We’re living in uncertain times, and Tony-nominated actress J. Smith-Cameron doesn’t know any more about life on the other side than you do.
Smith-Cameron has spent decades building her career on both stage and screen, while spending the last 18 years prioritizing her family over professional projects. But with her and husband Kenneth Lonergan’s daughter Nellie looking ahead to college, the actress is unsure how her process in picking projects will change moving forward.
“I don’t have some finely honed technique, to be honest. It’s just a matter of what I get offered and, when I get offered it, and I guess it comes down to the writing of the overall project balanced against how much the role interests me,” the “Succession” star said in a recent interview with IndieWire, when asked about the roles she goes after, compared to those she doesn’t. “Not so much whether the role is big or small, but just if it’s an interesting role or the writing is really good.”
“When she was little, I was just very selective. I didn’t want to be busy all the time and I didn’t want to leave home all the time,” Smith-Cameron continued. “And even this fall, it was her senior year, I didn’t want to be gone. I had a chance to do a film, but it was in shot in Los Angeles and I decided it’s better to stay home with Nellie because she was deciding colleges and all that stuff. She didn’t expect me to at all, but I’m grateful I got to do that.”
But when it came to becoming Gerri on “Succession,” things looked a little different. The pilot, written by series creator Jesse Armstrong, was extremely detail-oriented when it came to the Roy family, while the general staff of Waystar Royco remained hazier. Once the series was underway, it became important to fill in those blanks.
“I think they knew they had all these holes to fill, and that they would probably be filled with very complicated, big people but how do you, in an hourlong format, really develop all those characters? And the whole idea of a big corporation is lots of people who all have big, powerful jobs, and all their assistants, and all the board members, and all these characters,” Smith-Cameron said.
“When I read, I had lines and personality quirks in the scenes I was given, that ended up being given to Frank (Peter Friedman), so I think that they had a lot of ideas floating around but hadn’t decided who was what,” she said, a fair point considering the role of Gerri was originally intended to be cast with a man.
Patrick Lewis/StarPix for HBO/Shutterstock
“I do think they were going to develop all these roles, but they weren’t rushing themselves. I think they also, in a commendable way, cast people very carefully, and then really use those performers as a resource. You can really see Kieran’s (Culkin, who plays Roman Roy) character fits him like a glove, and you can tell a lot of it is that Roman as far as Kieran, and Kieran as far as Roman,” Smith-Cameron said, pointing out as an example. “It’s a little hard to know where one leaves off and the other one begins sometimes at work, though Kieran isn’t as depraved as Roman at all; he’s very glib, and thoughtful, and funny.”
The actress is well aware of the differences between Roman and Kieran for many reasons, most wholly unrelated to the complicated dynamic that her character found herself in with Roman by the end of the show’s second season, in which the latter grows aroused by Gerri explicitly berating him.
Smith-Cameron and Culkin have known each other for years, since at least 2005 when they both filmed Lonergan’s embattled epic “Margaret,” which wouldn’t be released until 2011. It was that familiarity that resulted in an improvised flirtation between their “Succession” characters toward the end of Season 1, which served as a catalyst to play out the dynamic in Season 2.
But Gerri’s newfound, uh, assertiveness with Roman is no walk in the park for the “Rectify” star.
“To be honest, it’s very tough. Because you want it to ring true, and, I don’t know. I think she’s too savvy to do anything too messy like that. I think she’s way too careful a person,” she said of her mixed-up relationship with Roman. “But on the other hand, he makes a good protege. Right? Maybe. I don’t know. I’m just thinking of it in the back of my mind, she’s like, ‘This is a diamond in the rough. Maybe this is the start of a beautiful friendship if I could just put up with his kinky fun sex.’ But I don’t know. How long can you keep that on ice? I don’t know what they’re writing, and I’m a little bit scared to find out.”
Luckily for Smith-Cameron, if not for audiences, we won’t find out just what the “Succession” writers have in mind, with production halted for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, Smith-Cameron has some thoughts about who Gerri is and how she’s survived this long avoiding the wrath of her boss, Logan Roy (played by Brian Cox).
“Well, I guess she’s a workaholic. She’s unsentimental. I think she’s got a fantastic sense of humor and I think she’s very private. I think she’s more private than people know. Somebody who really doesn’t show her inner thoughts to almost anyone, doesn’t make herself vulnerable,” Smith-Cameron mused. “Obviously, very different from me. I’m an open book.”
“I think she’s very quick, good at her job, obviously driven. Somebody who really loves the pressure cooker aspect of it, and prides herself on managing her position in the pecking order there. I think she enjoys the sidestepping the dangerous things. That’s why I think, as this weird thing unfolds with Roman, she was blindsided by it.
“She’s good at managing people. Think about it. She’s lasted this long with Logan. She’s figured out how to keep from getting fired and then how to stay alive there. I think she just prides herself on that juggling act.”
“Succession” is now streaming on HBO.