Season 2 of Succession has given us many things: on-the-nose Vaulter headlines, Shiv's turtlenecks, Cousin Greg attempting to acquire cocaine, the list goes on. But most importantly, it's given us the rightful ascendance of J. Smith-Cameron's Succession character Gerri. She's become quite the fan favorite in Season 2, a success story that mirrors Gerri's own quietly calculated ascension through the male-dominated ranks of Waystar Royco.
"She's very canny," Smith-Cameron tells Bustle of her character. "Gerri always knows how to side-step the bombs when they drop." The actor, who was nominated for a Tony for her stage work and is familiar to television audiences from her time on shows like True Blood and Rectify, acknowledges that Gerri could never have risen so high in such a competitive field if she didn't harbor a certain amount of cunning and ambition — even if she hides it well.
"She's a cat-always-lands-on-her-feet kind of character," Smith-Cameron says. "She's ambitious, and it has definitely occurred to her that she could succeed Logan for real." Technically speaking, the company's general counsel has been named as Logan's replacement while he seeks a real successor; but all that it would take for that technicality to become a reality is a stroke of fate — a fact that hasn't escaped Gerri's attention.
But does she even want to sit on the throne, or is she content to remain the power behind it? "The company has been in so much jeopardy, I think she doesn't want to be boss, she doesn't want to bear the brunt of all the things that are not functioning about it," Smith-Cameron posits about Gerri's temporary and strategic restraint. "She would rather make that move when it's healthier."
Gerri is a unique character on Succession in that she is often the only non-Roy in a room full of them, allowed into rooms of power typically occupied only by Logan Roy and his bickering, spoiled offspring. Unlike the Roy siblings, Gerri worked and earned her place in those rooms, though she never says as much out loud — it's conveyed in her subtle eyerolls and no-nonsense demeanor whenever the Roy children step out of line.
Still she has some affection for Kendall, Roman, and Shiv. "She's known them since they were children, but I think she does resent them and does feel annoyed by them and somewhat disgusted by them from time to time," Smith-Cameron admits. "I think Gerri is very good at taking care of Gerri. She's managed to stay alive in a turbulent company and work her way up in spite of everything, and I don't think she got that way by forfeiting things for these screwed-up kids."
That said, Gerri isn't above hitching her wagon to one of these "screwed-up kids" if she views it as being for her benefit. Enter the number one reason she's become such a favorite this season: Gerri's unexpected, unconventional relationship with Roman Roy, in which her honestly berating him for his failings turned into a surprising bout of one-sided phone sex.
"Gerri is too much of a veteran to do something rash," the actor insists regarding her sexual tension and strategic alliance with Roman. "I think she and Roman have common ambitions, which is to find their place in the hierarchy at the company." Plus, "Gerri gets a kick out of him and enjoys putting him in his place."
Oddly enough, this twisted romance grew organically out of the show's own improvisational shooting style. "They do this very cool thing on set where you finish a scene and they keep rolling; your motor's idling and you keep talking and they don't say cut," Smith-Cameron explains. "They don't always use it, but sometimes they'll use something, and they seem to study us a little bit, like how we might behave in different situations."
"We had a couple times in England, while we were shooting [Shiv's wedding in Season 1], where we had some repartee — and I guess it had a little feeling of flirtation or frisson between them," she recounts. "It struck Kieran [Culkin, who plays Roman] and I both as funny or unlikely, and that was part of the fun of it, it was so weird." That unlikely spark between them didn't go unnoticed by the writers, apparently.
"Then we were shooting the scene in [Season 2, Episode 1] that was in the hospital in Japan, we're in the hallway looking at Kendall's interview on the iPad and Mark Mylod, who's directing the episode, is like, 'Cozy in a little closer to Kieran,' and I really thought it was about framing the shot, I didn't think anything of it. But then a little later he was like, 'Even closer, J. It's a little foreshadowing.' I was like 'What do you mean foreshadowing? What are you talking about?' And he was like, 'Oh my god, has nobody told you?'"
"I couldn't really see it, but I was thrilled," she says of her reaction when she learned what was going to transpire between Gerri and Roman. "Luckily, he's initiating it all so far, at least; so I feel like, however confused I feel, Gerri also feels confused. So I can play that. It's one step at a time, she doesn't know what's going on, she's kind of appalled but figures it out, then she's like, 'Do I encourage this? Do I shut it down?' and she's sort of vacillating. She doesn't know how to feel, so that's a really interesting thing to portray."
Smith-Cameron isn't surprised that Roman would pursue such an unlikely romance (is this what romance looks like to the Roys?), but the jury's still out on Gerri's motivation: is she actually into it as well, or is she just manipulating the situation to her advantage? The actor herself still isn't quite sure. "It makes sense for Roman in a way, because he's all in, he doesn't censor himself at all. But I'm still making sense of how it works for Gerri because she's so careful, she's so cautious and sensible. We'll see what happens." But in the meantime, she's certainly more than happy to take advantage of the power of being so close and intimate with one of the Roys.
For Smith-Cameron, though, the entire experience of being on Succession still feels like a dream come true, "and then some." The part of Gerri was originally written for a man, and even after Smith-Cameron was cast, the role wasn't originally intended to last for more than a short arc. "I was only supposed to be in four episodes after the pilot, then they kind of kept throwing me in these episodes," she remembers. "It became sort of a secret project of mine for Gerri to infiltrate the fortress which is Waystar. My dream was: I want more Gerri, and I want to be a regular on this show," Smith-Cameron admits. "But it doesn't always work out that way. So it's been pretty thrilling. I feel as if I willed her into being."
If her character is as good at turning her ambitions into reality as Smith-Cameron herself is, we could very well be seeing a world in which Waystar Royco is run by Gerri before Season 2 is over. Those Roy kids better watch their backs — Roman included.