From show creator Jesse Armstrong, the HBO drama series Succession (already picked up for a third season) follows the ultra-wealthy Roy family, headed by patriarch Logan (magnificently played by Brian Cox), as they struggle to maintain control of their empire. While the future looks increasingly uncertain and the past threatens to destroy them, the Roy children — Connor (Alan Ruck), Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook) and Roman (Kieran Culkin) — are endlessly fighting to carve out their own legacy.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actress J. Smith-Cameron, who plays Gerri, Waystar Royco’s general counsel and Logan Roy’s right hand woman, talked about what she was originally told about this series and who this family would be, how her character developed and evolved from a male character to who she is now, the journey that Gerri has been on in Season 2, the Gerri-Roman relationship, and why it’s hard to let yourself daydream about the future of your character.
Collider: I love this show, I love this season, and I love your character. She somehow manages to survive, even though she is not directly a part of this insane family.
J. SMITH-CAMERON: Yes, that’s true. I think maybe it’s because she isn’t. I’ve come to think that maybe it’s because she’s not sucked quite that far into the madness.
When this series originally came your way, what were you told about what it would be, who this family was, and what your character would become? Did you get a lot of information, initially?
SMITH-CAMERON: I did not. I didn’t know much, at all. I knew it was a pilot that had been picked up, and that Adam McKay directed it. I got sent a link to watch it, but I couldn’t get it to load, so I never watched it. I watched a few minutes of it, but it wouldn’t completely load. I got a little bit of the idea, although the pilot was a little darker, as I recall. All shows take a few episodes to find their tone, it seems to me. I just remember that the pilot was excellent and scary. I couldn’t watch long enough to know what was going on, or who was who, or who wanted what. They hadn’t given me a script of anything that I was in. They just had some sides that were not even real sides, I don’t think. Those scripts weren’t really written, but they had done some writing towards them. Some of the lines, I remember, eventually become Frank’s lines. I recognized them later. And some of them were Gerri’s. [Originally,] Jerry was a guy, spelled J-e-r-r-y. I remember that Doug Aibel, the casting director who called me in, said, “They wrote this for a guy, but they actually have the thought that maybe it’d be more interesting if it’s a woman.”
But they weren’t committed to that idea. I don’t think they were committed to any ideas, at all. Now that I know them a little better, they were being loose, which is how they roll. They’re very collaborative, and maybe they’re just waiting to find the right person. I read the scenes, and then, there was going to be a callback where I would meet them in person, but I had a family emergency and I couldn’t make it. I was just delighted and a little incredulous, when I got the part. It really just a guest part. It was supposed to be a recurring guest star, in Episodes 2 through 6 of Season 1. By the time I’d agreed to it, they said, “And you might come back, at the end, if you’re available, in Episode 9 or 10 — one or the other.” And then, it turned out that I was in every episode and the character evolved.
It was a combination of little ideas that I had, for who she might be, and them picking up on things and conspiring to create this character. I didn’t really know what I was auditioning for. I totally didn’t know what I was talking about in the scene because there was no script to see the context of the scene and there wasn’t a real character that I picked up on. Then, as it turned out, the lines that had more of a sense of personality turned out to be Frank’s line. There were these lines with references to opera and Shakespeare and stuff, and that’s Frank. He’s the one who’s well-read and drops references to things, and is friends with the Pierces. He’s like their culture ambassador, which they’re otherwise sorely lacking. So, Gerri was a blank slate, or that’s how she seemed. But I thought, just the fact that she’s a woman, in those scenes where Kendall and Roman were saying disgusting things, I just decided to play them like I wasn’t upset by them, but I thought they were gross. I wasn’t flustered by it, but I thought they were disgusting. I remember thinking that was funny and thinking that would be a funny character, and that’s what they let me do. That grew into a whole role.
It was hard to know what to make of Gerri, throughout the first season, mainly because she did seem like someone who survived the chaos by staying out of it. But in Season 2, staying out of it became harder and harder, and she hasn’t been able to stay out of it as well. What did you most enjoy about the journey that she’s been on, this season, and the way that she’s evolved?
SMITH-CAMERON: It seems to me that, this season, Gerri is not so much in the right-hand man seat that I thought she was in. She was such a manipulator and so unflappable last season. This season, in the first episode, Logan says, “Well her name is on paper, but we all know that’s a joke.” That idea gets called back a few times in the season. She feels like, “Oh, great, I’ve got this title now that’s not really a real title.” It’s a fake distinction, but it’s enough of a distinction that I think Logan is slightly threatened by me and doesn’t know why. If he were to drop dead, I would be his successor, and I don’t think he can really envision anyone, frankly, as his successor. He’s just not ready to hand the reins to anyone. So, because of that, he’s not as attached to me. He’s got Laird (Danny Huston) and Rhea (Holly Hunter), and different characters to ask for advice, this season. I’m still in his inner circle, but he doesn’t want to hear thoughtfully considered things. Everyone else is a “yes” man to him.
When push comes to shove, I don’t think he wants to be surrounded by “yes” men, actually. But in the short term, if you’re that powerful and wealthy and influential, you’re just so used to being surrounded by sycophants that you can’t tell exactly who’s totally bullshit and who’s not. I think he has some sense, because of Gerri being around for so long, that she can be trusted, but she does feel slightly out of favor, which leads her to have her own interest in Roman. She believes that they could be allies, and that’s appealing. They were left in the peanut gallery, at the beginning of the season, reacting to Kendall and Shiv and Rhea. And then, his other strange perversions start to assert themselves, and Gerri doesn’t know what to make of it. My feeling is that she gets attached to him, in a way, in spite of herself. She’s fond of him and gets a kick out of him but is also a very careful, wary person. I don’t think she would do anything foolish, on purpose. It’ll be very interesting to see how the whole thing plays out — if it goes anywhere.
Did they have a conversation with you about where the Gerri and Roman relationship was going?
SMITH-CAMERON: They didn’t really. I’d heard a rumor. We had our first table read of the first episode, Alan Ruck, who doesn’t live in New York, had flown in early. He left his family to come in for the table read and a fitting, and he was around and he was like, “Oh, I heard a rumor that you’re Roman’s love interest, this season.” And Tabitha (Caitlin FitzGerald) was in the first episode, so I was like, “That’s insane! Surely I would’ve learned something, to that effect.” So, I laughed it off. Kieran [Culkin] and I had done an improv at the end of a scene on camera when we were in England shooting Episodes 9 and 10 [in Season 1] that was a little frisky. Then I think maybe there was some idea that they might have more of that spirit, but I didn’t know if that would be a little scene like the one we’d done in England that didn’t get used. I certainly didn’t envision a whole throughline for the season.
Looking at it from my point of view, I have Gerri’s point of view in mind and it’s very hard to see what’s in it for Gerri. It’s a very risky thing to get involved with anyone at work, let alone such a strange little impulse control freak. He’s more clever than people realize, and I think Gerri thinks he’s more clever than people realize. He’s a diamond in the rough, if you will. She’s tempted to be his mentor, and maybe there’s something seeping in around that, but I have to leave the verdict about because I don’t want to give any spoilers and I don’t really know, to what degree, they’ll go with that.
To answer your question better, I heard that rumor, but I just dismissed it, completely. Then, my first day or second day on set, the director said something about getting closer to Roman in a certain shot and he said, “You know, it’s a little foreshadowing.” After we cut, I was like, “What do you mean? What foreshadowing?” And he was like, “Oh, no one’s told you? Oh, dear!” He told me, roughly, that there would be something going up through the Pierce episode where I make him go to the bathroom. But I didn’t feel like they were 100% committed yet because it didn’t seem like those scenes were written yet, so I really just took it with a gigantic grain of salt and didn’t think about it very much. And then, it just evolved. In some episodes, it feels a little more on the backburner, and then, in some episodes, it seems really urgent.
So, I’m really speculating myself, as to where they’ll go with it. They’re really very creative and they like the unexpected. They’re very imaginative, those writers. I’m in awe of Jesse Armstrong, and all of the writers that he’s hired. They make very specific, fresh choices all the time. Nobody is a generic character at all. All of our characters are very quirky and peculiar and have odd qualities that you wouldn’t expect. That’s just a field day for actors.
Since this show has already been picked up for Season 3, have you thought about what you’d personally like to see from Gerri, or what you’d still like to learn about her?
SMITH-CAMERON: A little bit. It’s hard to let yourself daydream because the nature of television is that they don’t really know how many seasons they’re gonna do, or how many episodes they’re gonna do. It’s hard to write for that many characters. They have a lot of really good characters to write for. So, it’s hard to give your imagination free rein and indulge in those sorts of daydreams. When I knew that we were gonna see inside of Gerri’s apartment, for the first time, I had all kinds of ideas about what her bedroom looks like. I think about what her backstory might be but I have to contain it because I don’t know which things they will write about, and which things they have to keep open to give them themselves some elbow room, in order to make plot choices, down the line. Sometimes they let us improv, and they often use it, but they sometimes don’t use it, but that still gives them ideas.
The Succession Season 2 finale airs on Sunday, October 13 on HBO. Succession will return to HBO for Season 3.