Since Succession first hit our screens, Gerri Kellman, played by J Smith-Cameron, has ascended from a compelling but under-seen supporting character to one of the standout roles in the show. Business counsel, voice of reason and Roman’s sparring partner in weird sexual foreplay, Gerri provides some much needed perspective to the warped, power-obsessed world of Waystar Royco. We spoke to Smith-Cameron about her chemistry with Kieran Culkin, Gerri’s backstory, and why she might just be Succession’s most relatable character:
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PILOT TV: I think it’s fair to say that Gerri has blossomed throughout Succession, and now we’ve gotten to Season 3, she’s a fan favourite. When you first got the role, did you think that she could become such a huge figure in the show?
J SMITH-CAMERON: Well no, but you never really think that way when you’re starting something. It’s just that your character is interesting to you, and you want to advocate for your character and fill it out, make sure they’re as full as the leads, in your own mind at least. I’m quite happy that people have responded to her, that seems miraculous to me, but I didn’t anticipate it at all.
Your chemistry with Kieran Culkin [who plays Roman] is fantastic. I don’t know if anyone’s mentioned it.
Thank you! [laughs]
Apparently that all started when you were filming a scene, and they just let the cameras keep rolling. Is that right?
Kieran tells it a little differently. We always flirted around a little on set, like it’s a joke, and he used to call me ‘Mommy Girlfriend’, so that was already kind of going on. But yeah, the cameras kept rolling one time after we’d run out of dialogue, they didn’t yell cut, and so we kind of had this flirtatious repartee. Then I walked off, and I turned around and kind of sneaked a look back at him, and he sneaked a look back at me, and everyone kind of got a kick out of it. And then it got written into Season 2.
Clearly the makers of the show are loving it, because one of the new posters was of you and him. So they’re milking it, quite rightly.
I don’t know if they’re milking it, I think they’re actually being very disciplined about it. Kieran and I would be quite happy to milk it, and they’re being very good, making very judicious choices.
Gerri is a very mysterious figure, because we don’t really know that much about her. In your head, do you have a whole backstory for her?
I do, and I worry sometimes that as I get comfortable and have more things to do in the show, that I’ll lose some of that mystique, because she does play everything so close to the vest. It’s part of the fun of a character like that. But then I realised that when you do see something occasionally pop through, that’s really wild and fun. There’s a bit in Season 3 where she’s taking a picture of herself on the TV screen for her daughters, and it’s this side of Gerri that you wouldn’t imagine. So that’s fun, but only if it’s occasionally happening.
I think one of the reasons they leave the camera rolling is that it’s like watching a National Geographic special, and seeing the animals in their habitat
People are starting to feel like Gerri is the audience’s way into the show – there’s all these obnoxious characters, but Gerri is competent, and often the voice of reason.
I think it’s also the fact that she’s not a Roy, so she’s not as disgustingly privileged as them, she’s just an ordinary rich person [laughs]. And another thing I started to do as the character, even from my audition, was to kind of grimace and roll my eyes. I react to the Roys in the way that the audience is feeling. On the one hand, I think the character is unflappable, in the deeper sense, but then these reactions do flicker across sometimes, and I imagine that’s fun for people, because it’s an outlet for how they’re feeling.
You somehow manage to talk to Logan [Brian Cox] in a way that no other character does. You’re often quite harsh to him.
Yeah, and I think that’s why she’s hung in there. I think that’s why she’s survived as long as she has there. It’s tricky, because she can’t be too bossy with him, but he does know that he’s surrounded by ‘yes men’ – except for Gerri. He knows he needs that.
Do you ever get seduced by the grandeur and luxury of the show, and think – I would quite like to live like this?
I mean, I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who wouldn’t feel that way, but there’s something kind of gross about it. It’s a little much, you know. More than a little much. It’s excessive, yeah, and kind of weird to have people waiting on you all the time.
Now we’ve got to Season 3, do you think the writers of the show are tailoring the arcs of the characters more to specific actors? Is where Gerri’s going influenced by what you’re doing in your performance?
I think that’s the case for all of us. I think one of the reasons they leave the camera rolling like that is – I don’t know that they would agree with this, but I said to Brian the other day, it’s like watching a National Geographic special, and watching the animals in their habitat, you know. And they do get ideas. I think they do want that osmosis to happen, and things do make their way into the show.
And do you feel you’re influencing your character yourself? I was there at the London Film Festival screening, and the way you and Kieran were on the red carpet – it’s almost like, where’s the line between the show and real life?
Well in the show, we’re not so easy around each other, at all. Roman’s the one driving it, and Gerri’s always trying to steer it and manage it, is how I think of it, so it’s always kind of shut down. He’s even afraid of it. If he makes a pass at Gerri, he’s kind of not looking at her, he’s climbing up on a chair, he’s squirming. We’re old friends, too, so it’s kind of a blast for us, of all the unlikely couples.
Do you have a favourite scene or line from the first two seasons?
Well I quite like ‘slime puppy’, which I came up with in the moment. But there’s a million of them… I don’t even know where to begin. I just think, in this show, the writers are incredible. I’m just blown away by them. That’s the end result of all this, that the writers are just magnificent.
Do you have strong feelings about where Gerri should go, moving forward in the fourth season? Do you talk to the writers about it?
I am of the school of – try to stay out of their hair. But every once in a while I have an impulse or a thought. Not a big one, but I might shyly put it in an email to Jesse, and sometimes it helps, or is just part of the mix. Little things, like when we were talking about seeing Gerri’s apartment for the first time, I had thoughts about what would be lying around, stuff like that. And it always seems welcome, I think they like it.