Please, Step Into J. Smith-Cameron’s Office
J. Smith-Cameron is well aware that the tweets are out there. You know, those titillating musings over the relationship between her Succession character, the no-nonsense Gerri Kellman, and Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin), the youngest son in the Roy family tree and COO of the fictional media conglomerate; the out-of-context screen grabs of their sordid flirtation on the show. The actress, who is very online herself, has witnessed them all. “I enjoy all those comments and clips,” she confessed to me one morning a few weeks before Succession’s third season premiere. “But it’s been a little hard to navigate, because it was so surprising and weird and then a certain quotient of fans found it delightful, and I’m sure there are other people who I’m not aware of that are repulsed by it. You don’t want to get carried away on the tide of audience response.”
Like a wily fox, Gerri keeps her side of the street clean and, compared to the rest of the Roy family, it’s kept her “out of the line of fire.” It’s one of her defining characteristics—besides her glasses, a trademark for the ball-busting character and an accessory worn by the actress that made her instantly recognizable to me when she met me for breakfast in the corner booth of one of her favorite restaurants in Manhattan. But that may be where the similarities between the actress and the character end—for all of Gerri’s severity and calculatedness, Smith-Cameron is warm, down-to-earth, and good-natured. Naturally, the actress was not permitted to divulge too much information about Gerri’s arc in the third season of Succession, or who might be inching closer to taking over the corporate throne, but conspiratorially as she could possibly be without getting in trouble with the executive powers at HBO, she assured me that big things are set to occur for Waystar Royco’s general counsel.
Very quickly, we sipped coffee and dove into our breakfasts in the empty restaurant—while I prodded her about the new season. “We don’t really know anything about Gerri’s private life. I’m quite happy about that, because it’s part of her mystique,” Smith-Cameron teased. “Gerri operates behind the scenes, she seems comfortable there. She probably makes an incredible salary and is a workaholic, and I think it’s like a gambling addiction for her—she’s good at it, and it’s exciting to her. I don’t know what her end game is, but the whole point is that everything else is messy and daredevil and she’s careful. It appeals to me.”
Inquiring minds want to know how the Roy family, in the wake of a massive legal scandal, will handle their rogue son and the future of the company, as well as what Gerri has to do with it all. Earlier this year, the Roy family (and Gerri) traveled to Italy to film a few episodes of the third season, which was recently chronicled in New York magazine. The intimate details of the anticipated Italy scenes remained under wraps during our conversation, but don’t worry, the Roys are still the Roys: “They go to these fabulous places, but manage to be malcontents even in the lap of luxury. They’re still all on their phones, plotting,” Smith-Cameron said. (Another fact about shooting in Italy that she could divulge was the physical demands of the filming environment. It should have been easy for the actress, who grew up in South Carolina and is half Italian, but she found herself struggling with the UV rays: “I had heatstroke under this blazing Tuscan sun weather,” she joked).
On Succession, there is both hilarious profundity and cynicism to be found between its dynamic duos: Tom and Greg, Connor and Willa, Kendall and Logan. But perhaps the most unexpected pair turned out to be Gerri and Roman. The plot was so shocking, it took not only the characters by surprise, but the actors who play them, too. In the second season, when Gerri and Roman, the charismatic thirty-something runt of the Roy litter plagued with the horny desperation of a pubescent boy, are speaking on the phone from separate room, it’s not long before their standard corporate venting session turns into a kinky game of phone sex, in which Gerri berates Roman, calling him a “disgusting little pig” and a “slime puppy.” Roman finds himself very, very into it. Then, it happens again.
That was just the beginning of the dalliance between the two, a dynamic predicated entirely on the lack of ability to consummate the relationship, lest they cause a bevy of problems for the company (which already, according to Kendall’s mic drop moment in the second season finale, has quite the tangled web of corporate issues). The scene has been retweeted to oblivion, resurfacing every few months on Twitter by another fan adding to the raunchy discourse. “I had to sort through that scene micro beat by micro beat to see how Gerri would get to that point,” Smith-Cameron remembered. “Then it occurred to me, Gerri doesn’t know how Gerri feels about it. She’s thinking on her feet, and Roman’s got a lot of potential, as everyone keeps saying. If he could just be her protégé, that would be one thing, but it’s very mixed up in this other stuff, especially for him, and what I don’t know is how deep it runs for him,” the actress continued, insinuating what fans of the show already know to be true, which is that the psychology of Roman Roy is aberrant. “Before he thought of Gerri as an object,” she pointed out, “he had a girlfriend and he couldn’t have sex with her; he was already dysfunctional.”
When HBO released Succession’s official season three posters, the fans’ thirst for their relationship grew even more. “In truth, I think neither Roman nor Gerri know what they’re doing,” Smith-Cameron said of the relationship. “Even though it’s inherently sensational and illicit, I feel like Gerri’s not the personality type to exploit that, and I don’t think she’s interested in him romantically.”
If you thought the writers of Succession always knew that Gerri and Roman would go there, though, you’d be wrong. According to Smith-Cameron, it all started as a bit between the actress and Culkin (and continues to be played up IRL whenever they share a red carpet moment or photo shoot). “We used to sort of mock flirt on the set, just fooling around and not really flirting, but because it was hilarious and inappropriate,” she said. “Gerri is not only much older than Roman, but she’s so dure. He’s so mischievous and impulsive and she’s the opposite, and that struck us as funny.”
Smith-Cameron has a theory as to how Succession creator Jesse Armstrong realized there was an untapped source of gold between Gerri and Roman. At the end of each scene, the crew often keeps the cameras rolling for longer than necessary, not telling the actors when they plan to cut. Instead of standing there stiffly while waiting for their cue, the actors improvise with each other to kill time. While filming the season one finale in England, Smith-Cameron and Culkin had a “little unscripted repartee” in character at the bar, which ended with some longing glances passed at each other. That was the golden moment. “Somehow, it’s like an experiment,” she added. “It’s the most collaborative show I’ve ever worked on, and they’re really interested to know where there’s chemistry.” (That collaborative nature of Succession doesn’t just involve the writers, directors and actors; it goes all the way down to the props. Smith-Cameron, for example, pointed out that early on in the series, she suggested Gerri might be the type of woman with a signature drink, specifically a martini. Now, no matter what scene she’s shooting, there’s a prop martini at the ready.)
Even if Gerri and Roman were not immediately recognizable to the show’s creators and fans as a sexual pair, the off-screen chemistry between Smith-Cameron and Culkin has always existed. The two have known each other for many years, working together on films written and directed by her husband, Kenneth Lonergan. “We have a similar enjoyment of playfulness. Some actors are wrapped up in their own world, they plan out what they’re going to do in a scene and stick with it,” Smith-Cameron told me. “Kieran is the ultimate example of someone who’s alive and responsive, and I try to do that too.”
Margaret, the 2005 film in which both Smith-Cameron and Culkin appear, holds significance for the actress not just because her husband wrote and directed it, but also because the character she plays in it was, she believes, written with her in mind. The story follows the unraveling of a self-righteous 17-year-old Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) after she indirectly causes a bus accident that kills an innocent woman crossing the street. There’s a scene in the film that struck me as oddly prescient to Smith-Cameron’s current status as a celebrity. In Margaret, she plays Lisa’s mother Joan, a theater actress who devotes her time to work, raising her two children, and trying to wake her love life up again. Joan casually mentions her issues with stage work going largely unrecognized by the masses.
“You can work a long time in the theater and play a lot of great parts and not get a lot of recognition, and even though you don’t necessarily do it for that as your primary motive, it is nice when people notice something you’ve done,” Joan tells her daughter’s friend. “I was on this television show a few years ago, and I’d been doing theater all my life, and suddenly all my relatives started calling me up to congratulate me, because they thought I’d finally made it.”
That scene from Margaret was filmed over 16 years ago. But in 2021, the remarks from her character take on new relevance for Smith-Cameron, who, after an illustrious, decades-long theater career, has become a household name as a television actress, particularly praised for her performances as Janet Talbot on Rectified, seedy politician Mary Ferguson on Search Party, and most recently, Gerri Kellman on Succession.
“You could play Shakespeare leads and get amazing reviews at some impressive venue, but then you do Law & Order and that puts you on the map,” she said, remembering that scene from Margaret with a laugh. “I’ve shifted into being a television actress, but I would have never seen that coming because theater is my great love.”
Another surprise for Smith-Cameron is, more generally, Gerri’s prominence on Succession. After all, the character was initially only supposed to appear in the first four episodes before fading into the background. “I feel like I partially created this part,” she said, adding that she was inspired to embellish the character with some attributes of two friends whom she met years ago during parent teacher conferences at her daughter’s school. “I’m kind of scatterbrained and the artistic daydream type, not the bookkeeper type, so it really thrilled me. She can play poker, but the audience can see, she’s twitching, she’s a nervous wreck. That makes her human, and I had never played a part like that.”
I asked Smith-Cameron which roles she has played that she feels most proud of, and after a few moments of rumination, she told me her mental hall of fame is lined with what the actress would call “incredibly delicious” parts. Of course, there’s the recent success she’s had playing Gerri. There’s her experience as the mother in Margaret, and a classic Irish play called Juno and the Paycock by Seán O'Casey (“I worked really hard on the accent. I’m not the typical person who would be cast in that role because it’s a tough matriarch kind of part. I had a different idea for the part—I thought she was softer,” she said). There was also Douglas Carter Beane’s As Bees In Honey Drown, for which Smith-Cameron won an Obie Award. “It was this tour de force, really funny, almost Ab Fab kind of character, and she turns out to be a con artist,” she remembered.
Smith-Cameron is a student of human behavior, so it’s not surprising she has also imagined a yet-to-be-written character she would like to play in the future, based on a type of woman she observed in her youth. “There’s a kind of Southern woman I grew up with,” dipping into a deep Southern drawl, “who’s a cigarette-smoking, whiskey-drinking, boss woman, who’s maybe conservative and moneyed,” she said. “That’s a type my sister and I used to imitate when we were little. I have decades of observation of these types of characters—they’re dames, they’re broads, they play poker, and they’re ballsy.” Either that, or they’re “someone in really bad trouble,” she said with a knowing laugh.