Gerri Alert! Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan talks to J. Smith-Cameron of HBO’s Succession about why Gerri is loyal to the Roys, whether she and Logan (Brian Cox) have a romantic past, and just what exactly is up with Roman (Kieran Culkin).
According to J. Smith-Cameron, who plays Gerri Kellman on HBO’s Succession, her character was originally supposed to be played by a man, which makes Gerri’s last name all too appropriate (Kill man?).
Smith-Cameron has enjoyed an illustrious career in theater, while also appearing on series like True Blood, Divorce, and the critically acclaimed Rectify, but it’s this role as the Roys’ general counsel that has gained a cult following. After all, who doesn’t love Gerri? YouTube even has a fan-made video dedicated to her quips. She’s always the smartest woman in the room, and she knows it. So why does she stay with this maniacal, manipulative, self-destructive family?
I loved getting to chat with Smith-Cameron about this, plus Gerri’s relationship with Roman and why she would be the best woman for the job as Waystar Royco successor.
Awards Daily: You’ve had a long career. Do you feel like it’s been building to a character like Gerri?
J. Smith-Cameron: That’s an interesting question. I feel like I had this whole theater career that was very fully realized, with occasional indie movies and stuff. And I was quite content with that. When I got Rectify, that was a real change-up. That was such a unique, special, oddball show, that it was the greatest thing for a theater actor, because I wasn’t jaundiced about TV. One thing that actors sometimes do when they audition for pilots that aren’t as good, that aren’t Succession or Rectify, you approach these TV auditions by approaching what you’d see on TV. It’s like, hmmm, what are they looking for? It wasn’t thrilling. It wasn’t always stimulating or great. I think my first TV job that was a recurring role that really involved me was for True Blood. My best friend from college is [screenwriter/showrunner] Alan Ball, and he offered me the job out of the blue. So that’s when Breaking Bad and Mad Men [came out], that whole explosion of creative TV, with more and more content and choices, and that trickled down to actors and auditioning.
Certainly with Gerri, that was originally written to be a man. I think [casting director] Doug Aibel thought to put me on tape. That’s how it was explained to me. Then they decided to think of the role as possibly being a woman, so they started auditioning men and women. Sadly my mother was ill and passed away, during all of those call-backs. I never got to meet with [director] Mark Mylod or [showrunner] Jesse Armstrong in person. They offered it to me anyway, but at this point, it was a recurring role. I was hired to be in four episodes, 102 through 106, and there was a possibility [for another episode] toward the end of the season, which turned out to be the wedding scene. There’s a number of interesting fun executives in the Waystar world; I think she was one of them. I don’t think anyone knew what the part would turn out to be. And then what was great was that I did get hired, and then it became what feels like a very organic collaboration, which was all of us—writers, directors, and other actors—informing who Gerri was. I remember one of the writers coming up to me and saying, “Your eyebrows and hairstyle are telling us who the character is!” (Laughs) Which were my ideas. I wanted to wear glasses and have my hair up. It was really fun because it was a nice part, but it wasn’t what they were looking for casting-wise. By the time it got picked up for Season 2, it grew from that. The whole thing seems like a miraculous occurrence.
AD: I had no idea. I love hearing that.
JSC: I think the writers are really imaginative. They think in a very big scale and cleverly use things. They do a clever thing where they often just leave a camera rolling after you finish a scene, and they’re just observing us. They don’t always use that material, but sometimes it might inspire things they write. For instance, the whole Gerri/Roman subplot, was supposedly inspired from an improv that Kieran and I did after the cameras were rolling in Season 1. They’re fabulously plastic and adaptive. They’re really interested in what happens in the moment.
AD: What keeps Gerri working with the Roys? I feel like she could do her own thing, but for some reason she’s fiercely loyal.
JSC: That’s an excellent question. (Laughs) I don’t know exactly except, I think that she’s spent her whole career there. She’s a company man. What I imagine, and I don’t know that I’ve had a definitive conversation with Jesse or Mark about this, but I feel like she maybe started there decades ago, maybe even before she was married. Maybe her husband was even general counsel before her and he passed away. She worked her way up and she’s taken a pleasure and pride in crafting a spot in this organization. I don’t know that anyone’s made her a better offer. She’s creating better and better opportunities within the establishment for herself. I think she’s addicted to the thrill of it, in a slightly sick way. (Laughs)
AD: Connor says at some point to Shiv and Roman about Gerri, in reference to Rhea. “Gerri was the new thing once.” Do you think Gerri and Logan hooked up?
JSC: I remember when I first read that, too, and I thought, “Oh, yeah?” That didn’t surprise me exactly. I know that Gerri was married. I imagine that my husband had worked there, too. I’m not sure where I got that. But I could imagine that along the way, there was some sort of relationship. I wouldn’t want to put too fine a point on it. Maybe the writers know something more interesting than I would imagine about it. I would never have dreamt up the Roman story for myself. You’re always delighted to see what they come up with.
AD: Would you consider the Roman/Gerri relationship more romantic or transactional? What do you think Roman’s deal is?
JSC: Listen, I don’t know what kind of crazy, perverse thing is at the center of Roman Roy. Kieran Culkin is such an inventive, free, inspiring performer. I’ve known him for a long time. We were in [the film] Margaret together and a play of my husband’s together [husband is Kenneth Lonergan]. He’s always struck me as someone with just incredible ease and very inventive and very present and in the moment, and this part just showcases that about Kieran impressively.
As for what makes [Roman] tick—maybe, possibly only Kieran knows. Maybe he doesn’t even! Obviously, he has some sort of mother fixation. All of those kids in the Roy family are in a cycle of abuse, and there’s some kind of thing he’s working out. He’s put parental love, sexual desire, and being yelled at all together, in some way I don’t exactly understand myself. It’s beneficial for me—J., the actor—not to really understand it. Gerri is being hit with these things as they happen. She doesn’t see them coming either and she has to think on her feet, and she doesn’t know what to make of them either. I quite enjoy that. I don’t think she’s strategizing at all. She’s dealing with his weird behavior as it happens. But she does however see that it’s mutually beneficial to have some sort of liason in terms of the businessworld and Waystar. He’s a horrible character, but he’s very charismatic. I think she’s intrigued against all her better instincts, but the fuel seems to be fanned by her disapproval, so she can feel free to be disgusted with him, because it only helps. It’s a match made in heaven.
AD: It’s like her version of Boar on the Floor. I love that you can see on her face, that often Gerri doesn’t know how to react. When Roman masturbates over the phone with her, you can see on her face that she’s shocked.
JSC: She’s free to have her private reaction. I’m not sure how either of those characters will navigate that relationship going forward or what the writers have in mind at all. It seems to ring true to me, even though I can’t explain it!
AD: In the bathroom scene, Gerri says to Roman: “What would your family say if they knew you were here? They’d be ashamed of you and rightfully so.” Is this part of her shtick with him or do you think she actually believes that? What would the family think if everyone knew about Roman and Gerri?
JSC: I think that’s straight-up true. It’s completely inappropriate in every single way. I think even with that crazy family, it’s pretty shocking. When the first scenes of Season 2 came out, revealing that subplot, I wondered if she was more and more horrified with the prospect, and that’s what’s ironically turning him on. That in itself is kind of a funny situation. But then it seemed to be unfolding as something more complicated than that and therefore maybe more interesting. In the “Boar on the Floor” episode, when he’s hungover the next morning and she’s helping him with his buttons, it’s more tender. I try not to theorize, because I can guarantee that whatever I think, the writers will make it more interesting. I want to stay open to what they write and not get attached to a certain scenario. I try not to let my imagination go unchecked.
AD: That makes perfect sense. One final question: Gerri is named the fake successor at one point in Season 2. I think she would be the best successor. Who do you think would be the best one?
JSC: Oh, my god—she’d obviously be the best successor! But you know, so would Elizabeth Warren. (Laughs) She’s not born with the Roy name. It will just be interesting to see. Regardless, it just seems like Logan does not want to step down. It seems to me in Season 1, Gerri was very much his confidante and right-hand man, but then once my name is on that paper, he started treating me like second class. I never even talked to the writers about this, but Kenny and I noticed this. We thought, well, that makes sense psychologically. The minute he picked Shiv, he got annoyed with her. The minute you are capable and prove yourself, that’s the very thing that puts you in the doghouse.
Season 1 and 2 of Succession are streaming on HBOGo.