J. Smith-Cameron hasn't been a stranger to the worlds of film and televisions since she began her acting career in the late-'70s but, until recently, you'd be more likely to see her working as a highly in-demand actor on the New York stage. Smith-Cameron's film credits include such films as The First Wives Club and In & Out, and she's had recurring roles on the well-regarded '90s dramedy The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd and True Blood in addition to showing up on various incarnation of Law & Order. Her biggest break came in 2013 with Rectify, as the mother of a man released from prison.
HBO's Succession has given Smith-Cameron her highest-profile TV role to date as Gerri Kellman, general counsel to Waystar/Royco and a central player in the series' intertwined corporate and familial dramas. A strong presence in the first season, Smith-Cameron's second season as Gerri has taken the character on an unpredictable ride thanks to her changing relationship with Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin). Roman began the season treating Gerri as a confidant in his ongoing power struggle within the Roy family, but the parameters of their relationship started to blur with a memorable late-night phone call. As Succession enters the home stretch of its final season, Smith-Cameron spoke to us about Gerri's second-season journey, how her history with Culkin has affected her performance, and what beliefs, if any, guide Gerri's choices.
I want to start with the beginning: Gerri wasn't in the pilot and in her first appearances, she didn't get a lot of character-defining moments. As an actor, how do you make your characters' presence felt in that situation where you're not front and center?
J. Smith-Cameron: I would say this is a good example of an opportunity for an actor to not think of a small part as being a small part, but an opportunity and a good example of really wonderful writers and producers who are open to collaboration. I think what happened is that when they picked up the pilot and suddenly they were going to do the series they realized they had to introduce a lot of new cast quickly because we'd pretty much [just] seen the family in an intimate situation. I think we saw Frank [Vernon, played by Peter Friedman] in the pilot, but nobody else was really established from the business world and yet it's just a huge, huge conglomerate.
I feel like what happened in my case, and I hope this isn't being presumptuous about what the writers thought... First of all, they had originally written the part to be a man and then they thought, "Maybe we should see some actresses because maybe that'd be interesting," which was, you know, kudos to them for thinking that way. I'm not sure whether they saw a lot of people, a few people I have no idea. I went and went on tape.
I did not have the script to the whole episode. I had to kind of guess what I was referring to in the scenes. I had some scenes that ended up as Frank scenes and some that ended up as Gerri scenes, but they were all referencing the takeover situation. Jeremy [Strong]'s character and Kieran's character were being gross and potty-mouthed in the scene with me. It was originally written for another man to be listening to it and suddenly they had a woman listening to it. So I just had fun reacting to that. Which is this interesting thing of women who are in business, let alone in powerful positions at a business, who have to be one of the guys, who have to be sort of tough and take it, but not let anyone really take advantage of them either, not let it go too far. I just had fun reacting to that.
I don't know, I'm assuming that might have something to do with how I got cast. I just was having fun grimacing, being disgusted, but wanting to keep on my agenda of what we were discussing. She's not so tough that she wouldn't hear them, but she just let them float by. And that's become a running motif with that character, the millions of ways that she either deadpans a response or has a moment where she just like chokes on something but goes on.
You mentioned the reaction shots. In many scenes, what Gerri is feeling gets conveyed largely through reaction shots. Is there an art to crafting a good reaction shot?
Smith-Cameron: I don't know if there's a craft to it, but I think that just became something I thought about the character: She doesn't always say anything when she's affronted. She wouldn't do that. She wouldn't give them the satisfaction of being affronted and she's too worldly wise to be really... Too vulnerable a reaction would seem out of character to me because she's been in the business for years and toughened up.
That was sort of the beginning — the very, very beginning — of a specific character for me, someone who reacted to this family silently. Silently so as to not make waves and to just carry on and get the business agenda at hand dispatched with, but at the same time, just [reacted] as if there were thought bubbles. And then as time has gone by, I thought, "Oh, that's, that might be fun for the audience." Because the boys are so awful, so deliciously awful, to have a regularly appearing character constantly mocking how awful they are.
That sets Gerri up in opposition to the Roys. Do you feel like she has a moral center that the Roys don't?
Smith-Cameron: I feel that no one in the worldview of this show has scruples. So, I don't know. I think she's maybe more of a human being in that she's not always felt instantly entitled to everything, that she knows the cost things are to her and what they are to other human beings. I don't know that she's a great example of morality, but I think she is a little bit more of a feeling person.
That's not fair, because actually they've written all of those characters to have a lot of feelings. When I think about it, they really all do. I feel like she knows the cost of people who are exploited and hurt, but I don't know that she's a great example of anyone who stands up for them. I just don't think there are characters like that in this story. It's a story of the world as the cold business, capitalist, dog-eat-dog, universe where people are no damn good. So I don't think she's particularly moral, but I think she is someone who wasn't born into that level of privilege and doesn't take things blithely for granted.
She's gone places this season that would have been hard to predict from Season 1. When did you realize that was part of the longterm plan for the character? Did that happen when you got the Season 2 scripts?
Smith-Cameron: Well, we only kind of get them one at a time and sometimes they're at the last minute. And then you know, they're always subject to change and often they change a lot. So no, it kind of dawned on me slowly. One of the first scenes I shot for Season 2 was a scene where Gerri and Roman are watching on the iPad as Kendall does his press address about dropping the bear hug takeover. And we're looking at the iPad and the director was like, "Why don't, you know, really, come in close to Roman and just, buddy up to Roman there." And then he said, "No, get even closer to Roman. A little foreshadowing." [Laughs.] So we did the scene and then we cut, and they were setting up the next shot or something and I went over and said, "What did you mean foreshadowing?" And he said, "Oh. Oh no one has told you. Oh dear, we have to have a talk."
And then afterwards he told me that they discussed this idea because they'd set up this thing of Roman having some various complicated, sexual dysfunction situations, even though he had these beautiful girlfriends. He was this attractive young guy, and gives off this aura of being a playboy, but he actually has this unsatisfying sex life. And that maybe he formed some kind of Oedipal attachment to Gerri. And I was instantly completely confused. But then as as the scripts began to come out, I realized that Gerri is kind of confused too. It blindsides her. So I thought, well it's maybe good that I didn't know all about this because that's how it is for Gerri. She wouldn't have seen that one coming.
So that was useful for me not to know much about it in the long run because every scene has been, I think, Roman has an agenda and Gerri is thinking on her feet, like, "How do I...? What do I do with this weird situation? Because this could go really badly. This is appalling. This is funny. This is maybe an opportunity for something, but I don't know what. Maybe this is an alliance."
There's some scenes like the scene when the all the characters are in Hungary, after the night of the Boar on the Floor scene and everyone's all hungover and my character goes to get Roman who's late to breakfast. And he's very hungover and he really has a sense that he's blown everything he was trying to do to suck up to his father and I give him business advice and then help him with his buttons. And that scene seemed authentically to be sort of tender, to be a little bit like Mommy but also a little frisson between them of something else that they didn't know what it was.
So I felt like that scene turns out to be a huge turning point for me because that scene makes sense of how oddball... You can't pigeonhole that relationship. She doesn't seek it out, it's him. She's just fielding his advances and trying to figure it out. So I could relate to that because if I'm confused by the scene, well then that's great for the character because that's what she is. It took me a minute to realize, "Oh, just embrace your lack of knowledge about this, because that's the situation your character's in."
It's been interesting, because part of me would think, "Why don't I just kick him out?" It's one thing to be on the phone and not hang up on him, that's one thing. But then the next time, why don't I just show him the door? I don't quite, it's like a kind of... there's some sort of little, codependent thing or [I don't know] what it is. There's some sort of little bond getting forged between them. And I'm not sure what the writers have in mind for Season 3. I really, truly don't.
Succession airs Sunday nights at 9/8c on HBO.