As the Succession season 3 finale arrives, J. Smith-Cameron recaps the wild ride Ahead of the season 3 finale, NPR's Audie Cornish talks with actress J. Smith-Cameron about her portrayal of Gerri Kellman on the hit HBO series Succession.

J. Smith-Cameron on 'Succession', careers and consolidating power

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They're one of the most dysfunctional families to ever grace your screen.


CORNISH: I'm talking about Logan, Shiv, Kendall and Roman, the fictional Roy family on HBO's "Succession." And if you haven't seen the show, it's about the family's battle for control of the fictional global media and entertainment company Waystar Royco. And as the Roy family continually stabs each other in the back, Waystar general counsel and now acting CEO Gerri Kellman is always there to keep the motley crew on track - for instance, when the FBI shows up with a search warrant at company headquarters.


J SMITH-CAMERON: (As Gerri Kellman) Logan, they are coming up. And if you don't open the door, they will kick it in. And if you don't open the filing cabinet, they will pull out a crowbar. This is a show of resolve, and there are cameras outside. And they do not need to see the FBI meeting any resistance.

CORNISH: Logan Roy, played by actor Brian Cox, does what Gerri Kellman tells him to do, which puts her in a class by herself because this is a character that doesn't listen to anyone. Gerri is played by actress J. Smith-Cameron, who says that when she auditioned for the role, it wasn't even clear it was for a woman. She embraced the foul language and outsider status.

SMITH-CAMERON: And I thought it was, like, a funny little character quality that Gerri could have if she was, you know, sort of one of the guys but you could tell that she thought they were all idiots and that she was, you know, like, rolling her eyes, not clutching her pearls.

CORNISH: Smith-Cameron's Gerri doesn't clutch her pearls but does, like everyone else on the show, work to consolidate power. It's something we talked about when we met over Zoom yesterday.

One of the lines from your character - I think it was this season, and we'll get into some of the relationships in a moment. But she says something like, you have to think about, how does this advance my position? You have to be thinking about that 24-7. And it seems like such a different way of living (laughter). You know, I don't know. You're someone who - you know, you came up in theater, and that seems like maybe a more kind of collective, supportive environment.

SMITH-CAMERON: Definitely.

CORNISH: But is there something to what she's saying? Is there something to that for women in power?

SMITH-CAMERON: I definitely think so. I mean, I think that has had to be her credo because - or she might not have survived. And also, I think that's just - it's almost something like - like, I feel like her job must feel a bit like, you know, like, spies, like, you know, spies who have, like, a legend - that they have to memorize who they are and stick to it. Like, or it's a survival thing. Like, they will die, or they'll be shot. Or they'll be disappeared in some way. And I feel like it's almost that kind of pressure, or that's what it feels like to Gerri.

CORNISH: Survival in the Roys' world may be one of the things at the heart of the unusual and somewhat dangerous relationship Smith-Cameron's character has with the youngest son, Roman, a wildly inappropriate flirtation. And for those who are wondering, Roman's feelings are not reciprocated.

SMITH-CAMERON: I tolerate it, or I try to see how it could work to my advantage, or I try to contain it, you know?

CORNISH: Smith-Cameron and I talked about a relationship that could turn out to be much more dangerous for her character - the one with the Roy daughter Shiv.

And I don't think this is a spoiler, but spoiler alert for people (laughter). Gerri is going to be in a position where she's going to be encouraged to perhaps file a claim of sexual harassment against Roman. But this is a character who, all of a sudden, after years of being very careful, is, like, in the middle of the street. Like, it seems like, you know, the corporate bus is coming. And, again, just - it's a character that I feel like could only be played by someone with your experience. And how did you think of this dynamic between a certain kind of woman who came up in a certain kind of feminist politics and Shiv - right? - who sort of weaponizes those same politics?

SMITH-CAMERON: Right. Well, OK. I think I know that Shiv is coming for me, but it's - I obviously know she's not concerned for me as she's pretending to be. And, you know, as CEO, I mean, if I had been - if I had felt compromised by a co-worker such as Roman, I would have reported it to my superior and called H.R.

CORNISH: This is weird because you, like, just became Gerri as I asked you this question.

SMITH-CAMERON: (Laughter).

CORNISH: Like, your pacing changed all of a sudden. It looked like you were in a deposition, very carefully answering these questions. I watched it happen just now. I'm a little unnerved (laughter).

SMITH-CAMERON: Well, I - because I researched this. So I think in the past, I think she's thought, well, I'm the boss, so I can't get fired. But she is uneasy. Like, that's why she keeps telling Roman to cut it out, cut it out, cut it out. And I think she's almost more worried about him getting in trouble.

CORNISH: It's funny because it's not the first time we've seen that daughter character use the language of feminism to kind of attack another woman - yeah...


CORNISH: ...Or betray another woman...


CORNISH: ...To say, oh, well, you wouldn't want...


CORNISH: ...This to happen. You wouldn't want that to happen. And the whole time, you think, like, this person actually doesn't care (laughter). But they're using the language, right?


CORNISH: And it feels like a character that could only exist in 2021.

SMITH-CAMERON: Yeah. That's a good point. It's too bad because I think Shiv is so smart and, you know, would have made a good protege, maybe.

CORNISH: But isn't that - that's always the story, or maybe a story, that some of us are trying to get rid of - right? - that there can only be one in the room if you're the minority...


CORNISH: ...Right? - whatever that is.

SMITH-CAMERON: I know - when it seems so obviously like more and more and more and more safety in numbers and more and more.

CORNISH: You've talked about theater being your great love. And so I'm wondering, at this point in your career, how has this - being on a show like this or being on television kind of made you think differently about your craft or even help you understand how far you've come? Kind of where are you in your own acting?

SMITH-CAMERON: Yeah. I think it has - it's the - when a scene goes really well on the show, for me, it feels like we've done nothing, like we're just horsing around. It feels really - and so sometimes I think, that was a little too easy. Why was that so effortless? Why did that kind of just flow? And then I think, maybe that is the years of experience and the fact that you're working with these really great professionals. And you're just kind of - all you have to do is sort of be there in this space and react to them. So sometimes I feel like, gosh, I don't know how that scene's going to turn out because it felt like I didn't do any - like, you know, it felt like we're just horsing around. And then I'll see later...

CORNISH: You never think, gosh, I'm pretty good?

SMITH-CAMERON: Well, no. But, I mean, I'm like, oh.

CORNISH: That's OK (laughter).

SMITH-CAMERON: Well, maybe that's suitable to this medium. And, like, maybe that is years of experience that you can now forget the technique and just kind of let go and be in the moment. And I suppose that does come from having done something for decades. I don't think about myself that way, but, you know, it's - I've got to learn something after 40 years in theater (laughter).

CORNISH: Well, J. Smith-Cameron, known as Gerri Kellman on HBO's "Succession," thank you so much for speaking with us.

SMITH-CAMERON: My pleasure.

CORNISH: The season finale airs on Sunday.


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