J. Smith-Cameron On Succession’s Universe, “Beset With Ambition & Greed”

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
Has there ever been a show like Succession before? I dare you to sit with that question for a minute. A show about a dysfunctional family? Sure. A show about a mean father, whose years of emotional and verbal abuse has led his ambition adult children to still falter with one glance? Seen it. But a show that so cleverly and magically combining drama with comedy, shining a light on all the cobwebs of the 1%, revealing a world of success devoid of happiness and actual prosperity? No — that's new. That's all Succession, baby. It’s relevant without ever mentioning Trump. It’s timeless but still weaves in a joke about Kendall (Jeremy Strong) stealing Juul pods
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One could imagine how focusing so intently on men and their obsession with power could turn women viewers off of this show. But by treating its men like the babies they are, Succession does the opposite: It’s the women on the sidelines who are really running court. And since she appeared minutes into the series’ second episode, one woman has been at the true center of this whole charade: Gerri, brought to life by the incredible J. Smith-Cameron. 
Gerri is a unique character. She seems like she’s babysitting the Roy family, but she’s also cold as ice and a bit of an asshole when she needs (wants) to be. She wears suits, tucks her hair away in a quick, messy clipped bun, and is rarely seen without her glasses on the tip of her nose. She’s looking down at this mess of a family and its multi-billion dollar media company in near-peril, but she’s fully committed to both nonetheless. In other words: Gerri is that bitch. She’s lying in the grass, waiting for her moment. What moment? Hmm, that’s a loaded question. But it’s exactly what I asked Smith-Cameron on the phone on a recent afternoon. She’s on vacation with her husband, director, playwright, and screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan, with who she often talks about the show — but like Gerri and her workaholic ways — made herself available to chat about the Emmy-nominated and recently renewed HBO series.
And there’s a lot to talk about, especially after last night’s episode, “Tern Haven.” There’s Gerri and Roman (Culkin), who have embarked on a greyer-than-grey “relationship” — if you can even call it that. Smith-Cameron calls it a “very mysterious” and “evolving” my-enemy’s-enemy-is-my-friend situation. They’re both at their wits end with Logan, so why not entertain themselves? (So weird! But I love it.) And then there’s Logan totally unhinged betrayal of Shiv. If Logan can screw over his own daughter — the brightest and most promising of his brood — then is Gerri safe? Was she ever?
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Smith-Cameron breaks that all down and more in a length discussion touching on the show’s delicious casting choices, Gerri’s own obsession with power, and a look into her backstory that you may not have heard yet. (Yes, we talk Gerri’s dating life.)
Refinery29: Gerri’s ever-present — you have been in every episode right? 
J. Smith-Cameron: “When I was originally approached to be on it, I was supposed to be in 102 to 106 with the possibility of showing up later possibly in one of the last two episodes in England. I really think they didn’t know, after that failed coup in season 1 and Kendall and Frank get fired, what Gerri’s fate was. 
“It didn’t seem obvious casting to cast me, but I have a feeling a lot of people in Succession feel that way. I’ve heard Sarah [Snook] say that she assumed she was a long shot, which is an interesting thing in how they cast it because no one is type-casting. It feels like no one knew what was going to happen with Gerri and she just kind of evolved and it was informed by the way other characters treated me, and the way fans reacted to her.”
Is she motivated by power like the rest of the family, or does she have a hidden motive we don’t know about yet?
“That is always a possibility, because I was just saying earlier that Kenny —  my husband and I, talk about this a lot how different it is to write for a series than almost any other form for an actor. You just can’t figure out the arc of your character. You don’t know the extent of who she is because you don’t know who she is. You don’t know how many seasons it is going to go. They say and leave a lot of open ended things. I feel like what Jesse  [Armstrong, executive producer] and the others had kind of conceived is that they think of it like ‘a universe beset of ambition and greed.’ They’re depicting to a certain worldview that is very relevant to the time period we are going through. They’re the 1% and have all that power. There is a mindset that is common to everybody, even Cousin Greg.”
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All the motivations change in every single episode. 
“It is almost like pool balls carolling off each other. The balls scatter, and when you the next time you see the ball, you don’t know what to expect.
“Gerri is a classic workaholic. The day-to-day stressful grind is something she completely thrives on and [is] addicted to and devoted to. It’s almost like a mercenary soldier. Someone who just loves going to war. And maybe they don’t even know that about themselves. Gerri is, I think, an important character, but different in that she is not a family member at all. She is a godmother but she does not have that entitled Roy name. She has worked hard to achieve what she’s achieved. The Roys have this almost feudal feeling of having unlimited power and being above the law, almost like Kings and Queens, hence the name Succession. They have that blanket protection from their name. Everything bad that comes with it, they’ve inherited it.”

"I think she, in the end, keeps being very devoted to Logan because she truly admires him. Even though he is a beast and he’s awful, he keeps Gerri on her feet."

-J. Smith-cameron
We finally see another family with a similar amount of power and wealth when the Roys meet the Pierces at their country house in episode 5. We also meet our first Gerri counterpart in Holly Hunter’s Rhea.
“She is the CEO, so she has a higher position, but she is similar. Like when Logan tells me, It could be Gerri, but it’s not Gerri, it could really be Rhea for the Pierces.”
That dinner table confrontation is probably the most dynamic scene we’ve seen on TV this year. 
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“Oh my god. I just thought it was one of the most intensely cringwy moments — and there are many of those [on the show]. I think that is one of the specialties of the writers and directors is creating group situations with the cameras: There are two or three cameras rolling around picking up the actions around the table, and every other episode in season 2 eventually features those horrible group situations around the table. 
All the cast is so superlative, but there really wouldn’t be a show without Brian Cox. He carries so much authority and power. He has to be so charismatic and have that much vigor, otherwise you can’t move the story [forward] because it’s about all these individuals in a shared world. He just puts together the show.”
You were saying the casting was against type for a lot of the characters, but I feel like Brian is a perfect Logan just as you’re a perfect Gerri. What about it was against type?
“That is a really good question, because when I say if felt like a different part for me, I literally mean I have never had a part like that — maybe a lawyer on an episode of something. I [often] play a lot more vulnerable, warm characters. It is fun to play someone sort of steely and ambitious. I think [Gerri] was originally conceived to be a man. So, not just that she is female, but that they didn’t cast a typical ballbuster [actress]."
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I feel like Gerri uses her perceived warmth to her advantage.
“[Laughs] Exactly! Exactly.”
My dream is that Rhea and Gerri are forming a secret alliance of women to takeover from the men.
"That is a cool idea. I like that. I really like that."
Speaking of using people — what’s going on with her and Roman?
“Isn’t that the million dollar question? You know, I think it is very much evolving. I know what we shot, but when we shot those scenes, we would several versions of it, so it is so interesting for me to watch and see which takes they picked [for the final version], because each tell a slightly different story. 
“There is really no blueprint for it — I have never really seen a relationship like that on television. There’s no go-to reference to understand what you’re watching [laughs]. They both are trying to deal with where they stand with Logan. They have a common enemy. It is still burgeoning and I don’t want to say any spoils, but as curious as it is, I think that’s how it is for Gerri. I don’t think she understands what is going on exactly, so she is very cagily letting it play out and see what will happen. She doesn’t know how to feel about it either. When I was working on it, I was like Huh? What? And then I thought, being able to be a little shocked but still keeping a poker face, is kind of her whole MO. 
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“They’re such opposites, there’s a little bit of opposites attract. Roman goes for the completely uncalled for thing all the time — that is his whole personae. And I think Gerri is just fielding a ball as best she can. So it will be interesting to see how it unfolds, not just season two but going forward. I find it very mysterious.” 
I am so happy that you guys got a season 3.
“I had no idea what is going to be in season 3, obviously, but things like that...for instance, Shiv and Tom, that is such a completely intricate relationship. It’s like, Why are they together? What is going on there? 
“I don’t know about you, but for me — maybe because those actors are so engaging and I know them personally — but I find [their relationship] plausible, but I don’t have any idea why. I completely buy that relationship, but it’s oddball.”
There was a conversation going around asking if the show was a comedy or a drama. Do you have an opinion on it? I think it is a very funny drama, not a dramatic comedy.
“The first table read I got to be involved with last year, I said to Jesse, What about the tone of it? Is it a drama or a comedy? We talked a little bit, and he looked at me like, I don’t know how to answer. I don’t see them as mutually exclusive, and I was like, well that’s true. And then I said that it reminded me of I, Claudius. It was on BBC and from the ‘70s or ‘80s, but I discovered it much later. It stars a young Derek Jacobi as Claudius, a young real emperor in Rome, and all the conniving and backstabbing. It’s not funny the same way that Succession is funny, but it’s that same cloak and dagger-y behavior with people you love to hate. [Jesse] hadn’t thought about it that way and was like Oh that’s good, I buy that.”
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We don’t really know a lot about Gerri’s backstory. Is there anything you imagined for her? Anything you added to her character?
“I try not to think about these things because often the writers have something different, so I have to stay sort of loose about it, but yeah I have thought things. She’s a widow, which we found out in the first episode she was in. I don’t think she’s in a relationship, but I wouldn’t rule it out. I don’t think she is dating anyone because I think she is too gravely attached to her responsibilities. I think she, in the end, keeps being very devoted to Logan because she truly admires him. Even though he is a beast and he’s awful, he keeps Gerri on her feet. He’s very daring. The bankers and the business world just trust his guts at this point in his career and he can pull of things that his sons could do the same move and it couldn’t work. They have their ups and downs, but if she had to put her money on a horse, it’d be Logan Roy.
“I have had all sorts of thoughts about her home life, like, when you see Gerri’s apartment, I remember the first time it came up and they were telling me about it and I was like, ‘No I don’t see it that way at all!’ I see it as a very chic hotel. She would have the money to hire an interior designer, and have it cleaned everyday. She doesn’t even know where they keep the sheets! [Laughs]”
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