character study

How Gerri Got Promoted From Side Character to Key Player on Succession

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Graeme Hunter/HBO, Peter Kramer/HBO and Colin Hutton/HBO

The character: Gerri Kellman, longtime general counsel of the beleaguered and yet much-coveted media and entertainment empire Waystar Royco. Gerri’s the go-to choice to serve as figurehead when CEO Logan Roy is incapacitated, but she’s smart enough to know that running the company is a cursed position.

The actor: J. Smith-Cameron, 64, a veteran of the stage (a Tony nominee in 1991 for Our Country’s Good, an Obie winner in 1998 for As Bees in Honey Drown), television (Rectify), and film (Harriet the Spy, the masterpiece that is Margaret) who finds herself with her most devoted fan base yet as Gerri.

Essential traits: The total amoral competence it takes to be a corporate lawyer; a deadpan, dark-as-hell wit when she feels comfortable punching down at her inferiors; an unsettled, disapproving, and/or shocked stare in reaction to whatever fuckup has arrived on her executive office’s doorstep; a soft spot for Roman Roy, or at least a willingness to berate him over the phone while he masturbates on the other end of the line (or in the next room, when it happens in person).

A Functional Character

Gerri Kellman doesn’t appear in the pilot of Succession, but when she arrives in its second episode, she seems to know everything. She has to reveal to both Kendall and the show’s audience that Waystar happens to be carrying crushing amounts of debt, which is a lot of exposition for one figure to unload. As Mark Mylod, an executive producer on the series and director of that episode and about half of Succession’s other ones, put it, Gerri began her life as simply “a functional character”: a figure to appear in boardrooms and other meetings, reacting to the shenanigans of the Roy family with shock and disapproval.

The Succession writers first imagined Gerri as a man, though not one with many defining features. “We didn’t really have a character, just somebody to help with exposition,” Mylod said. With the pilot already shot but long before they would film the rest of the season, the show was still “stabbing around in the dark trying to find the right tone.” They decided to see a few women for the part and brought in Smith-Cameron among them. What worked about her audition, according to Mylod, was that she saw the humor in the show that Succession itself was still in the process of finding.

Smith-Cameron, for her part, was familiar with creator Jesse Armstrong’s previous work on In the Loop and was able to watch Succession’s pilot to prep for her audition. “The sides read like a dark comedy to me,” she said. She latched on to the moments when Gerri had to interact with the Roy sons, especially because she worked with Kieran Culkin on her husband Kenneth Lonergan’s film Margaret. “I’ve known Kieran for a long time, and I knew he was one of the sons, and they’re so cheeky and boorish in the audition scenes that I could just picture him doing them,” she said. “On the tape, I was wincing every time he said anything, which I think then began to define the character.”

Smith-Cameron got a callback for the role but couldn’t read again because her mother had just died. Still, she got the part. “She had this presence that just felt real. We needed to get that loose naturalism,” Mylod said.

Enter the Boardroom

Once Smith-Cameron was cast, the Succession team started to add on to Gerri piece by piece. First, her glasses, which are Smith-Cameron’s own: “On the first day, I said, ‘I want to wear my glasses,’ and they were like, ‘Okay.’” Next, Michelle Matland, the show’s costume designer, dressed Gerri as simply and sedately as possible: off-the-rack suits from Brooks Brothers and a pearl necklace. “The idea was that she didn’t want to encourage anything that made her overly feminine or took her out of her position,” Matland said.

Those little choices started to fuse into a complete persona. Gerri was trying to shield herself, sure, but Smith-Cameron could also peer over those glasses to land a comedy beat in a group scene, serving as a wry stand-in for the audience whenever a member of the Roy family went too far. Early on, “I remember one of the writers coming up to me and saying, ‘Your eyebrows and your hairstyle are telling us who the part is,’” Smith-Cameron said. “There are a couple of characters in season one who fell away because we either didn’t have enough meat for them to evolve or it wasn’t a good fit,” Mylod added. “But J. was a perfect fit. We, but basically J., evolved the character, and she made herself indispensable. She found a humor to the character, and a ruthlessness to the character, and, of course, through her friendship with Kieran, sliding us into that second-season relationship.”

“That Quasi-Dominatrix Maternal Sexual Connection”

“We spent the whole first season flirting,” co-star Kieran Culkin remembered. “I don’t know why that started happening, but J. is a tremendous flirt, so I’ll blame her.” Photo: HBO

There are a few sparks between Gerri and Roman when they meet in her first episode, but according to Mylod, the writers really got the idea to push the two together while filming Shiv’s wedding at the end of season one. By then, the show had gotten comfortable letting the actors improvise as they filmed and also with giving Gerri a little more zest as a character. She takes off her glasses, for instance, and does her hair neatly for nice events. “We were shooting that scene at the welcome party, and we got past the scripted dialogue, but, as ever, I’d kept the camera rolling, and it followed J. over to the bar. Kieran was sat there, and they went into a riff about how they liked their martinis,” Mylod said. “For me, that was a revelation. There was a spark between them, and I think that was the seed of where we went with that quasi-dominatrix maternal sexual connection.” 

“We spent the whole first season flirting,” Culkin remembered. “I don’t know why that started happening, but J. is a tremendous flirt, so I’ll blame her.” They had joked about how funny it would be if their characters eventually started hooking up, assuming it would never happen. But it was that specific moment of improv at the bar that brought their chemistry to the fore. “I made some sort of joke about her tortoise, like, ‘Can I borrow your tortoise for the weekend? I’m gonna fuck it’ — I don’t remember what it was,” Culkin said. “Then she dismissed me and I walked away, and I turned and looked at her butt. I kept walking, and apparently she had turned and looked at my butt, and that made the people at the monitors laugh.” The moment was cut in editing, but it was enough to amuse Mylod and the writers, who used the thread to develop their relationship in ensuing episodes.

As Gerri became a key player in the Roys’ power struggles in season two, the Gerri-Roman pairing took off, much to Smith-Cameron’s surprise. In episode four, a phone call for advice morphs into verbal dom-sub phone sex, with Gerri berating Roman over the phone as he starts to masturbate, to her shock and seeming amusement. “I was nonplussed at the beginning, because I thought it made sort of weird sense for Roman, but I couldn’t make sense of it for Gerri,” Smith-Cameron said, “and then I realized that’s the most interesting thing for Gerri to be feeling: What? What are you doing at the other end of the phone?” In episode five, he comes to her room in the middle of the night during a family trip to the Waspy Pierce compound and gets her to shit-talk him as he jacks off in the bathroom. As Matland noted, the costume design teases the audience with the question of whether Gerri anticipated the encounter because she opens the door to him wearing a beautiful set of pajamas: “How much did the character prepare for what’s about to happen? It’s encouraged to confuse us.”

When Gerri lays into Roman over the phone, she cycles through a series of very Succession-y insults, including lines like “revolting little worm” and “slime puppy,” all improvisations on Smith-Cameron’s part. “I had given it a little thought, just of some protestations of some kind, in case they didn’t call ‘cut,’” she said. “It makes you think about what happens before and after the scene to film that way because it becomes part of your preparation as an actor to do all the follow-through.” Those scenes are as darkly funny as the rest of the show, but they’re not meant to be silly, and the actors play the emotional stakes seriously. “It would be very easy to take it into some sort of farcical place,” Mylod said. “But J. and Kieran have a bullshit sensor where they can push the boundaries without stepping over into something that’s unreal.”

Gerri Leans In

“Brian Cox and I have wondered if in their past they’d had some kind of affair,” Smith-Cameron said. Photo: HBO

As she embarked on her flirtation with Roman, Gerri developed more confidence as a character and got a bit of a glow-up. “As the relationship with Roman began to unfold, Gerri started wearing her hair down more,” Smith-Cameron said. “It’s not that we plotted this out, but her look just evolved along those lines.” After researching the lives of women who are general counsels for powerful corporations, she and Matland realized that Gerri would probably have a much larger clothing budget. For season two, they moved from Brooks Brothers to brands like Armani, Max Mara, Stuart Weitzman, and Scanlan Theodore. They imagined that, while Gerri might not pay much attention to fashion trends herself, she’s an ambitious person who probably decided she needs a stylist to dress her. “It was a way we could ‘money’ her up without losing her integrity,” Matland said.

With that new wardrobe came a new avenue for Gerri to express her confidence: her rings, which became her new signature. “That is her statement piece,” Matland said. “Those are the things she buys for herself when she’s traveling or picks up in department stores when she’s buying something else.” The rings, a collection of pieces from different designers that Matland styles in myriad combinations, project aspects of Gerri’s personality that had developed over the course of the show: She’s guarded and yet a little cheeky. “It’s where she feels she can play without being obvious,” Matland said. “Her jewelry reflects her trying to be severe, while there’s also a playful, whimsical part of her character.”

That guarded playfulness manifests in very different ways with the various Roy family members. With Logan, Gerri seems to be the rare member of the boardroom who can deflect some of his anger. During the company retreat in Hungary, for instance, he doesn’t force her into the game of Boar on the Floor despite her admitting doubts about a deal with Pierce. “Brian Cox and I have wondered if in their past they’d had some kind of affair,” Smith-Cameron said, “though she speaks of her husband, and in my mind, the husband worked for them. But the idea was that maybe after he died, there’d been something. Or before he died. But all it served to me now was an unspoken bond.” It’s a backstory that is left ambiguous in the show so far, an uneasy alliance that has also been informed, like so many things on Succession, by the dynamic between the two actors. “There is such mutual respect between the two actors. Both of them are so solidly professional that that dynamic happened organically,” Mylod said. “Brian understands the status of J.’s character, the power she has, and how much he needs her. I’m not sure that Logan likes her, but he certainly respects her.”

Gerri has had to be a canny navigator of the tempests within the family because she has no blood connection — and knows she could be booted out if things go wrong. Still, she has a better rapport with some family members than others. Despite serving as Shiv’s godmother, Gerri is particularly cold to her; when Shiv sarcastically asks for advice on her wedding night, Gerri says “Don’t let him die” like her own husband. That dynamic evolved from the way the show positioned Shiv as an outsider who believes it’s her duty to eliminate the company’s old ways of being, which makes Gerri, the ultimate company woman, “an obstacle to her progression,” as Mylod pointed out. “The others treat her as a resource, even Kendall,” Smith-Cameron noted. “Shiv doesn’t and is always a bit competitive. It’s too bad because Shiv could use a mentor like Gerri.”

The Climb

“In season three, we start to explore that character’s personal ambition,” says executive producer and director Mark Mylod. Photo: HBO

Succession stays centered on the Roy family, but as Gerri sneaks closer to power, it fills out more of her personal life and preferences. For instance, while working on the scenes at the RECNY gala in season one, Smith-Cameron decided that Gerri is “one of those assholes who would never drink the themed drink at an event and would make the bartender make her a martini, and if they didn’t have vermouth, make them go out and get it.” Now the props team keeps olives and martini glasses at the ready for Gerri scenes. “When we were filming in Lake Placid, there’s a scene where Roman drops by my room,” Smith-Cameron said of the “Argestes” episode set at a business conference. “I said, ‘What if she’s having a martini to decompress in her room?’ And they were like, Whup, ‘Here it is.’”

There’s also Gerri’s two adult daughters, figures Smith-Cameron slowly but surely conjured into the universe of the show. The idea came to her as she thought about two intimidating women she had known when she was younger: They had daughters themselves, and those daughters had grown up to be highly educated, very successful, and so totally terrified of their mothers that they moved across the country from them. Smith-Cameron brought the idea to Armstrong, who had assumed Gerri didn’t have any children. “It was left unresolved,” Smith-Cameron said, “and then in an improv in the Senate-hearing scene [the penultimate episode of season two], a democratic senator asked me if I had any children, so I said I had two grown daughters. They said, ‘How would you feel having them go on a Waystar cruise?’ And I said, ‘Well, now, given what’s come out, there isn’t a vacation anywhere with as much oversight.’ After they cut, Jesse came running out and said, ‘You got the daughters in!’” That particular bit did not make it into the show, but in the season-two finale, Karl accuses Gerri of flying her “daughters first class on the company coin,” and they live on with more direct references in season three. While filming in Italy for the end of the upcoming season, Smith-Cameron happened to look down at her prop phone. “It had a completely full contact list and a couple of women with the last name Kellman,” she said. “Oh, those are my daughters!

We’ll have to wait to see whichever blondes with glasses will play the spawn of Gerri (if those roles are ever cast), but it’s indicative of the character’s position within the Succession universe that she has gone from just another face in the boardroom to someone with a fleshed-out family history. As the show heads into season three, Gerri even appears on a poster for the series alongside Roman (and one of her rings, of course). She has developed a cult of devoted fans, especially online, which surprises Smith-Cameron, “but I love it.” She said, “It just blows my mind because she’s a mole woman. I don’t understand how anyone on the show has admirers, but Gerri is the least expected one.”

Part of the appeal of the character, Smith-Cameron assumes, is that Gerri is a good audience surrogate. She is always outside the Roy family, and while she’s trying to cling on to their power, she also has to react to and register their depravity. But Gerri has as much a desire to win as anyone else on the show, and as Mylod pointed out about the upcoming third season, she’ll start exerting that will more forcefully. “In season three, we start to explore that character’s personal ambition,” he said. Gerri could conceivably ally with several different members of the Roy family, and Mylod is interested in both how she’s keeping those options open and, crucially, what her ultimate goal is. In the season premiere, she’s named CEO. Even if that’s nominally the default choice, maybe it’s something she really wants by now. “I used to think it was just about survival with Gerri, but there’s more to it than that,” Mylod said. “I think there’s her own personal endgame as well.”

How Gerri Became a Key Player in the War of the Roys