While the Roy family sets to work destroying one another on Succession, there’s always a force lingering in the background, peering over her glasses in disappointment, playing both sides of every boardroom spat. That’s right: In all things Succession, there is Gerri, Waystar Royco’s general counsel.
Played with poisonous efficiency by J. Smith-Cameron, Gerri survives the chaos primarily by staying out of it. In the show’s second season, however, Gerri can’t resist getting drawn into the Waystar Royco power struggles, as she’s temporarily placed in charge of the company (a position she accepts with a sense of trepidation), and also gets caught up in a sexually charged, mentorlike relationship with Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin), the family’s most chaotic son. Gerri pushes Roman to get a job at a Waystar theme park and clean up his act, and in the fourth episode, after Roman gets into a fight with his girlfriend over the fact that they don’t have sex, Gerri and Roman end up stumbling into phone sex together. Which, in the world of Succession, means that he jacks off while she berates him for being “a revolting little worm” and a “little slime puppy.”
Smith-Cameron, a TV and theater actor who’s worked with Culkin a lot in the past (including in her husband Kenneth Lonergan’s film Margaret as well as onstage), was as surprised as everyone else by Gerri and Roman’s phone sex, though she also admits it makes a certain sense. Vulture caught up with her — over the phone, of course — to discuss what’s going through Gerri’s mind during that scene, how she imagines Gerri’s backstory, and why she’s managed to survive at Waystar for so long.
At the end of this episode, Gerri and Roman have very charged, very unexpected phone sex. How did you initially react to that scene?
Well, I was totally shocked. In episode one, I remember [director] Mark Mylod saying, “Lean into Roman, a little foreshadowing.” I was like, “What foreshadowing?” And he went, “Oh, has no one told you about that?” Then he said, “Yeah, there’s gonna be something.” Kieran and I have known each other a long time. We have a good rapport on set. Gerri and Roman also have, somehow, a good rapport because [she] can just tell him to shut up all the time, you know? He maybe respects that or enjoys that in some roundabout way. But it’s still very, very weird!
I was rewatching the first season and I was surprised by how much it’s foreshadowed. Early on, Gerri has a line about how Roman “knows how to flirt” with her.
I can’t speak for Kieran, but I think there’s something in Roman’s makeup that admires the way Gerri has power even in the midst of dealing with Logan. She keeps her boat afloat and that’s not lost on him. He finds that appealing.
What do you think she gets out of it? It feels like a way for her to exert authority amid the chaos.
Intellectually, it’s that, but I don’t know. I was watching episode three last night, where they’re in Hungary and they’d been to that horrible night of “boar on the floor” and they’re all hung-over. Gerri comes to get [Roman] because he’s late for breakfast, and there’s an undeniable fondness or intimacy there. It was on the page, but it also just was true. It just happened in the room. I don’t think, at that point, Gerri would ever guess where it was going. I think she is fond of him and would like to think of him as a protégé or something. She thinks, Oh, he’s not stupid. And he’s very charismatic. He’s just a restless spoiled brat. If the right person could fashion that, he’d be really an amazing person.
But that’s a distant thought, because I don’t think she has very high hopes for the Roys. I feel like Gerri is like, Oh brother, about all three of the sons, all the time. But some kind of rapport is there. I don’t think she knows what to make of it. Every time we went to shoot one of those scenes, I’d be like, “What is this?” It finally occurred to me that Gerri doesn’t know either. She’s just playing it moment to moment, like, What? Okay. What?
A lot of Gerri’s scenes involve her observing these Roy power struggles, then reacting to whatever’s happening. What is it like to film that?
It’s really fun. She’s in the center of the company, but not being born a Roy, there’s some layer of privilege she can’t access. But there’s some sanity that she can always access because she’s not caught up in that above-the-law feeling. So she does bide her time. She does carefully choose her words.
It’s not that Gerri is morally superior at all, by the way. She’s a way for the audience to see someone who’s not just flexing their incredible power of being born into this. I sometimes wonder, Why in the world would anyone choose to work there?, but I imagine people get addicted. It’s like an extreme sport. Will I get dunked by this wave or will I come out on top?
At the beginning of this season, Gerri is ostensibly put in charge of the company, even as Logan insists that she won’t be his successor. Should we be worried for her, considering how unstable the company is?
Last year, my first scene I shot was when Roman asked me to do that job. Logan had his stroke and he went to the hospital and I’m like, “No thanks.” He’s like, “What?” You later find out that Gerri knows how much debt they’re in, so I think she never had the fantasy about running the business. She does not want to inherit it at a moment when whoever has it is bound to fail because it’s going to be in really treacherous waters. This season, she’s not in the chosen [group]. She’s not quite in sync with it all. She’s staying alive in the game, but it’s not really quite exactly going her way.
You talked about working with Kieran in the past. Between you, him, and Jeannie Berlin, who plays ATN boss Cyd Peach, there’s a whole Margaret reunion happening this second season.
That’s right! It’s a joy. Jeannie and I had more to say to each other than what made the cut, but I don’t want to give it away because it could be used still.
Kieran’s been in a number of my husband’s plays as well as Margaret. I’ve gotten to know him over a long the time. I feel like it did really inform the Gerri-Roman thing, our history. It makes for this shorthand you have with someone. A lot of the things that turned out to be true of Gerri, which weren’t written in stone to begin with, they evolved as a combination of the writers and me and the mood on set. It’s our past, but it’s also the way my character evolved into a niche in sync with his character. It’s like the beginning of a beautiful friendship, like they’re like partners in crime.