Kings of New York: Nicholas Braun and Matthew Macfadyen on playing Succession's greatest power couple
High above the streets of Manhattan — 35 floors up, to be exact — actor Nicholas Braun is sitting in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel's tiny MO Lounge, taking in a spectacular view of Central Park and the skyscrapers lining its southern border. But the actor's mind is some 60 blocks south as he talks about Ray's Bar, the downtown hostelry he co-owns with The Leftovers star Justin Theroux and renowned restaurateur Jon Neidich, among others.
"It's going really well. I went last night and it's a great place," Braun, 33, says of the venue, which opened in 2019 but deliberately has the vibe of an old-school dive bar. "It was like, where should we go now? You can always go to Ray's!"
"I've [walked] past lots," jokes Matthew Macfadyen, the British actor who this Saturday afternoon is joining Braun and EW for a light lunch of vegetable dips and naan. "I did go once and it ended badly," continues Macfadyen, 47. "So I'm not allowed anymore. That's okay."
"That was weird," says Braun, continuing the riff. "You were doing a lot of weird stuff."
In many ways, the scene could be straight out of their hit HBO series Succession, the globe-trotting-but-New-York-based dramedy about the fictional media conglomerate Waystar Royco. The show centers on Brian Cox's devilish patriarch, Logan Roy, and his deliciously twisted relationships with his four offspring: Connor (Alan Ruck), Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin), and Shiv (Sarah Snook). Many of the show's most exquisitely hilarious moments, however, arrive courtesy of the encounters between Shiv's husband, Waystar exec Tom Wambsgans (Macfadyen), and Braun's seemingly feckless Gregory Hirsch, a.k.a. "Cousin Greg," who is both Logan's great-nephew and Tom's much-abused corporate underling. Over the course of the first two seasons, Tom called Greg an "a--hole," a "total coke whore," a "piece of s---," a "greedy piece of s---," and a "f---lehead." Greg, for his part, attempted to blackmail Tom with documents relating to corporate malfeasance, which he had cannily saved from incineration. Along the way, Tom and Greg became two of the most beloved characters on one of the most talked-about shows of the 21st century — and the pair of actors were rewarded with Outstanding Supporting Actor nominations at last year's Emmys.
The relationship between the characters has only gotten more twisted during season 3, which is currently airing on Sunday nights. The most recent episode featured a desperately uncomfortable scene set in the grim, windowless office Tom has assigned his sort-of protégé. During the sequence, Macfadyen's character related the story of how the Roman emperor Nero had a young man named Sporus castrated and later married him. "I'd castrate you and marry you in a heartbeat," Tom informed a flabbergasted Greg. The scene concluded with Tom knocking over Greg's coat stand on the way out after Greg had declined Tom's invitation to fight him "like a rooster."
There will be no furniture rearrangement nor threats of emasculation at lunch today. It rapidly becomes clear that the tall Macfadyen and the even taller Braun (they're 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-7, respectively) share a very different kind of bond than their characters and that their riffing comes from a place of friendship rather than insecurity, fear, and self-doubt. They are also both extremely polite: When Macfadyen realizes he and Braun have swiftly devoured much of the food, a look of complete mortification consumes his face. "We've totally monopolized these dips. I'm sorry!" he apologizes to me. "I was panicky with hunger."
Even so, there are times when the pair do sound like their onscreen personas, as when Macfadyen uses a word — one that would surely be approved by the writers of the famously foul-mouthed show — to describe his experience making the Succession pilot.
"It was s--tifying," says the actor.
Prior to Succession, Macfadyen's and Braun's acting careers had very little in common. Macfadyen studied at London's famed Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and became well known in the U.K. during the early aughts for starring on the spy show Spooks (rebranded in the U.S. as MI-5), marrying his costar Keeley Hawes in 2004. His many other pre-Succession credits include playing Mr. Darcy opposite Keira Knightley's Elizabeth Bennett in the 2005 film version of Pride & Prejudice and leading the cast of the BBC's period crime drama Ripper Street. Macfadyen says he was attracted to Succession because he'd never appeared on an American show and was particularly delighted to be cast as someone with such a notable moniker. "Wambsgans is just a glorious name," he says. "It's 'womb' and 'glands' all mixed together. It sort of told me everything I needed to know about the character."
Across the Atlantic, Braun appeared in a variety of notable projects, including the Kevin Smith-directed horror film Red State and docudrama The Stanford Prison Experiment, but had a much lower profile in his home country than Macfadyen did in Britain. Prior to auditioning for Succession, he was taking an extended break. "I was living in San Francisco at the time with my little brother," he says. "I was on a bit of a hiatus from acting and then I was sent this and said, 'Alright, well I'll make a trip to L.A.'" Braun met with filmmaker Adam McKay (Step Brothers, The Big Short), who is an executive producer on the series and directed the pilot. "I didn't really understand the show," says the actor. "I'd never read anything like this script. I was like, I think my scenes are funny, I think this guy's kind of goofy, we should laugh at him maybe. But then everything else is all kind of intense. So I guess I have to ride that line." Braun later auditioned again for McKay, creator/showrunner Jesse Armstrong, and executive producer Kevin Messick. "There's a scene in the pilot where Colin (Logan Roy's chief of security, played by Scott Nicholson) holds me up against the elevator because he thinks I'm a threat," explains Braun. "Kevin was told to grab me and I kept being like, 'F---ing shove my arm up there, man, like, hurt me, give me something to fight against.' I was like, 'Go harder, harder, harder!' It just felt like a fun time."
Succession actors are encouraged to improvise on set, but both Braun and Macfadyen were apprehensive about doing so while filming the pilot. "[I was] talking absolute rubbish in a bad American accent," says Macfadyen. "I remember one time Peter Friedman [who plays Waystar Royco executive Frank Vernon] said, 'What do you do, Tom?' and I didn't know what I did. I didn't know what my job was! And then Jeremy asked me a question about NetJets. They're like the Uber of private jets. I remember thinking, should have researched!"
While Macfadyen had butterflies about improvising, Sarah Snook recalls being nervous playing Shiv opposite the British thespian. "When you're working with a scene partner as talented as he is, you feel intimidated at first," says the Australian actress. "But he's so lovely. He's a good proper British gent. Matthew's so brilliant and Tom's just so Tom. Shiv and Tom, it's enormously enjoyable to play."
Like Macfadyen, Braun had an intense experience shooting the pilot. "We were in a cab and Adam was like, 'I'm just going to yell some stuff at you,'" says the actor. "He was like, 'Okay, the meter is at 15 bucks and you only have 10 dollars. How do you get to your destination? How do you convince the cab driver to get there?' I'd be arguing with the actor [playing the driver] who doesn't know the scene at all, doesn't even know probably that they're going to improv with me. It was a new way of working."
Despite their disparate backgrounds and professional histories, Braun and Macfadyen immediately gelled while shooting the pilot as their characters attempt to impress Logan Roy while also sizing each other up.
"There was instant animosity [between Tom and Greg,]" says Macfayden. "My character's thinking, who's this guy? Greg is blood family, and I'm tall, but you're a bit taller, [and] he's younger. It's just unsettling [for Tom]. But I suddenly thought, 'Oh, it's going to be okay,' because I found Nick so funny."
Braun recalls thinking the same about Macfadyen. "That was a good feeling to me, as an actor, to know, like, 'Okay, that's a safe space,'" he says. "If I want to interact with that actor, and that character, he'll be there for me. When somebody makes you want to laugh while you're working, you know there's a connection there. So, yeah, [we] pretty quickly realized we're kindred spirits and have similar styles and sense of humor — and the writers luckily wrote towards that."
The downside? The show's writers started to come up with lines the two simply couldn't say because the dialogue made them crack up on camera. "We struggle, Nick and I, because the scenes are so funny," says Macfadyen. "We find that we just about get through the scene scene and then the writers will come in with a load of alternate [lines]."
"Sometimes I'd beat myself up after days where I broke too much," adds Braun. "I would tell Matthew, 'I hate that I just laughed. I hope we got it, I hope they can cut out right after we said the line.'"
Succession garnered broadly positive reviews when the show premiered in June 2018, but it took a few episodes for real hype around the show to build. Pop culture commentators belatedly began to applaud Armstrong's scabrous depiction of the mega-rich and the comedic potential of the characters, including Tom and Greg. "It didn't start [with], you know, tits and teeth," says Macfadyen. "You had to pay attention."
As the season progressed, ratings slowly rose, with the finale — in which Kendall accidentally kills a waiter at Tom and Shiv's wedding — achieving the biggest audience to date. Succession was suddenly the media's new TV obsession, as critics and commentators devoted more and more time ruminating on Armstrong's show, with the creator's own stated reluctance to unpack the nuances of the series merely increasing interest. By the time season 2 premiered in August 2019, the show was a bona fide pop culture phenomenon and the new shows continued to showcase Tom and Greg's love-hate relationship as a constantly bubbling, and now hugely popular, counterpoint to the machinations executed by Logan and his offspring.
"There is a sort of symbiotic thing with actors and writers where they put something in there and the actors either run with it or don't. There's a chemistry or there isn't," says Macfadyen. "And if there is, then so much the better and it develops." Part of that evolution involved Tom occasionally showing signs of genuine affection for Greg, even while hurling abuse his way.
"I think Tom really likes Greg, because I think if he didn't like him, he wouldn't bother with all the poking and bullying," says Macfadyen. "The degree to which he bullies him is exactly the degree he likes him and values him and trusts him." The British actor turns towards his costar with an expression of genuine interest. "Do you think Greg would be happy to never see Tom again?" he asks.
"Sort of," Braun replies with a laugh. "I mean, the person who is underneath another person in a relationship, and they can't ever get really above them — it's sort of torturous."
"Yeah, there's nothing you can do really," Macfadyen acknowledges.
"Tom can enjoy me, because he's above me and has control over me and he can assert himself, but I can't really," Braun adds. "But I guess, when we have a room full of 12 characters, Tom is a safe space for Greg. There is something Greg needs there and likes, so we're magnetized towards each other whether or not we like it."
Braun also suggests the fictional pair appeal to viewers because, unlike the Roy siblings, Tom and Greg were not raised with the expectations and jaded attitudes of the super-wealthy, nor with a domineering parent like Logan. "The true kids have grown up being in Escalades from a young age, flying here and there and wherever in the same day, and all those things," he says. "That becomes who you are. They don't like to show outward love, [it] doesn't get them anywhere, they've learned. We haven't learned that yet. But that's kind of the fun of it too: Are Tom and Greg getting some of that stuff shaved away slowly?"
The growing friendship — or frenemyship — between the two characters was echoed, in a more healthy manner, by the two actors' strengthening bond. "We get together for a coffee or dinner," says Braun. "We went and saw Othello at the New York Theatre Workshop together back pre-COVID. You know, nothing crazy!"
The pandemic, of course, put a crimp in that new friendship and delayed the shooting of season 3. When the show eventually headed back into production in the fall of 2020, the pair realized they had no scenes together at the start of production and resolved to meet up in New York.
"That was November," says Macfadyen. "Freezing cold and we walked around with masks."
"It was really nice," says Braun, looking fondly at Macfadyen. "I hadn't seen you in like a year-and-a-half when we had that coffee outside in that freezing cold."
Season 3 of Succession premiered last month and was loudly trumpeted with a gala premiere at New York's American Museum of Natural History and an appearance by the cast on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. The first episode debuted to 1.4 million viewers across all platforms, a 21 percent increase on the season 2 premiere. EW critic Kristen Baldwin was one of many who gave the season a thumbs up and praised "the scene-stealing co-dependent cruelty between Tom Wambsgans and hapless cousin Greg."
This season's main plotline has been the continuing attempt by Kendall to destroy Logan's grip on Waystar Royco. This followed his dramatic volte-face at the end of the season 2 finale in which Strong's character declined to act as a scapegoat for his father's corporate crimes. Kendall's machinations have resulted in the specter of jail hovering over Tom and Greg thanks to the ongoing scandal involving the company's cruise ships. Macfadyen's character in particular has become obsessed with the subject of prison after offering to take the fall for Logan, should the authorities proceed with criminal prosecution against the media magnate. As Tom told Shiv in Sunday's episode, "There are no fine wines in prison. You don't get to choose what you eat, you don't get to say what you do. How late can I read? When is lights out? I'm f---ing terrified, Shiv."
While Macfadyen and Braun stay mum about whether either (or both) of their characters will wind up behind bars, they do offer opinions on how Tom and Greg might fare in the big house.
"I was thinking Greg might join a gang," offers Braun. "If he can join the Roy gang, he can join a prison gang, you know? Fold right in. 'What do you guys need? Who do you want me to shank today? I'll shank somebody. I mean, I'm not going to kill them, but I'll shank them. I just want to help.'"
"I think Tom would go to pieces actually," adds Macfadyen, who went to pieces himself (in a very different way) while filming a scene from the third episode of this season.
"I was talking about [Greg's] lawyer," says the actor. "The original line, [which] they kept, was, 'I heard you've got a really great lawyer, his bow tie lights up and spins around.' But the writers had given me a load like, 'I heard you had a really good lawyer and he drives an Uber on weekends and sells lighters on Fifth Avenue...'"
"And 'I heard your lawyer defended Sauron in Lord of the Rings,'" adds Braun.
"I said, 'I can't say it,'" says Macfadyen. "'I can't do it!'"
Succession actors have become experts in not offering up details about upcoming episodes. But Braun does let slip one small spoilery morsel about the future of Tom-and-Greg. "The episodes are very chaotic and the dynamics are changing and things at Waystar are definitely upended," he says of the second half of the season. "Tom and Greg's relationship takes a nice turn. I shouldn't say nice. It takes a big turn."
Macfadyen lives in the U.K. with Hawes and their two teenage children (the Bodyguard actress also has a son from a previous marriage) and tends to keep a low profile away from the camera. (By chance, I was in central London earlier in the year and saw the couple walking along a shopping arcade, untroubled by paparazzi, fans, or anyone who seemed to recognize them at all.)
Braun has been a little more active in creating headlines over the last couple of years. Twitter certainly took note when the actor wore Crocs to the virtual 2020 Emmys, where he and Macfadyen lost out to The Morning Show actor Billy Crudup. Braun also released a COVID-inspired pop-punk song called "Antibodies," accompanied by a video that saw him throwing serious rock star shapes. "I've loved singing and playing piano my whole life," he says. "That 'Antibodies' song is quite silly and funny and all that, but making it in the studio and caring about every little sound and every drum and making the beat patterns, that is stuff I love to obsess over."
While music may seem like a fun side-project, it's actually morphed into something more, a way for Braun to further separate himself from Greg: "I don't want to be pigeonholed and seen as Greg only," he says. "I am seeking things that are a different energy, a different type of person, they act differently, they have a harder edge or whatever. I think I have to do things where I rewire my brain differently."
In person, Braun has the same hesitant demeanor as Cousin Greg, but is less goofy and unsure of himself. Braun's costar Brian Cox agrees that the actor is an all-around sharper tool than he appears on screen. "I've grown to admire Nick more and more and more," says Cox, whose career stretches back to the mid-'60s. "He's a very fine actor, Nick. People kind of get Nick and Greg a little confused. It is a creation, and I think that Nick suffers a little bit from people thinking, that's Nick. Well, it's not Nick. Nick is much cannier than that, much smarter than that, not as gauche as that. He's a very smart lad."
Shortly after our lunch, Macfadyen will be heading back to his home in the U.K. and is not looking to take on any new jobs until the New Year. "I might have something in January that hasn't been announced yet, a nice thing," he says. "My wife Keeley's working very hard at the moment, so I've cleared the decks and I'm just being at home."
Braun, meanwhile, is currently shooting the psychological thriller Cat Person, based on the infamous 2017 New Yorker story by Kristen Roupenian. Directed by Susanna Fogel (The Spy Who Dumped Me, The Flight Attendant), the movie stars Emilia Jones, from Netflix's Locke & Key, as a college student and Braun as an older film buff whom she dates. "The film is more of a thriller than the story that it's based on," says Braun. "I'm really excited."
Braun is also excited about returning to Succession, which HBO renewed, to no one's surprise, last month. Despite Braun's concerns about being too closely associated with Cousin Greg, the actor says he is happy to play the role as long as Armstong and his team keep on writing the show. "Absolutely, yeah, totally," he says. "I love what they write and we all have a good time, so you don't want a good thing to ever stop. I've done movies [where], I'm like, 'Oh, I wish that movie was longer.' But this is, 'Oh, I wish it was longer and it will be!' It will be years and years of this hopefully."
Macfadyen and Braun's time with EW is nearly over when suddenly, the latter, with a little chuckle, declares that he has something he would like put on the record.
"I guess this is a good moment to say, I love this guy so much," he professes, looking at Macfadyen. "I cherish our friendship and working with him. I shouldn't talk too much about it, because it will make me emotional. But I really do, I love him a lot."
"It's a real joy," Macfadyen responds. "Everything in life, but certainly everything in an actor's life is sort of transient. Jobs come and go and we're back in the wilderness, so to speak. When something works, it's really precious, it's really wonderful. And you may not get it again. It's been a real pleasure."
The pair's words hang in the air, waiting for one of them to deliver a punchline. It never comes.
Directed and produced by Kristen Harding & Alison Wild. DP: Alberto Mojica; Photography: Victoria Stevens; Set Design: Alice Martinelli/MHS Artists; Post-Production Supervisor: Ethan Bellows; VFX: Ira Morris; Color Correction: Carlos Flores; Design: Chuck KerrStyling: Chloe Hartstein/The Wall Group; Braun's Grooming: Rheanne White/Fatboy/Tracey Mattingly; Macfadyen's Grooming: Jessica Ortiz/Kalpana.
Rooftop looks: Braun's outfit, shoes: Valentino; Macfadyen's shirt, shoes: Prada; Pants: Brooks Brothers. Mini city looks: Braun's suit, shirt, shoes: Alexander McQueen; Macfadyen's jacket, pants: Brooks Brothers; Shirt, shoes: Prada.
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