What J. Smith-Cameron Really Thinks About Gerri + Roman’s Relationship

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Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

J. Smith-Cameron has thrived as a working stage actor for decades, even notching a Tony nomination in 1991. Recently, though, she has become a TV lightning rod thanks to her fan-favorite performance as corporate attorney Gerri Kellman on the HBO hit “Succession.” For all of Gerri’s measured caution on the series’ recently concluded third season, Smith-Cameron masterfully lets her character’s anxieties and exasperation bubble to the surface.

What has playing Gerri on “Succession” added to your acting skills?

She’s an expert at what she does. She’s unbeatable. She’s not bulletproof, but she can weather these things. The level of expertise she has to have about both big business and acquisitions, but also legal matters, is really challenging. It’s hard to memorize her lines. I did a film in November and the part was a lead, and I was in a huge number of scenes, and I had not one moment of trouble learning lines. Considering the kind of company Gerri’s in, she has to be on point all the time. You have to be ready to pounce, and that’s been a challenge.

When the relationship with Gerri and Roman [played by Kieran Culkin] came up, that was a real challenge to me, because it was so unexpected; and also, I could not figure out what Gerri thought about it. I think Gerri couldn’t figure out what Gerri thought about it. I remember asking Jesse [Armstrong, the series’ creator], “What does Gerri feel about this?” and he would just answer me with, like, what she would think about it, not how she would feel about it. Is she excited, titillated, scared, embarrassed? It was almost like he didn’t know what I was asking, because he really leaves that to the actor. At the time, I was like, This is a missing puzzle piece that none of the writers seem to know. When we did the scene where I make him go to the bathroom in Season 2, I was learning my lines and trying to figure out how I felt in the scene. 

What was your “Succession” audition like? 

The character was still written as “Jerry”—like a man’s name. There was crude language from the brothers toward the Jerry character in the scenes I read, but my character didn’t respond in a way that was shocked or embarrassed. I decided that she was unflappable and used to it, but found it disgusting. [“Succession” casting director] Doug Aibel didn’t hit me with a lot of preconceived notions. They didn’t say before I opened my mouth, “You should be…” because they had opened their idea to seeing some women for the part. The “Succession” people are really collaborative and appreciate when actors come in with a fully unique-to-them idea. 

What advice would you give your younger self?

I should have been bolder—in every way. When I started acting, I was a drama school purist. I wanted everything to be so completely real and untheatrical. Things can be broader and still be real. That’s the trick: being believable and believing what you’re saying and having your intentions be sincere as a character. Also, I didn’t dare be very ambitious when I was younger. I wanted to see if I could play good parts and make enough money to live, which is not a bad way to be. I’m very proud of my résumé now. I didn’t do years of shitty things. I didn’t try to get day player parts on TV shows. There’s nothing wrong with those parts, but they’re not always thoughtfully written. Whereas if you play Juliet in a regional theater somewhere, that’s a really worthwhile thing that you’ll always reflect back on, and you’ll be proud of what you learned from that. 

What’s the wildest thing you ever did to get a role?

I did play Juliet in a regional theater, and I was a little bit older than what they were looking for. They were trying to find someone who was 20 or 21, and I was in my mid- or late 20s. I hadn’t prepared that much, because I didn’t want to be disappointed when I didn’t get it. I remember getting out of bed the night before my audition and thinking, You’re not really trying for this because you’re sure they’re not going to consider you. I turned the light on and really worked on the thing way into the night. When I went in, I just owned it. Their hair was blown back.

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What is your worst audition horror story?

I remember auditioning for [Tom Stoppard’s] “On the Razzle”; I must’ve been in my early 20s. I had the word “panoply” in my line, and I said “pan-opoly.’’ After the whole thing was over, the director said, “I really liked your pronunciation of ‘panoply,’ ” and I said, “I must’ve thought it was a board game like Monopoly.” Luckily, the whole room laughed. 

What performance should every actor see?

Sissy Spacek in “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”