‘A revelation’: Succession’s Matthew Macfadyen has been a consummate shapeshifter

As Succession fans still reel from the relentless assault of quickfire one-liners, plot twists, betrayals and pathos that was its final episode, one thing is indisputable: this was Matthew Macfadyen at his stellar best.

Related: Succession finale review – a perfect, terrible goodbye

So compulsive was he as the venal, unctuous, morally moribund Tom Wambsgans in the hit HBO series, it is hard to reconcile with his past role as period drama leading man Mr Darcy in Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice.

Yet, from Shakespeare to Austen to “lip balm Tom Wamb, lubing up his lips” and delivering immortal Tom-isms such as “buckle up, fucklehead!”, Macfadyen has been the consummate shapeshifter in a hugely successful career. You certainly cannot say he has been typecast.

Succession has cemented the global star status of the English-born actor, whom those in the UK have treasured since he first came to prominence as the spymaster Tom Quinn in the TV series Spooks from 2002 to 2004.

It was on the set of Spooks that he met his wife, the actor Keeley Hawes, who had recently married the father of her baby son. “Matthew just came straight out with it and said ‘I love you’ in the rain one day,” Hawes said recently. “I thought, oh dear, here we go.”

The two starred together in the recent ITV series Stonehouse, based on a true story, with Macfadyen as the hapless former MP John Stonehouse who attempted to fake his own drowning, and Hawes as his wife, Barbara.

Born in Great Yarmouth, Macfadyen, 48, had a peripatetic childhood as his father worked in the oil industry moving across the UK and Asia. His mother was a trained actor and drama teacher, and mother and son enjoyed am-dram together.

With his undoubted talent he was accepted at Rada aged just 17. He then joined the director Declan Donnellan’s acclaimed Cheek by Jowl touring company at 21, where, among other roles, he starred in the Jacobean tragedy The Duchess of Malfi.

Macfadyen has said he fully expected to continue a career in theatre, and had several roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company. After his television career took off he often returned to theatre, including playing Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s Henry IV for the Royal National Theatre.

But television, then Hollywood, beckoned during his highly successful career, the limits of which now appear to be stratospheric. He first appeared on British screens in a television film of Wuthering Heights, playing Hareton Earnshaw, before being snapped up for Spooks.

In 2005, he took on the role of Mr Darcy, a brooding role at the time synonymous with Colin Firth. Starring opposite Keira Knightley, it was his first major Hollywood role, and brought with it worldwide fame. He was, naturally, nervous. “I wish I had enjoyed it more,” he has previously said. “But I did feel pressure – maybe it was a self-imposed pressure of, you know, this is a big film, don’t get it wrong.”

For a while it seemed period drama would be his shtick. In Ripper Street, the BBC’s long-running mystery series set in Whitechapel, in London’s East End, in the wake of the 19th century Jack the Ripper murders, he played DI Edmund Reid.

Related: Matthew Macfadyen: ‘We are all living by the seat of our pants’

Macfadyen earned further plaudits for his portrayal of the “coughing major” on the 2020 ITV drama Quiz, in which he played Maj Charles Ingram, who was convicted of cheating his way to the top prize on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. James Graham, who wrote the script, has previously said he and the director, Stephen Frears, knew they would have to be very persuasive to land Macfadyen.

“Coming from the theatre, I’d known Matthew as one of our great stage actors, but vastly underappreciated,” Graham has previously said. “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.”

In Succession Macfadyen has played very much against type. Voraciously ambitious, obsequious and ruthless in equal measure, he portrayed the husband of Shiv Roy with the tragicomic qualities honed during his theatre days. He is mesmerisingly repulsive and pitiable.

“I don’t know how he’s managed to make such an obsequious and bullying character likeable, but he has,” Sarah Snook, who played Shiv Roy, told the New York Times. “He’s one of those actors who’s got such love and empathy and compassion and curiosity for the world that he can really fashion a character into anything he wants.”