charged, chilly atmosphere in the car.

It was all there: The last few pages of the episode were so beautifully written. Because a lot of it is descriptive, Kieran’s character Roman going to the bar, and Jeremy — just a beautiful bit of writing. When you get that as actors, it’s all there for you. 

I’ve only watched it this morning, so it was really thrilling to see that. You have an image of what it might look like in your mind from four months ago — whenever it was we shot it — but I thought it was a lovely two-shot of us in the back of the car. 

I was struck by Tom’s famous quote, “I wonder if the sad I’d be without you would be less than the sad I get from being with you.” Where do you think Tom’s sadness is as they pull out of the Waystar Royco garage? 

I don’t know! God knows what’s ahead of him. It may very well be when she gets home, she can’t — and she just leaves. I mean, who knows? Or that they make some sort of accommodation. Yeah. Don’t know. 

Shiv turned on Kendall, but she was also helping Tom, and she knew that. Did you and Sarah talk about that, and why she would do that?

It’s interesting, that, because a lot of people have said that. But that was never in my head. And I don’t know what Sarah thinks. But I don’t think it was anything to do with helping Tom. 

Oh, really? 

No! But I might be wrong. I don’t know, because it’s Sarah’s thing, but I think it’s just that she can’t stomach her brother. She goes to the board meeting to vote to block the deal, and also she’s just been royally betrayed by Matsson. There’s something in her that snaps, or that sort of curdles, when she sees him stand up — her brother as CEO — and make that speech. And she can’t do it.

I don’t think it’s calculated. I don’t think it’s like, “Oh, I can align myself with Tom.” Yeah, I think it’s just like [jerks awake] — she’s changed her mind. 

Shiv will now still be involved by marriage in the new company, and they’ll have Lukas Matsson in their lives. Have you thought about what that looks like?

I haven’t given it any thought, is the honest answer. The story is stopped in my head.

Oh, really? Is that how you do it? 

Totally. 

So you don’t have any visions of Tom as the American CEO of whatever this new company is?

No. I mean, maybe idly — but no, no. It’s stopped on that last image. That’s it, in my head.

Have you seen the viral TikTok by a name expert that there was a baseball player named Bill Wambsganss, and because of that, she predicted that Tom would be the “winner”?

I heard about that a couple of years ago. A producer friend of mine sent me a Wikipedia page about this guy has, something to do with the triple play. It’s kind of this obscure baseball thing.

Yes, he’s the only player ever to complete an unassisted triple play in a World Series. And this person predicted the Tom would be the CEO because he took out all three siblings.

Right. OK. Yeah. These people have a lot of time on their hands. 

She got it right! 

Ha, yeah.

Did you and Sarah Snook fill in the blanks about what would have happened between the two of them after the Season 3 finale after she found out what Tom had done? 

No, because then they never talked about it. They went home, then they split up and had a trial separation. She moved out, and he stayed in the flat — a few months had passed in between the end of Season 3 and beginning of Season 4. He was sort of playing the field with Greg, but they never had a conversation about it.

And that was a repeated thing from time to Shiv throughout, a couple of times: We haven’t talked about it. Can I explain why I did what I did? There was no postmortem. 

What a relationship.

Healthy!

When did you find out that Shiv was going to be pregnant this season? It was added later, right?

Yes. Sarah became pregnant — I’m not sure when that happened, it’s all gone in the mists of time — but it worked really well, I thought, for the story. It was kind of great, and awful. Because it’s the thing that Tom really wanted — and then he gets it at the worst time, after that catastrophic row. So it’s sad. He says to his mother-in-law it would be a dream come true, if it wasn’t such a fucking disaster.

What were your favorite scenes to film in Season 4?

Oh, gosh. I love the scenes with Sarah — all of them. In the beginning, when they first come back together, and in L.A. there’s a great scene where he talks about money, which is a really beautifully written scene — and “bitey,” that scene. Then, there was the fabulous scene on a balcony — that’s when we really let rip at each other.

What are your favorite Tom lines of all time? 

Too many to mention! I like, “He once called me the Cunt of Monte Cristo” — I do like that. There’s loads, there’s loads. Ha! Yeah, it’s an embarrassment of riches. I’ll leave it with “Monte Cristo.” 

I feel like people are going to shout “You won!” at you on in the streets now.

It’s a funny thing — because it’s not winning anything. I mean, that’s sort of missing the point by a million miles. Not to be literal, but it’s like, winning what? It’s just another move in a corporate nightmare.

Kendall obviously doesn’t see it that way. 

Yeah. Right. I thought it was so poignant, the scene when Roman’s saying, “We’re nothing,” you know — “We’re bullshit.” “You’re bullshit, I’m bullshit.” Brilliant writing and acting, and very bleak.

I know you said toward the beginning that you kind of knew that the show was wrapping up. But when was the moment when you officially found out that “Succession” was ending?

Jesse had always said that there may be a chance, that it might not be the end. But it felt very definite on the Episode 10 read-through. 

Oh, wow!

Yes, it was quite late! We sort of knew — it was 99% going to end, and then it was like, that’s it

It was very sad. There’s a sort of relief of finishing as well, because it’s been a long time, and you can’t play the same part forever. I don’t want to, and nobody does. But it’s been six years, and lots of really, really, really talented, lovely people. It’s a dream job, and Jesse is a lovely guy. 

What was your last day on set like?

There were a bunch of us all wrapped at the same time: It was the signing in the big boardroom. So we were all wrapped, apart from the people who were going to the Caribbean — they shot that later. So apart from Sarah and Jeremy and Kieran. It was sad. 

Did you cry?

I did have a little cry, yeah. I wasn’t the only one!

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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