Veteran actor J. Smith-Cameron on Succession and who’s the funniest of them all

10 January 2022

Veteran actor J. Smith-Cameron on Succession and who’s the funniest of them all

Lawyer Gerri Kellman is the sounding board for Logan Roy, fearsome patriarch and founder of Waystar RoyCo. she’s played by another tour de force, New York stage legend and veteran actor J. Smith-Cameron. Craig McLean spoke to her about the role.

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How did we leave Gerri at the end of the last season?

“We were all on the super, mega yacht in Croatia, and everyone was sweating bullets because no one knew who was going to be the fall guy for this disaster. And then everyone thought that Kendall was going to be the fall guy, then Kendall shocked us all [by accusing Logan]. So really you only see Logan, Roman and Shiv watch that interview [in the finale episode] – but by the time we come back [in season three], everyone is scrambling to get out of Croatia, and to figure out how to get things sorted.”

How would you describe Gerri’s state of mind at the start of this season?

“I think she seems to be the only one who has a clue how much trouble they’re in. I mean, I think Frank and Karl are such yes-men – don’t tell them I said that – that the buck stops with Gerri. So that’s sort of Gerri’s mission arc throughout season three: to get them all to wake up and be careful, and try to legally side-step all their pitfalls.”

How difficult or otherwise was it getting back into the mindset of Gerri after a longer than usual gap between film series?

“I think we all were worried that it would be very difficult after such a long break to get back into the synchronicity and simpatico [connection] that we feel famous for – we’re a very tight-knit group. And it’s a very collaborative company. And I don’t know by what magic, but for some reason, despite all the hardships and delays, I think Jesse [Armstrong] would agree that we all just picked up sort of where we left off. 

“It got easier as the season went on, and we adapted. So it was difficult, but it was more anticipatory. And once we were all together, we all kind of helped each other.” 

What, in your mind, is Gerri’s backstory with Logan and the company?

“I’m glad you said ‘in your mind’, because I don’t know what Jesse Armstrong would say. But actors have to work this out for their own peace of mind. And when you’re on a television series, you have to be a bit flexible. So you might be thinking: ‘This and that happened to my character…’ – then you find out later in the season that none of that’s true, so you have to adapt.

“Having said that: I sort of fancy that Gerri’s husband – who we learn in the first scene in which we see Gerri has passed away – was maybe a colleague of Logan’s. Maybe like [Danny Huston’s] Jamie Laird was, like a banker or financial advisor. And Gerri was the young-ish wife to this gentleman. Then he died, and Logan at some point hired Gerri as part of that family, into the legal system. And that she quickly worked her way up.

“Now, as to what their personal bond is – I don’t know what Brian Cox would say – but I can’t imagine there isn’t some background there. Because they behave a bit like they have some kind of intimate bond – as if they’re almost formerly man and wife. They’re like an old married couple in a way. So I wouldn’t be surprised if, at the very least, they had some kind of flirtation back in their youth – which they’ve forgotten the feeling of! There’s an intimacy there.”

Have you and Brian discussed your characters’ respective – but also perhaps shared – hinterland?

“Not that much. It’s different than doing a play, or a movie, because in those instances you have a beginning, middle and end, and you know where [the story is going]. But this is very unique: the series is an ongoing thing; no one ever knows how many seasons there will be; things change on a dime – or never change at all, and you can’t predict that either. So it’s a unique situation for an actor, you kind of have to think on your feet. It’s like doing an improv in a way. Especially with this group, which is very improve-y. 

“And I almost feel like that’s Logan’s private challenge – whatever he needs to work out in his mind. I think the siblings are like that, too, [in terms of] what they’ve worked out about their [family’s] past history.”

On set, Jesse, the other writers and the directors have you act out the scenes as scripted, but then they also let you film takes where you have some freedom to improvise lines. How thrilling, but also daunting, is to have a finely detailed script to work from – but then also have the option to run looser with a scene?

“Well, it’s fantastic. It is a bit challenging, because you don’t want to let them down. They’re such brilliant writers, you don’t want to get tongue-tied and mess up their lines. And also if you do improv, you don’t want to be lesser than what they had provided for you.

“So sometimes it comes in the form of just leaving the camera rolling at the end of the scene. Because, as in real life, you wouldn’t just stop and look around the room and not say anything to each other – you have to follow through. 

“So it’s a good acting exercise, it kind of keeps us honest. And some things have come out of that. Very rarely are they used, but sometimes by osmosis they get into the general fabric of our relationships. It’s kind of thrilling.”

What are your memories of hearing about and auditioning for Succession?

“Even just reading the sides, for isolated scenes – I had no idea of the context for them. But somehow I could tell they were hilarious, without even understanding what the joke was. And I was thinking: I really desperately want to be in this. And I didn’t even know the situation.

“And Gerri was originally conceived as a man, like Frank or Karl or Hugo. And I guess they got the idea they would maybe consider some women, too… But I thought maybe I should play her as maybe she was one of the guys! And the only outstanding thing would be that Kendall or Roman would say something coarse and vulgar to her, she was largely unflappable – but she would wince. So that became a running thing with Gerri: she was long-suffering, but somehow it doesn’t really get to her.”

You have a deep and long history acting in theatre. And Succession has the sense of being a strong ensemble cast, like a repertory theatre team. Is that accurate? And if so, how important has that been for you?

“Absolutely, it is very much an ensemble. It’s also [based on] the casting and everyone’s acting standards. But it’s also how the writers, Jesse primarily, have conceived it. Succession is really a world – it has its own worldview, its own logic. It’s very complete and well thought out. There’s a kind of robustness to it, so you can improve because you sort of know and understand what the parameters of the world are. It’s been very well conceived that way.

“So it’s the right circumstances to breed a company, an ensemble.”

The Hollywood Reporter describes Gerri as “a strange hybrid of mother figure and psychosexual foil to the deeply damaged Roman”. Fair comment?

“Ah, yes, I think that’s spot-on, ha ha!”

How are those scenes to film with Kieran Culkin?

“Well, frankly, they’re a joy. I love working with Kieran. He is an imp. As he is in the story, he is offstage as well. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it many times again: he’s just a very loose, natural performer. He’s very released. He’s very inventive. And you slip into that same freedom when you work with him. It’s very funny. It’s very playful.

“We’ve known each other quite a long time – he’s been in a lot of my husband’s [director and playwright Kenneth Lonergan] plays and movies. So we’ve known each other a long while. And I think it tickled us that they would have a flirtation, and we were really playing at that, never thinking it would become part of the story, which it did. So we think we inspired that by our carrying on and our horsing around on set.”

How often do you find yourself corpsing on set when you’re doing these flirty exchanges with Kieran?

“He’s OK, because for some reason I’ve steeled myself for him. But the one that always gets me is Matthew Macfadyen, who I don’t have that many scenes to do with. He worked with my husband on Howard’s End, which is how I first met him. He is such a consummate and beautiful actor, and what’s great about him is, he has such joy over the humour of it, that he will just go. It’s fantastically funny and it just cuts the tension right away and everyone laughs. 

“So he and Alan Ruck are the ones who crack me up the most.”

You describe the manoeuvring as “snake linguini” at one point in episode two, one example of the brilliant language of Succession. What’s it like to have such a richly written script to work from?

“Well, coming from a theatre background, it’s a thrill. In the theatre you learn to really feel supported by that kind of rich text. And you don’t always get that in television. I don’t want to make general comments about television, but this really an exception. It’s really rich: ‘snake linguini’, ‘funky chowder’. Through the seasons they’ve all put things in really hilarious ways. It’s fantastic. One time I had to improv, I called Roman a ‘slime puppy’. Somehow I’d slipped into their vernacular.”

What’s it like being on the end of, or even in the vicinity of, Brian-as-Logan’s volcanic rage?

“You know like in Peanuts, when Lucy yells and Snoopy rolls back? That’s what it’s like! I feel like Gerri’s so used to being yelled at by him that it’s expected – but still terrifying in the moment. But in my character’s case, she takes it in her stride.”

Why do we love these far from lovable characters?

“I think I know why, but I don’t understand why other people do. My experience with drama is that whenever you have characters that you see striving, whether they’re heroes or anti-heroes, there’s something about the striving, the wanting something, the appetite, that is just inherently attractive to people. They just can relate to it. It’s somehow arresting. That’s why I think there’s so many reality TV shows where people are competing or trying to survive things. 

“There’s some basic human psychology about just seeing people with an appetite for life and wanting to go for it that you can’t keep your eyes away.

“That’s my armchair psychiatrist’s view.”

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