When we think about Succession being the single greatest series on television, other than the rap and the boar and the superyacht and all of those corporate trips (as well as whatever Cousin Greg has gotten himself into this time), its most memorable aspect is the performance by J. Smith-Cameron, the series MVP, and what she has managed to accomplish through her portrayal of Gerri (the closest thing to a calming factor at the toxic atmosphere that is Waystar-Royco). Gerri is a bawse of the highest order, perhaps the sole character capable of standing up to the Roy family.
As such, and because we were incredibly interested in hearing a first-hand account of the marvellous HBO show (which won the Golden Globe for Best Series and should repeat the feat at the Emmys this year), we sought out a chance to speak with the uniquely talented J. Smith-Cameron. In our recent phone interview, we dove into the character of Gerri and further proved that J. Smith-Cameron deserves all the praise for such a tricky characterization, that yes, was once written for a man to play.
The following is our interview with the tenacious and yet extremely kind J. Smith-Cameron of Succession.
Brief Take: Congratulations on your layered portrayal of Gerri!
J. Smith-Cameron: Thank you.
BT: Succession is a skewering of the one per cent and while Gerri is described as a killer, she serves as the audience’s relatable gateway into the Roys’ world. You mirror the viewer’s complex relationship with the Roys. Viewers admire Gerri’s care and concern for the family, due to their long history together, but also her revulsion of their behaviour. Tell me how you see Gerri and what you like best about playing her.
JS-C: I feel like Gerri is a classic workaholic. I like that she has a severe businesslike way and is a powerful person but there’s still something very private about her. I don’t think anyone knows how she really feels about anything, which is really fun to play and hopefully to watch, to see someone play their cards so close to their chest. She’s bold and there are killer instincts about her but she also very artfully retreats and there’s something a little bit shifty [laughs] where she hides and kind of pivots when there’s controversy with the Roys.
BT: The writing is absolutely brilliant but the writers also glean material by keeping the cameras rolling and watching you and your cast mates improvise. What are some improvised and scripted scenes or moments that you are most proud of as a performer?
JS-C: Well when Roman and Gerri have their first inappropriate phone call scene. [laughs] When he tries to have phone sex with Gerri, we ran out of dialogue and the idea was that Roman was doing his thing on his end of the line but they didn’t call “cut”. So I improvised all kinds of things to call him out of my disgust but, coincidentally, that’s what turned him on. One of my improvised lines made it in and that was to call him “slime puppy”, and that has been referenced a lot and I get a kick out of that and where that came from. [laughs] And let’s see, I don’t know if I should talk about this because I’m not sure whether this will continue or not but I asked (series creator) Jesse (Armstrong) whether Gerri had any children. As we know she had a husband who died, and he said “I kind of imagined that she didn’t. Why, what do you think?”, and I said “well, what if she has two grown daughters and maybe they don’t live in New York, they don’t see her often, and it’s a bit of a chilly relationship. They love her, they’re attached to her, but they’re also afraid of her.” I had someone from my own circle of acquaintances in mind as a model for that. And he said, “oh well that’s interesting. Let’s just put a pin in it and see what happens.” And so then, I believe it was episode nine of season two in the Senate hearings and it cuts back to this sort of war room where they’re watching the testimony on tv, I think it was for that, we were improvising some answers, and the Democratic Senator asked me “Ms. Kellman, do you have any children?” [laughs], and I said “Yes, I have two grown daughters”. “Well how would you feel about your daughters being on the Waystar cruises? Given the amount of oversight that we are now implementing, now that we are looking at this situation with such scrutiny, I think you couldn’t pick a safer vacation for a young woman now.” It was just such a smooth answer and they didn’t end up using it, but I remember when we cut, the people from the video village were laughing, and Jesse came out laughing and said “ha, you got your daughters in there!”. However, in episode ten, there are some scripted dialogue, I’m not sure if you noticed it because it’s a lot of overlapping, but when we’re all around the table and we’re arguing about who should be fired, Karl says to Gerri, “Would you let your daughters fly first class on the company dime?”, so it made it into the story. But that personally was a triumph, that I managed to get my character daughters. [laughs]
BT: The core ensemble seem genuinely fond of each other and really elevate each other’s work on screen. Talk to me about your experience collaborating with Brian and Kieran. I’d ask about the other exceptional actors but I don’t want to take up too much of your time.
JS-C: Well, Brian is just irreplaceable; if we didn’t have Brian there would be no show at all. He’s got the leadership for the character and is just a great leader for the whole cast and crew, too. On screen and off he has these really good qualities. He can bellow and fume as Logan but he can also bellow if the crew isn’t given enough time to do their work right or if he thinks that crew people need a snack or meal, he speaks up for people as the lead actor and I think that’s really wonderful. Kieran is maybe the most free, uninhibited, inventive man that I’ve ever worked with. I just think he’s tremendous. His character is so sketchy and shifty, he’s kind of a flibbertigibbet in a way, and despite that, as an actor he’s just really impressive. He’s free and loose and playful. I don’t think I’ve worked with anyone ever who’s been that free and uninhibited, and it’s really inspiring to me.
BT: The guest stars add so much to the already tense dynamics in the boardroom scenes and otherwise. Talk to me about having your friends Cherry Jones, Holly Hunter and Patch Darragh on set and your experience working with them.
JS-C: Oh, well now Cherry Jones, Holly Hunter and Jeannie Berlin are all actresses that I’ve worked with before and have known for many years, so that was really thrilling. Patch I didn’t have that much to do together and I’d been introduced to Patch before but I didn’t really know him, but he’s really talented. But the three ladies, that, for me, was really special to work with them. They’re all talented in their own way and and are such appealing, inimitable actors that it was a thrill to have them in the story. And for me, it was “old home week” to be reunited with them. I did my first Broadway play playing Holly’s sister in Crimes of the Heart. And Cherry and I did a couple of plays together as well.
BT: What was your favourite scene or moment to shoot?
JS-C: Oh gosh, let me think about that. For the finale, there was a lot of material that they shot that they didn’t have time to use and some of those were particularly fun ones to shoot, but it’s pointless for me to talk about them because you won’t know what I’m referring to, but they were fun. I think they’re all fun! I’ll tell you what, I really love doing those dinner table scenes. In season two, in the episode called ‘Tern Haven’, at the Pierce’s family dinner (with Cherry Jones) we have a long, very cringey and funny and dramatic scene around the table–it’s where Shiv blurts out their plan and all the Roys are shocked and dismayed and Logan gets furious at her, and earlier that season, when we’re all at the Hamptons compound and the other siblings are amazed and annoyed that Kendall is being taken back into the fold after having attempted a take over and they’re very tense and the camera floats around and catches all of this behaviour and dialogue, but also there are two or three cameras on the show sometimes and the cameras are rolling to catch little glances at each other and expressions that someone made or eye contact with someone else, and those are always interesting to me because they go on for hours. You stay in your spot and you get to know the scene really well and there’s a joy in having a large group of people in the scene, but it is very creatively free and loose, there’s no complicated blocking because you’re just seated in your chair. But those are really fun to do and they’ve become a kind of hallmark of the show – the tense family dinners.
BT: What is your favourite memory either from set or downtime from shooting the show?
JS-C: Well we go on location a lot, the story moves around, so we end up traveling together. So we get to travel a lot and that’s a really fun group to be on location with. We’ve been all over and that’s obviously fun for obvious reasons. And then oftentimes the cast are all in the same hotel and the joy of you’ve worked all day and then have an early call time the next morning but your home is all in the same place. You change into your comfortable clothes, go down to the hotel restaurant and there’s Kieran and Sarah and you all order a drink and you’re all giddy. Everyone still has time to look at their lines for tomorrow and those were just the best. Jeremy is also particularly good at organizing dinners at the cool, foodie restaurants wherever we are—even in some small town somewhere. Jeremy always sleuths out the great restaurants in the area.
BT: You’re a very giving scene partner, J. As a craftsperson, who have you worked with in the past that you’d like to work with again?
JS-C: Oh gosh, the number of people that I’d like to work with again is practically everyone. There’s a few people that I’d particularly not like to work with again [laughs], but I won’t name them. Most people I enjoy and are lovely. The last series that I was on was Rectify and I particularly liked working with Luke Kirby, a Canadian actor, who is presently on The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel, he won an Emmy for it. We didn’t have too many scenes together so we didn’t work together very much, we had a couple, but we really connected and I would just adore to work with him some day. If some showrunner out there is reading this, maybe it can happen! [laughs] I did a play with Johanna Day last year, I’d love to work with her. I don’t know, most of the people that I’ve worked with I’ve enjoyed.
BT: Where do you hope to see Gerri in the next season?
JS-C: I am trying to answer, I’m not just saying this, but I feel like on this show it’s fun to win and be in power but it’s also fun to see the characters plot and scheme to get into power, so I don’t know which to wish for. I just hope she has a lot of material. I’m a little curious and a little bit scared to find out where her relationship with Roman goes but I’m curious for that because it’s just a weird dynamic but also fun. So I’m kind of open to whichever way the wind blows because as long as they give her plenty to do, but I’m open. That’s the fun thing about a show like this where everyone struggles for power, it’s fun to be the one who is in a seat of power but it’s just as fun to be someone plotting to get the power, so I don’t know how to answer that exactly.
Succession seasons one and two are currently available on HBO