From director Stephen Frears and playwright James Graham, the limited three-part series Quiz (airing on AMC) tells the outrageous and unbelievable story of how former British army major Charles Ingram (Matthew Macfadyen) and his wife Diana (Sian Clifford) caused a scandal after being caught cheating their way to winning £1 million on the quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The couple, along with an accused accomplice who was sitting in the audience, stood trial for conspiring by coughing to signal the correct answers, and left everyone questioning what really happened.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Matthew Macfadyen talked about why he wanted to be a part of this project, how compelling these scripts were, how he felt about the real-life man that he played, and the experience of shooting the quiz show scenes. He also talked about the surprising success of his HBO series Succession, the fun of playing such an imperfect character, the Tom and Shiv dynamic, not knowing where things will be going in Season 3, what gets him excited about a project, and the genre that he’d still like to work in.
Collider: When this came your way, what was the draw for you? Were the scripts as compelling to read as the series is to watch?
MATTHEW MACFADYEN: Yeah, totally. That was the key, really. I had a hazy remembrance of the scandal, and I certainly remembered the show very well. The script was such fun, and it was such an interesting thing to do. And there was James Graham’s writing, and Stephen Frears directing it, and I knew that Sian [Clifford] was involved. It was very mouth-watering.
This story has a family drama, a quiz show, and a courtroom drama, all in one show. What was it about the scripts that most stood out, for you?
MACFADYEN: Yeah, there were almost three acts to it. It was very beautifully balanced, jumping around from everyone’s different perspectives. It doesn’t feel like the producers are the baddies and that we’re the goodies. It’s much more interesting and nuanced than that. And I loved the stuff about memory, and how we create a narrative to suit what we think we remember, and to suit our bias and the in-built prejudices that we all have. I thought it was fascinating. And actually, weirdly, Sian and I used to talk, every morning, about whether or not we thought they did it, and about their guilt or innocence, and we would flip flop, all the time. And then, by the end we didn’t know, but we didn’t really care and we didn’t really mind. It became more about them, and less about whether they did it or they didn’t. You can’t know.
Aside from whether he did it or not, how did you feel about this guy?
MACFADYEN: It’s an odd thing, when you’re playing a real person. I just played what was in the script, really. I wasn’t doing an impersonation. It was an impression of a type of guy. It wasn’t a biopic or a docu-drama or a re-telling of the story. We met, very briefly, at the end of the shoot, but it’s the script that you’re shooting, and not someone’s life. I warmed to him. I know that the media painted them as cheating their way to a million, which fit in very nicely with the public’s appetite for that kind of stuff, but they didn’t seem like that to me, and certainly were not like that in the script.
This man has an unexpected humanity to him that really makes you feel for him, when he’s going through what he’s going through. Was that important to you, to really make sure that, as people were watching this story, they would also really feel for him, just as a human being?
MACFADYEN: Yeah, I think so. That was certainly there in James Graham’s script. That was there in the writing, so it wasn’t something that I brought. I was just telling the story as it was written, I suppose.
What was it like to shoot the quiz show scenes and to sit there opposite Michael Sheen, looking very unlike himself, and then having that big winning moment?
MACFADYEN: It was great. It was such fun because it felt like they were on the set of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? It was an exact replica, with all of the lights and the music. It was actually brilliant ‘cause you couldn’t see the real cameras. You could see the fake cameras, and video village was behind it all. It really felt like you were there. It was brilliant. It was really good fun. I don’t ever need to do celebrity Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
I read that when you were doing Quiz that Stephen Frears had you do some of the scenes in varying degrees of whether or not he was in on it. Because of that, were you surprised with what versions of the scenes he chose, when it was all edited together? How did it feel, as far as the way your portrayal was edited for the final product?
MACFADYEN: I don’t know. There were little looks to camera from Charles. He’s pretty strange and fairly innocent. And then, there was the odd look. Stephen was engineering something where, as the audience, you can project whatever you want onto Charles. It wasn’t that Charles was looking down the barrel of the camera and winking. It was more like, “Well, what do you think,” which is a wonderful, playful, slightly cheek thing about the whole thing.
Succession is such a great show. It’s one of those shows that got people talking and word of mouth just kept spreading. When you signed on to play Tom, did you have a feeling that it would turn out to be such a delicious character on such an incredible show, or are you surprised about how it’s developed, as well as the audience reaction to it?
MACFADYEN: I’m surprised. You never know, really. As an actor, you never really know. I knew it was a brilliant bit of writing, when I read the pilot. And then, as it went on, they were just great episodes. There’s a scene at the end of the pilot, where Tom turns on Greg and I thought, “This is really interesting.” But you never really know how it’s going to go. It’s just surprising and delightful that people like it, and it finds a life in the culture.
As a character, Tom can be so frustrating, at times, because you want to root for him, and then he does something that makes you feel like he deserves whatever happens to him. Do you feel that same frustration when it comes to him, or do you not look at Tom that way?
MACFADYEN: No, I just can’t wait to play the scenes, really. The more he vacillates, I find it very human. He’s deeply imperfect, like we all are, so all of that stuff, for an actor, is great fun.
How do you feel about the state of his relationship with Shiv, at the end of Season 2?
MACFADYEN: I guess it’s got to give, at some point. It’s heartbreaking ‘cause he’s really tried, mentally, to be cool with this open marriage that they have, and that Shiv has instigated, but he realizes that he’s not happy. He’s desperately unhappy, and has to tell her. I felt that was a really beautiful bit of writing, and interesting. I don’t know where they go, next season. I’m looking forward to finding out.
Have you had any conversations about where things go for him next and what his next steps are? Have you had any Season 3 conversations yet?
MACFADYEN: No. We were supposed to start at the end of last month, so I don’t know. They’ve been writing, and continue to write the show, and I guess we’ll just get going when we’re allowed to. But I don’t know what’s going to happen, which is part of the fun of it, really.
I feel like I keep watching the show for the day that Tom and Greg just leave this whole family behind and ride off into the sunset, to go on adventures together.
MACFADYEN: Yeah, they’ll go and open a vegan restaurant together somewhere.
You’ve done a variety of British television. How has that compared to doing something like Succession? Are there big differences between making British TV versus making American TV?
MACFADYEN: The nuts and bolts of it are the same, really. Succession shoots in a very particular way. It’s quite fluid, it’s quite quick really, and it’s quite loose, in the shooting style, but the actual shooting mechanics of shooting it are the same. There’s much better catering in New York.
Since you’ve also done a bit of both, do you feel more comfortable playing the smart and suave characters, or these goofier and less intelligent type of characters?
MACFADYEN: I think it’s whichever I haven’t been doing for a bit. It’s like stretching a muscle that you haven’t used for awhile. Playing someone like Tom was a real profound pleasure because I hadn’t played someone as odd and silly as that for a while. I had done that on stage. I’d done a TV show in Ireland, where I played a very serious, tormented Victorian detective. To play this dafty from Minnesota was just lovely because you feel like you’re stretching and doing something you haven’t done before.
Is it fun to be able to balance those two kinds of characters?
MACFADYEN: As an actor, you just don’t always get the chance to do that. People in the business go, “She can only play this kind of part,” or “He can only do serious stuff,” and that’s not true. I’d say that most actors can do all kinds of stuff, but inevitably, you’re pigeonholed, a little bit. When you get a certain amount of success, playing one kind of part, sometimes it’s very hard to change people’s imaginations about what you can do. Every now and again, an actor gets the chance to stretch a different muscle and use different facets, and that’s lovely, but it doesn’t always happen.
It definitely feels like that happens with actors, when it comes to doing comedy or drama.
MACFADYEN: Yeah, and there’s a weird snobbery. A really good example of that is Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems. That was my favorite performance of last year, by a million miles. He’s so brilliant. I think all really wonderful actors can do both. I think of all the actors I really like, and they can be funny as fuck, and then desperately moving, and all of the rest of it. Something like that was brilliant because he can do anything. You just need the right vehicle.
I get that because one of my favorite movies is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and that’s one of the more serious performances that Jim Carrey has done.
MACFADYEN: I think that’s a brilliant example.
At this point in your life and career, what do you look for in projects and what gets you excited about the work? Is there like a personal wishlist for yourself, or is it just about how you feel when you read something?
MACFADYEN: Sometimes, as an actor, you think, “I’d love to play this kind of part, and I’d like to charge around with a gun, or leap from a building,” but that never happens. I’m probably too feckless to go after things. I’m just very fortunate. I wait and see what comes in and, if it goes on for longer than a few months ago, without anything coming in, then I start to panic. The truth is that I just try to look for something that’s different. I only know when I read it and it sparks something, and it feels like I can do something about it. Very often, you read something and you think, “I can’t. I don’t understand that character and I wouldn’t be able to bring anything to that.” Often, I think, “Well, I’d cast somebody else.” It’s really about making decisions when I’m reading something. And also, it’s about working with different people, if you know the other people that are attached and think that’s exciting. Sometimes, I also need to remind myself to be brave and try something new. I don’t have a plan about my career. I just bumble along. Most actors do. We’re pretty good at looking like we don’t, but most actors just go from one job to the next without knowing what we’re doing.
Is there a genre that you would love to work in, that you feel like you haven’t gotten to do yet?
MACFADYEN: I don’t know. I’d like to do a ‘70s thing. I’ve got a real fondness for wonderful ‘70s movies, with all of those wonderful actors, like Gene Hackman, Nick Nolte, [Al] Pacino and [Robert] De Niro. I’d like to do a real crime noir thing. But the honest answer is that I really don’t know. Even saying it, I’ve probably jinxed it. Now, I will never, ever play a part like that. At the risk of sounding a bit sill, I feel very grateful to just be working ‘cause it’s a funny old business. There are a lot of actors that don’t work, and there are more actors than work, so to be able to keep the show on the road is a real privilege.
Quiz airs on Sunday nights on AMC.