If you’d been on Broad Street in the late afternoon on Wednesday 10th May, you might have seen a frazzled student journalist, AirPods in, running to Brasenose for an urgent interview. A perturbed sonic field of simmering hi hats, agitated string stabs, and murky 808 basses blared in my ears, mixed to form the grisly hip-hop-meets-Chopin-meets-Hans-Zimmer sound world that makes up Succession’s main theme. I was trying my best to get into the show’s world, ahead of an interview with actress J. Smith-Cameron.
Cameron plays Gerri Kellman, general counsel of international media conglomerate Waystar Royco, on Succession. Its final episode will air on 28th May 2023.
Cameron spoke at Brasenose for their annual Arts Week, co-ordinated by Arts Rep Peter Chen. We talked about her career in New York theatre and beyond, the heights which Succession has reached, and the roles that she’d still love to play.
Martin: You’re at a university; this is a place where a lot of people get their foundational ideas about their interests, and they have their first experiences that inform a lot of what they go on to do. What were those foundational experiences for you, maybe not just at a university, but those moments that have informed your entire career since?
J: I did start to go to college, but then started getting acting work and left. I guess those first acting jobs were my seminal experiences that helped guide me, and they certainly have left a big mark on me. That’s really how you learn acting; I think you can study it in class, and those classes help. But working it out, and doing the plays and films, is what really teaches you.
I guess those first acting jobs were my seminal experiences that helped guide me, and they certainly have left a big mark on me.
Was there a specific play, experience, or group of people, from your time working in New York theatre that has really stuck with you?
I feel like there have been many, and they’ve come in stages. There’s not been one epiphany about it. That’s one of the great things about theatre and acting in general – it’s sort of like being reincarnated when you play different roles. You get to be different people in your imagination, and there’s lots of fresh starts. Every time you play someone, you start researching, either into their psyche or where they’re from, or what their work is. In a way, it’s been an education, being an actor.
How have you changed your process, going from theatre to film and then TV? Obviously, theatre is very all-encompassing, because you’re on stage seven nights a week – you might even be doing it eight times because you’ve got a matinee on the weekend.
Definitely; all three are very different. In the theatre, the most striking thing that’s different is that you have rehearsal; you get to really prepare for it. With film and television, you might have a read through, or you might have some token rehearsals. But there’s nothing like in the theatre where you rehearse, where you have an eight hour day, or six hours with no lunch – your choice. That’s incredible, because you get to really investigate the play slowly, learn it, sleep on it every night, try different things, and have discussions. If it’s a new play, sometimes the writer gets involved in that process too, and rewrites the scene and maybe rewrites it again, or puts it back to how it was. But you try lots of things, you get to know each other, and it’s so different in camerawork, because you’re just kind of thrown in that situation. That was the biggest adjustment to becoming a television actress, because you really don’t get to prepare. You have to rehearse in a vacuum, and learn your lines by yourself.
Sometimes it’s almost hard to remember lines, because you envisioned a scene in a certain way. For example, you and I are seated at this table. But what if we came to work, and this was a scene we were playing? We were just walking around the Brasenose quad in the rain with the umbrella; you might have trouble remembering lines, because you’d imagine just sitting, looking at each other. In that scenario, we would be looking straight ahead; millions of things can throw you, because you didn’t even realise you imagined it a certain way. But you did, and you act on it.
What drew you to play Gerri in Succession? Was there a quality to the writing, and to the character, that really drew you to her?
When I first had to audition, [the writers] had a couple of scenes for me to read. I didn’t know what the situations referred to, because they weren’t just from the pilot script; they were from up-and-coming scripts that weren’t finished. If the scenes were with Roman or Kendall, the guys would say something crude to me.
If [Gerri] had been a male character, they would have said something crude back, or not have proceeded in the same way. Since I was a woman, there was a lip biting. I was determined to be unflappable in the wider sense, and I refused to let them throw me off. That became an inner struggle for my character; to be grossed out by them all the time, but […] not wanting to let them see that I was ever thrown.
What are you going to miss most about the show?
Gosh, everything. I love the cast. I’ve never worked with a cast that was so uniformly accomplished and fun to be around. They are the most perfect, funny, and sharp individuals.
Even to be in a hit show; when it started, I felt like it was going to be a hit, but the critics didn’t pick it up right away, and I wasn’t a regular character at first. Gerri was supposed to be a recurring role; she was in the corporate takeover episodes, going up to episode six, but she wasn’t necessarily going to be in the story.
…when it started, I felt like it was going to be a hit, but the critics didn’t pick it up right away, and I wasn’t a regular character at first.
I was only supposed to be in those first four and possibly be at the wedding at the end of the Season 1. I ended up becoming a regular, so that was really gratifying when I thought right away that it was going to be an important show. And my agent didn’t pick up on it; she said, “Why do you want to keep doing this show? I think they should make you regular if you’re going to keep on”, and once it hit its stride, she didn’t remember having felt that way.
You’ve had a decades-long career in New York theatre. Did you feel ready when Succession became a hit? Was it a shock to you when people started recognising you in the street, or when the second season happened, people sent you pictures of Roman and Gerri together on social media?
I guess that I wasn’t personally expecting to get that kind of attention, but I thought it was deserving of being a hit. I hadn’t ever been in anything that was that popular, because I’ve always chosen things that I thought were artistically good. Usually, those things that are artistically good aren’t always hugely popular. They’re usually a little bit more for cult audiences, especially in television. I was thrown by that, in a good way.
I’ve been watching TV shows since I was 13 or 14; the first show that I ever watched was House of Cards. I think I was a bit too young to be watching it.
In the show, Kevin Spacey and Kate Mara have a very sordid relationship; she’s 20-something, he’s 50-something. But in Succession, Gerri is 60-something, and Roman is a younger guy. Do you think that’s indicative of a reversing shift in ageism, in that women are more accepted nowadays in playing those kinds of roles?
I don’t know; I think it’s a bit radical, because I think that the only reason they put that in there was that it seemed absurd to them. It doesn’t usually happen; it’s a social norm for older men to be with young women, but it isn’t the other way around, and I think that’s a bit unique. This was largely due to Kieran Culkin, who just started flirting with me on the set, and we’ve known each other for years, so we were friends. But he thought it was funny that his character would flirt with me, so he started it, and then the writers captured it and said, “This is a fun idea. Let’s see where it goes.” I think that they never meant it to go past that scene where I have to make him go to the bathroom… I think it was supposed to fall out of it as far as that, but then it persisted, really.
Taking a broader view now, I think that a lot of people have tried to determine the meaning of the show. What is the big point that Succession is trying to make? Some people have come to view Succession as if it’s a race against impending doom, and the ending of things. For example, Logan is a character who’s so preoccupied with cable media, and all of these old forms of journalism that are sort of dying out. Do you think that’s a fair characterization of what the show is really all about?
You know, I’ve never heard that before, but it’s very intelligent. I’m sure that the writers did think that’s true. But I think that the emotional story of wanting to win his love, as much as the title of the company, became the sort of impetus of the show.
I think that Logan destroys the kids to such a point where they’re incapable of any sort of normal human relationship, or human love. What was the most striking moment for you on the set where you realised that?
I think I spied that right away, even in the script, not just because he was so abusive a parent, but because they live in such an insular world, and they’re so sheltered and privileged. They have grown up in a bubble, so even take his behaviour aside; they don’t even know the price of a gallon of milk; they’re like big babies, just walking. We call them “the kids” all the time, but they’re in their 30s and 40s. They’re not kids, but they don’t seem, as Logan says in season four, to be serious people.
Is there a dream role, be it theatre, TV, or film, or even a character archetype from any medium, that you really want to play that you haven’t been able to yet?
I get asked this a lot. There are a lot of parts I want to play, but there is one thing that I think as I age in this business. When writers write older women, I feel that they miss the innocence and bewilderment of people who are in middle age. They don’t have the appetite of youth, and they don’t have the assurance of old age. Their own parents are beginning to be frail; their kids are beginning to grow up and leave the house. It’s a very vulnerable time, from 50 to 70, or 40 to 60. That used to be old age, but now it seems like extended middle age, because people live and work for longer. But I don’t think that writers write women over 50 who have that innocent quality that actually is true of them. It’s a very soft and uncertain time emotionally for women.
If we’re thinking about Gerri, behind all of these corporate unfoldings and having to deal with a crazy and abusive man and his three manbaby kids, Gerri probably has a lot of these thoughts going on as well that we perhaps aren’t given privileged access to.
When writers write older women, I feel that they miss the innocence and bewilderment of people who are in middle age.
If you had to give one piece of advice to someone who’s trying to make it in the business; someone who’s in New York theatre in their 20s, what would it be?
Say yes to as many opportunities as you can, even if you think they’re not going to be important or move the score forward; just try to get experience. Say yes to things, and be tenacious.
I think that luck is just readiness and opportunity coming together, so keep trying. Also observe your fellow human beings, because that’s the best character information you can get. I like to sit on the subway and just look around and watch the other people as they ride home or ride to work, and try to just channel what they’re feeling and who they are. It’s amazing what you can get from just observing them.
But you have to be cunning, because if they’re aware of it, they freeze up. But the tube is great for it, because people kind of have this social contract where they just behave naturally. It’s like they’re in private, but they’re all crammed together. In a waiting room, the same thing happens, where people act like they’re alone in the room. It’s oddly intimate, because people are just in their private worlds. It’s excellent for writers too – it’s a wonderful exercise.