How an improv moment sealed that curious Gerri and Roman chemistry on ‘Succession’

J. Smith Cameron’s “Succession” role had initially been written as an undefined male character. She soon changed all that.
(Vincent Tullo / For The Times)

When “Succession” was showered with 14 Emmy acting nominations for the show’s third season, it not only shattered the drama series same-year record of 12 held by “The West Wing” — as well as the any series same-year record of 13 jointly held by “Roots” and “Rich Man, Poor Man” — it made a first-time nominee out of series regular J. Smith-Cameron, who plays Roy family general counsel Gerri Kellman and who’d previously been overlooked in Seasons 1 and 2.

Chatting on a video call from the East Hampton, N.Y., home she shares with her husband — playwright and Oscar-winning writer-director Kenneth Lonergan — the veteran stage actress says that although she’s “just as thrilled as I can be,” she has no clue why the Television Academy chose to recognize her work this year.

“I do feel a little bit of pride about the fact that I basically created Gerri,” Smith-Cameron (née Jeannie Smith) continues, adding that in the original pilot script, Jerry Kellman was simply one of several male suits whose personality had yet to be defined. “But I got cast in this recurring role and somehow managed ending up in every single episode that season. I kind of made up this little character. The glasses were my idea. The pursed lips, the eyebrows, the disdain I had for the Roys. I brought that, and the writers really ran with it. They really answered that call.”

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In Season 3, Gerri was not only named interim CEO of the Roys’ media kingdom Waystar Royco, but she ventured further down the perilous path of her provocative yet improper flirtation with the youngest Roy heir, bad-boy Roman, played to award-winning perfection by Kieran Culkin. Both story lines pushed Smith-Cameron’s Gerri to the fore, which undoubtedly prodded Emmy nominators to finally take notice of the actor’s work. The latter plot thread was a direct result of Smith-Cameron and Culkin’s longtime kinship.

Over the years, Culkin had performed in a handful of Lonergan’s plays and movies, some of which co-starred Smith-Cameron. Although the two never acted opposite each other, “there was a lot of camaraderie,” she says. “My first scene to shoot in ‘Succession’ was with Kieran. I remember feeling so grateful because I kind of knew him, knew his rhythms.”
Late in Season 1, during one of the customary filmed improvs “Succession” cast members have come to relish, Smith-Cameron and Culkin ended a scene by both intuitively turning around to admire each other’s derrière. Their curious chemistry was undeniable, the show’s scribes loved the shtick, and so it stuck.

J. Smith Cameron.
(Vincent Tullo / For The Times)

“Once we heard we were going to have that subplot, we would mock-flirt on set,” recalls Smith-Cameron. “It was clearly not a Me Too situation. It helped us break the ice for all these weird scenes we had to play.”

“She’s my mommy-girlfriend, and she calls me her baby-man,” says Culkin, phoning from the set moments before shooting a big Season 4 scene with Smith-Cameron in what he describes as a really tough episode. “What’s pretty funny about J. is that it’s part of her process to just doubt herself and have to talk absolutely everything out when she’s always, always really great in every moment. … She’s an absolutely amazing scene partner.”
If the global phenomenon that is “Succession” has brought Smith-Cameron an alien level of fame she’s still processing, the Gerri-Roman coquetry has catapulted her into cougar/MILF territory. “I’m aware of it mostly because I’m on Twitter,” the actor says with a chuckle. When I express how wonderful it is that both she and her Gerri have joined the canon of women of a certain age rightfully seen as silver sex symbols, Smith-Cameron says, “I agree with you. I think it’s awesome. … There’s a new category of knowing, tough, experienced women anywhere from 40 to 75 who are really appealing to men and women.”

Not surprisingly, Smith-Cameron and Culkin have both been sworn to secrecy as to what’s in store for the Roys — and for Gerri and Roman — in Season 4. “In spite of herself, he really got under her skin,” she says. “I think he does have promise. I had that line in Season 3: ‘If anyone’s bootleg Logan, it’s Roman.’ He has that off-the-cuff, ballsy, troublemaker instinct, like Logan. And so, I really think she was into channeling the sexual energy into being a formidable business partnership.”

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That said, Smith-Cameron also understands Gerri — who’d clearly requested Roman stop sexting her — feels newly betrayed by his mistakenly sending NSFW images of his anatomy, intended for her, to his father’s phone, which unleashed the elder Roy’s wrath.


“After the way it ended in Season 3, I’m not sure what to wish for, because he would have to prove himself to me,” she says. “It was a big betrayal to her, so I don’t know how you pick up the pieces from that. I can’t speak for Kieran, but I feel there’s still something very much between them. There’s probably still some sexual tension there. It would be a shame if something more didn’t happen, but I don’t know what they have in mind.”