By Jessica M. Goldstein published
Warning: The following story contains spoilers for seasons 1 and 2 of Succession.
On Succession, all that glitters is not gold. All that shimmers is a sordid, empty shell. The almighty rich spend most of their time scrambling not to be dethroned. They fly on private jets to private yachts docked at private islands—and yet they are never really relaxed. The views are fine, they guess. The champagne isn’t their favorite.
So it is on-theme, though not ideal, that while filming a few episodes of the series’ third season, (which premiered in mid-October) in Italy, J. Smith-Cameron—who plays Gerri Kellman, Waystar Royco’s general counsel—walked down romantic cobblestone streets in Tuscany, beneath that perfect turquoise sky… and got heatstroke.
“We're on a tarmac and Florence in the 90s in this fall wardrobe,” she says. “No shade; Just hour after hour [of filming].” She never really unpacked her suitcase, wearing only tissue-thin cotton shifts she purchased on arrival. (She did wind up in a straw hat, though, as did the rest of the cast, for an “event” near the end of the season.)
Smith-Cameron is Zooming in from a much more temperate climate today: A rental house in East Hampton, NY, where she and her husband, director and playwright Kenneth Lonergan, have been living during the pandemic. Their daughter is leaving for college this fall after taking a pandemic-prompted gap year; Lonergan and Smith-Cameron recently bought a house not far from the rental and will be moving in soon. For now, Smith-Cameron is in this relatively spare space, on a blue-and-white couch in an otherwise nondescript room. Near the start of our conversation, she removes her glasses (which are also Gerri’s glasses), gesticulating enough as she speaks that I can catch her sparkly nail polish (which is not Gerri’s manicure).
Gerri is the wry, reasonable right hand of CEO Logan Roy (Brian Cox). Everybody around Logan wants the top job, but Gerri is not so naked with her ambition. If she has an endgame, she keeps it to herself. So, what does Gerri really want? Smith-Cameron gives a very in-character answer: thorough but measured, and only strategically revealing.
“I think about this all the time,” she says. “I don't think she sees herself being in a lead role if Logan is alive and fit, because I think she knows him better than the kids do, in a way… And if you notice, once he [starts talking about] naming me [as CEO], he starts treating me much shittier.” The drop-off from season one, when Logan behaved “like he really respected me,” she says, was steep. “I feel like whoever he names to be the heir apparent, he's going to start disliking them in minutes because he actually does not want an heir apparent of any kind.”
In the first season, when Logan suffers an hemorrhagic stroke and everyone around him scurries about angling for the not-insensitive way to capitalize on their patriarch's incapacitation and make a play for the throne, Gerri is the only one to say she’s not interested. Asked why not, Gerri replies, “Why don’t I want the job that makes your brain explode?” But that was so two seasons ago.
As season three crests, Waystar is under siege from the Department of Justice, skittish shareholders, and Logan’s rogue second son, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), who once rapped the praises of L-to-the-O-G but has since disavowed his father and has designs on a total takeover. When it’s clear someone will need to step in while Logan appears to step back, the Roy children who remain in good standing—Connor, the dope who would be president (Alan Ruck); Roman, the savvy dilettante (Kieran Culkin); and Shiv, the smooth, cynical operator (Sarah Snook)—are passed over. The prize, or the punishment, depending on your point of view, is bestowed upon Gerri, who accepts the title with a barely-suppressed smile.
Though we don’t know yet where she’s headed, it is safe to assume there’s strategy behind her every move. In this week’s episode, “Lion in the Meadow,” Gerri imparts this counsel to Roman: “‘How does this advance my position?’ You have to be thinking about that 24/7.”
“That is the very key line for Gerri,” Smith-Cameron says. “That explains her whole character in a nutshell.”
While the Roy spawn can never fully sideline their emotions to make decisions—their daddy issues and professional ambitions an insuperable murky swirl—Gerri is a clear-eyed, cool-headed outsider among insiders. Smith-Cameron’s performance is delicious and precise. She lets every emotion—from disgust to arousal to bemusement to shock—flicker across her face, revealed with only the slightest eyebrow raise or over-the-glasses glance. All around her, men behave like parodies of themselves: Logan barks, Roman leers, Cousin Greg blubbers. But Gerri’s delivery is dry as the martinis she swills. Logan’s adult children, coddled and inexperienced, exude amateur energy, kids playing dress-up in their parents’ clothes. It’s no wonder fans are smitten with Gerri, a hypercompetent player among rookies, the one who knows exactly what she’s doing.
At first, there was no Gerri. There was Gerry-with-a-Y, a male character who didn’t appear in the pilot and whose sole purpose would be that most glamorous of tasks: Spouting exposition so the audience could follow the legal machinations at play. Encouraged by some of Succession’s female writers to include more women in Waystar’s top ranks, showrunner Jesse Armstrong reconsidered. “We thought: This feels right, for a woman to have advanced,” he tells Marie Claire by phone. “Even within what is a pretty misogynistic culture within that company.”
But because of that initial vision, part of Smith-Cameron’s audition included lines that were written for a male character. Consider when Roman says to the character, “I’m not much of a corporate flirt. I just like to lube up and fuck.” Of the exchange, Smith-Cameron says, “When guys talk to each other that way... they just don’t bat an eye. I thought that Gerri would be very used to being one of the guys, but also be disgusted. So when I did my audition tape, I was doing that long-suffering thing that now has become part of Gerri's behavior, which is like, ‘Gross,’”—eyes closed, deep breath in, a quick shake of the head—“‘but yes, I'm with you.’”
It was, she says, “a happy accident” that became a character trademark. “Those withering glances and the eye-rolling started right from the audition, because I had to make sense of these lines that I don't know whether they would've, on purpose, given me.”
Smith-Cameron’s Gerri was still responsible for explaining the legal ramifications of Waystar’s maneuverings in language HBO subscribers could understand. But over time, and through Smith-Cameron’s ingenuity and improvisations, the character developed. “She asks really good and searching questions about the material… I think of her more as being a considered question-asker: in-person, after read-throughs, on the phone, in email,” Armstrong says. “She just gently probes until she gets an answer to the questions, which means that she's got something she can work with, and then she's happy and goes away and does her work and builds.” In even the most outlandish situations for Gerri, Smith-Cameron “is able to suggest a full range of human emotions,” Armstrong adds. “It feels very real to me.”
For real-life inspiration, Smith-Cameron drew on two friends who work in high finance, one of whom is often the only woman in the room during high-pressure meetings. “When they’re arguing, [the men will] be like, ‘Suck my cock,’” Smith-Cameron says, and her friend “has just found herself leaning across the table: ‘You suck my cock. You suck my cock.’ She just gives it back.” The other friend’s child was in preschool with Smith-Cameron’s daughter years ago, and Smith-Cameron remembers a parent meeting for the four-year-old class where this friend, “sitting in the tiny chair,” whipped out a steno pad of questions “and presented them with this steely, don’t-fuck-with-me demeanor. To these kindergarten teachers!”
On the HBO dramedy, there’s so much give-and-take between the actors and the writers, Smith-Cameron says, it’s sometimes hard to recall where any idea originated. The writers made her a widow, and Smith-Cameron came up with the idea that Gerri would have two adult daughters. (It’s officially canon: Smith-Cameron got a mention of them into an episode, and now their names are in her prop phone.) The writers named Gerri as Shiv’s godmother; Smith-Cameron suspects she’s probably a godmother to Shiv’s brothers as well, “but none of them remember that, because they're not very godly, churchgoing people.” (“I think Shiv would've made an excellent protege for Gerri,” she adds. “But there's some kind of animosity there that I don't really understand. She doesn't trust her.”) Gerri’s politics go undefined, but Smith-Cameron suspects Gerri does not get her news from ATN, the series’ version of Fox (sample chyron: “I Smiled At Her By The Photocopier - Now I’m Facing Chemical Castration.”) “I don't think she's drunk the Kool-Aid,” she says. Smith-Cameron has reams of backstory about Gerri that inform her portrayal, only a sliver of which has wound up on screen—at least, for now.
“Nowadays when I talk to Jesse about something,” she says. “He goes, ‘Well, remember, by now you're the world's authority on Gerri Kellman.’”
After the scripted dialogue is complete and the scenes are technically done, the Succession cameras keep rolling. “[They like] watching the characters behave with each other in their habitat,” Smith-Cameron says. “Because they seem to get ideas… [and] really write for our rhythms.”
One of these extended takes was the origin of Gerri and Roman’s entanglement. Smith-Cameron and Culkin have known each other for years. They were both in 2005’s Margaret, directed by Smith-Cameron’s husband; Culkin has also acted in several of Lonergan’s plays. “We do this inappropriate flirting all the time, like a joke,” Smith-Cameron explains. “He called me ‘mommy girlfriend.’”
During one the-cameras-kept-rolling moment in the first season, Smith-Cameron remembers, “I left the scene, but I looked back at him and kind of checked out his ass. And then after I turned around, he looked back at me. I think [the writers] were like, ‘What a bizarre thing,’ but it struck them as funny. And they knew we had some kind of chemistry together.” The evening when Gerri and Roman’s flirtation escalates, when Roman masturbates to the sound of Gerri berating him through the bathroom door—that was a 3 a.m. shoot, and a tricky one, as Smith-Cameron recalls, to play just right. But that punchy all-nighter energy led to one of her most famous improvisations: Calling Roman a “slime puppy.”
Succession lovers seem drawn to the show’s oddest couples (see also: Tom and Cousin Greg) and Gerri and Roman’s mom/sub liaison is a fan favorite. Though Armstrong says the writers try to not pay too much attention to that sort of thing, “because you either start reacting towards it, and that isn't good, or against it, and that's also not good.” But it’s clear that someone is paying attention. This season’s promotional posters featured the cast in pairs; in one, Gerri leans over Roman, her hand loosening his collar, inching toward his throat. (“It would be perverse not to react to it,” Armstrong allows. “I’m pleased that people can sense there is something weird and real there.”)
Part of the response could be that audiences are delighted to see a woman who is not a 25-year-old be given such sexy, funny material—and not funny because the idea of her being sexy is a joke, but funny because she is so funny, and the fact of her being sexy is a given.
“When we first started doing it, I was like, this is nuts.” But eventually she found her way into Gerri’s thinking: “One, she’s like, how can I use this to advance my personal position? And I think he gets under her skin a little bit… He’s a jerk, he’s so funny, and he’s so other than she is… I think she has a weird affection for him that isn't necessarily sexual or romantic or anything, but just a sort of tenderness.”
Smith-Cameron is a longtime theater actor who has done TV before—playing Janet on Rectify, a small arc on Search Party—but she still feels like there’s something “incredibly special” about Succession, a show that offers “no person to really root for”—not even Gerri, who, Smith-Cameron suggests, surely knows that something went down at Cruises. “Just knowing that Lester Molester,” she says with a dark laugh, “that he was in charge, and he's a gross skeevy flirt.” Smith-Cameron figures Gerri had the “good instincts” to occupy herself elsewhere to maintain plausible deniability, so she could safely testify that there’s “no proof” of any wrongdoing.
Pretty slick, but it’s intriguing that Gerri knows to take herself out of one bad department but chooses not to extricate herself from Waystar Royco entirely. It’s not like Gerri doesn’t know that there’s rot at the center of this operation, a toxicity that oozes into everything. While the Roy kids are held in place by that family tie, Gerri could bail at any time. There’s nothing stopping her, really, from taking a job elsewhere.
Maybe the answer is in her relationship with Logan—it’s very Peggy Olson/Don Draper, in a way; the extremely capable, smart woman who can’t get out from under the spell of a magnetic, volatile male boss, even though she would probably be better off if she took another job. Maybe she, like the Roy kids, can’t let go of the rush that comes from being so close to the white hot power center of this enterprise. Maybe a little of both.
For her part, Smith-Cameron has her theories about why Gerri sticks around. “I think in some sick way it's fun for her.”
Jessica M Goldstein is a freelance writer covering all things culture. You can read her in the Washington Post, Vulture, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and elsewhere across the internet. She would love to pet your dog.
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