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J. Smith-Cameron, Gerri From “Succession,” Revealed Secrets From The Finale

The actor who plays Gerri Kellman, Waystar Royco’s general counsel, revealed what it was like filming on that luxury superyacht — and the “juicy” scenes with Roman that ended up on the cutting-room floor. (Spoilers ahead!)

Posted on October 15, 2019, at 5:33 p.m. ET

Graeme Hunter / HBO

Gerri Kellman (J. Smith-Cameron) in Succession.

Had you seen the finale before Sunday night?

J. Smith-Cameron: I had not seen it before. And I kind of want to rewatch it!

What did you think when you watched the episode?

JSC: I thought it was tremendous. The way they do that show, the way [creator] Jesse [Armstrong] kind of steers that is they shoot a lot of material that they then cut away, plus they always write alternative lines, and we sometimes do improv, so there’s always a wealth of material. So even though you’ve read all the rewrites, and even if you’ve been on set for most of it, you still don’t really know the story that’s going to be told in a given episode, especially a season finale where they have a lot of things hanging in the balance, a lot of things to convey. So a lot of stuff that we’d shot was missing. So when I watched it I was just trying to think, Well, what part of the story am I remembering from what I read? And if I could see it with objective eyes, what would that story episode be to me?

How long ago did you film?

JSC: We shot that episode in, I want to say, mid-July. Really not that long ago.

It didn’t look like the world’s toughest shoot, I have to be honest.

JSC: It was pretty luxurious surroundings, you’re right! It’s funny, in one of our locations, the housing, the hotel accommodations, were extremely deluxe — but then as the boat moved up and down the Adriatic we had to move hotels. So then we stayed in a very rustic and small hotel on Korčula [in Croatia], which was kind of noisy and worn and kind of charming but not super comfy and super deluxe. So we had one existence and our characters had another one, if that makes sense.

Are you able to tell me whose boat you were filming on?
JSC: I don’t know whose boat we were filming on. It’s called the Solandge. I think it’s a Saudi-owned superyacht. I believe the word “Solandge” is made up of the letters of the kids’ and cousins’ names. I think somebody told me that. It may or may not be true. But it seemed like a good choice because it seemed like a parallel universe for the Roy family.

Graeme Hunter / HBO

Very much so. Let’s talk about that tremendous breakfast scene on the boat where everyone is throwing blame around. For the second time this season, after the Pierce dinner in Episode 5, it really felt like a play. What was it like to film?

JSC: It was fun! One thing that’s really cool when you go on location is the universe is as small as that set. You don’t really have your family there, you don’t have your friends to talk to. You’re not tempted to— There’s nothing to dilute the experience, and it’s very private.

So we knew what the ending of the script was, even though when they sent it out they had things redacted for some eyes. It was just for the cast and for the people in the crew who needed to know. It was very, very private and secret. But we did know that Kendall [Jeremy Strong] was scripted to take the fall and then have this bombshell happen at the end. So we knew the outcome. So it was not as tense as it would have been for our characters.

It certainly wasn’t close quarters [on set]. It was a very comfortable, spacious boat, but in fact I think they had some rule about how many people could be on board at a time. So literally the costumer designer had to choose times to come and look at a costume if she had to change something because there was literally X number of people that could be on board at a certain time. So that made for a sort of pressure cooker feeling.

But mostly I’d say that scene was just really fun to do as actors. We were relishing the drama and comedy of it.

That moment where Roman [Kieran Culkin] defends your character was such a subtle and wonderful moment for those two. What do you think it said about their relationship as it’s evolved this season in this kind of weird and twisted but also loving way?

JSC: Right! It’s loving! I know, you’re right! It’s funny that you mention that — I actually want to go back and rewatch it — because there were two more Gerri-and-Roman scenes that were just tête-à-têtes. There was much more than just the exchange when we’re all sitting around together and he’s on the sofa with me and he’s almost got his hand on my shoulder practically. That’s all that’s left there, but we had two other tête-à-tête scenes that we shot that aren’t in the final version, so there was much more discussion about what our relationship was in the episode at the time that we shot it. And that informed the way we played that scene around the table because we thought this other information was in it.

But one of the really interesting things about our business is that now with those things subtracted, it is a great example of less is more — because the emphasis that puts on the little private looks, the little looks that are going around the table, those moments are now more weighty because we don’t have all that other material.

Graeme Hunter / HBO

Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin) in Succession.

Roman and Gerri had such an interesting development over the course of the season. To see him be the one who ultimately stands up for her — it was quite moving in a weird way.

JSC: Definitely! But when we shot it we thought there was so much more! When I heard it was not going to be in it, I thought, Oh no! They’ve just kind of extracted Gerri and Roman from the story of that episode. Because we had scenes where there was a lot of information about Gerri and Roman. The stakes were higher by the end of the episode between the two of us, so it’s just so funny. I have to go back and look one more time to really see what I would think if I were watching it and I didn’t know anything about it, how I would read it. I think I agree with you. He’s very loyal to Gerri in that moment.

Also, it gives Roman, by paring away other funny stuff — we really see him step up in that episode. The whole stuff about the pseudo kidnapping and him daring to say “I don’t think this is bankable.” He has kind of stepped up. He’s very manly in the whole episode. He’s very grown-up and much bolder than we’re used to seeing him, and smarter. I think all of that gets underlined by having some of the funny things that were pared away when they edited the episode. It’s just very clear that what’s left is him being a new Roman: less glib, less silly, and more sober and bolder. So that when he does defend Gerri and steps up for her, it’s coming from this burgeoning sense of adult polish that we haven’t seen from him before.

When we shot it, it was kind of a little muddied because there were all these little twists and turns between different conversations that our characters had that we don’t get to see now. And I don’t want to talk about them, because maybe they’ll rewrite versions of those scenes in upcoming episodes. But we definitely had some juicy, juicy stuff that was cut!

Well, we look forward to that!

JSC: Yeah! And I haven’t had a chance to ask Jesse whether those are gone for good or if some of those will come back. Maybe he doesn’t even know. Maybe he’ll get in the writers room and see how he feels.

Graeme Hunter / HBO

Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) in Succession.

You said you knew the end twist was coming in that final scene with Kendall. But we don’t get to see Gerri’s reaction to his bombshell press conference, like some other characters. What do you think she was thinking in that moment?

JSC: I think she’d be completely flabbergasted and panicked. It seemed very drastic, but it’ll be very interesting to see what happens.

I was reading an interview you did with Vulture where you said your character was just supposed to be a recurring part in a few episodes, and you described her as something of “a question mark” when you first got the role. But now she’s this constant presence and quite a popular character with fans. What do you think is resonating so much with fans about her?

JSC: I guess the thing I keep coming back to is that Gerri is someone who was right in the center of everything, certainly in the business arena but really in the family. And she has this vast history with them. But she’s not a Roy, and she does not have that kind of cushioning that they have, and she will never be quite that entitled. I think that that means that she can afford to sit there and roll her eyes and curse them behind their back, and that is nice, at least for the audience, to have someone that’s integrated into their circles but not on their same entitlement trip. She kind of knows that they’re all assholes, and she knows they’re all idiots. So that’s maybe nice for the audience to have someone who’s not a Roy in the middle of the lion’s den.

Jamie Mccarthy / Getty Images

Smith-Cameron in April in New York City.

So if she is a bit more normal and a bit of a viewer surrogate, how has she survived for so long working for them? What’s her motivation for being around those people?
JSC: You know, I just think it’s one of those things that she is maybe a true workaholic and that she is really addicted to the adrenaline of the high-stakes business gambles, and that maybe she, I would imagine, prides herself a bit on being someone who can kind of tame the shrew a little bit with Logan [Brian Cox] — not that anyone ever tames him, but that she can navigate when to put a foot down and when to just acquiesce with him. So she knows how to always land on her feet like a cat and not really get injured. That might be sort of a thrill, like a roller coaster is a thrill. She’s maybe quite good at it, and you know how it is — if you’re good at something, you like doing it. It’s something you take pride in, and it’s constantly a fun puzzle to solve for Gerri. And I think she’s quite attached to that.

It’s set up in the beginning of the story, [Season 1, Episode 2], that she’s a widow and that her husband had sort of been their godparent too. So I imagine that she sort of worked her way up, and there might be a real feeling of belonging there, that a lot of that company is due to her, that there might be a sort of emotional investment. So, I don’t know, what makes people workaholics? I don’t really know the answer to that!

I was going to ask what her home life was like, but I suppose the Roy family has become her family in that sense.

JSC: I remember we were discussing what Gerri’s apartment would look like when we had the episode with the shooter and with her— Well, when Roman calls his girlfriend and ends up calling Gerri. We see in that scene into Gerri’s apartment, and I remember discussions about what her apartment would look like. I thought it would be very tastefully done but feel sort of like a hotel. She would have someone come in and clean every single day, and it’s all done by a decorator. She probably downsized once her children were grown and her husband had passed away into a very luxurious but smaller pad, and it was very deluxe but maybe had that sort of soulless feeling of when something has been designed by someone else and it’s not full of your memorabilia. It’s got that pristine feeling. And Jesse sort of agreed with that. You just see her apartment very briefly.

One of the fun things about Gerri is that she’s played everything so close to her vest at work, at least in Season 1, that it’s fun not knowing too much about her so far. It leaves us a lot of room to reveal fun, quirky things that are sort of in the works possibly in the show. So it’ll be fun to see what gets revealed!

Graeme Hunter / HBO

Logan Roy (Brian Cox) in Succession.

So if you were writing next season, what would you want to explore with Gerri? What would you want to be in store for her?

JSC: I feel like one thing that happens with her that seems to ring true with a big organization like that is that her status always seems to be in flux — whether she’s in with Logan or whether she’s on the outs with Logan. I feel like ever since she got put on the paper as the figurehead to be named as successor that Logan took a distaste to her and put her on the back burner and stopped using her as such a right-hand man confidante because he really didn’t want anyone to succeed him, obviously. So now, in the wake of this big shake-up, I wonder if her influence with Logan will flame back up, and I wonder if her ambition will flame back up with that.

But also I think that something a little bit more than the sum of its parts is happening with Gerri and Roman. What started off as sort of a funny perversion then, maybe now — as you pointed out with that time that he stands up for Gerri in Episode 10 — there’s actually a real bond forming, so that will be really interesting to see. Because this isn’t a world where there’s many real bonds; Shiv [Sarah Snook] and Tom [Matthew Macfadyen] have this very compromised sort of bond, and then we saw in this last episode how much stress it’s under. Although she does sort of choose him over everything else. In the moment of truth, she has that scene with him where she sort of begs for it not to be Tom. And I thought that was so interesting and so well done. I’m just such a fan of those two actors, and the writing on that storyline, I think, is fantastic.

I have no idea what [the writers] have in mind, I truly don’t. But I think it’ll be really interesting to see what happens if there is actually a real bond between these two human beings that’s really viable — whether it’s romantic or business or some kind of emotional bond — that Roman and Gerri seem to be forming this actual attachment. And that’s not a world that supports many attachments, so that will be really interesting to see.

Graeme Hunter / HBO

Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook) and Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) in Succession.

FInal question, just because you brought up your costars, who would you say is the most different from the awful character they play?

JSC: Well, first of all, let me preface that by saying no one in the cast remotely seems evil. It’s a particularly nice group with good sportsmanship. A generous, friendly cast. So, first of all, let me say that!

But I would say beyond that, without a doubt, I would say Matthew Macfadyen is most different from his character because Matthew is genteel, handsome, wonderful, really funny, really gracious, and polite, and Tom is such a boob, such a pathetic frat boy. He is the opposite! So that is the most dazzling one for me.

Note: This interview has been edited slightly for clarity and brevity.

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