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Broadway, besties and Brian Cox: A conversation with J. Smith-Cameron

J. Smith-Cameron would like you to know that she is not Succession’s Gerri Kellman. She gently corrects me when I slip up by describing her performance as the Roy family’s legal counsel and cut-throat consigliere as her ‘biggest’ role, and she is right to do so. The broadway-mainstay turned Succession scene stealer has had a fascinating career on both stage and screen, but recently she has been making time for one particular city that has become close to her heart: Oxford. 

Having first set foot in OX1 on a daytrip when filming the first season of Succession, Smith-Cameron was back in town for a talk at the Oxford Union to follow up on her headline appearance at Brasenose Arts Week last May. Her husband, Academy Award winning director and screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan “just loves it here. This is his idea of having a great time.” 

The two of them make up a certified showbiz power-couple, and have collaborated on screen multiple times, most notably in the 2011 epic movie Margaret, in which Smith-Cameron plays Joan, a veteran off-broadway actress. Smith-Cameron chuckles as she admits that “there’s a lot of similarities between the Joan character and me”. She maintains that Lonergan, or just Kenny to her, “tends to cast a lot of the same actors, but he doesn’t really write the parts for them.” She tells me that working with her spouse has its unique challenges: “he kind of took me for granted, but in a good way, you know?” The familiarity between the husband and wife duo meant that once the part was written, Lonergan put full trust in Smith-Cameron to take control of and develop the character, resulting in an incredible and highly acclaimed performance. 

J. Smith-Cameron’s ability to own her roles and flesh them out was pivotal to crafting Gerri Kellman into a fan-favourite character. “I don’t feel like I’m anything like [Gerri], but I did kind of make her up.” It’s impossible to think of Gerri without her iconically sharp glasses or the even sharper shoulder-pads of her power suits, both elements that Smith-Cameron personally brought to the role. Gerri’s no-nonsense personality was inspired by “two friends, both mothers of kids that went to school with my daughter, both in finance. They just have this very sarcastic and also very steely demeanour, and I just thought it was refreshing to see middle-aged women brooking no-one ever.” 

In real life, Smith-Cameron is far from the stone-cold killer she portrays on screen, but she has thought out the psyche of Gerri Kellman to the tiniest nuance. “There’s a quality that Gerri has that any confidence man has. I have to do two pitches: be saying one thing and rapidly thinking two steps ahead the whole time, and also trying to do that with a veneer of harmlessness.” When I ask her about Gerri’s role as godmother to Shiv Roy, Smith-Cameron replies that she “always found that as an interesting little aside, that [Gerri] is sort of actually part of the Roy family. It’s a family drama.” Reflecting on the series as a whole though, she reminds me that this fact“was sort of in the very first season and then forgotten, but that seems suitable, because it was as if none of those kids would care who the godparents were, or really even knew.I had sort of created that backstory that linked it all together”. 

However, Smith-Cameron was not the sole arbiter of what Gerri could and would do. When asked about her initial thoughts on the ill-fated love affair with Roman Roy, the actress told showrunner Jesse Armstrong that she believed that Gerri would “run a hundred miles an hour in the other direction”. Few viewers can forget Gerri calling the sleaziest Roy sibling a “slime puppy”, and Smith-Cameron offers me another damning assessment by saying that she “just can’t imagine anyone with [Gerri’s] gravitas being so swept off her feet by the likes of Roman Roy. He’s such a flibbertigibbet.” Fortunately for fans, she chose to put her trust in the writers who had  proven their ability to create  grippingly toxic and pyschosexual dynamics by enshrining TomGreg in the halls of Western canon. Smith-Cameron’s aversion to the idea was further reduced by the palpable on-screen chemistry she shared with co-star Kieran Culkin. She is almost indistinguishable from any other Succession fan, as she gleefully picks apart their relationship: “I don’t think she thinks of him as a sexual creature at all. But as time passed, I felt that Roman kind of got under her skin a little bit in spite of everything.” 

It comes as no surprise, then, that Smith-Cameron’s favourite scene to shoot was the last big interaction between her and Culkin’s characters. Roman’s attempted firing of Gerri finally allowed Smith-Cameron to let loose from Gerri’s typically reserved and measured temperament: “the thing I remember was being very dangerous and very very angry.” In one take, she even threw a bottle at Culkin, a creative liberty only afforded by the yearslong rapport she had built with the actor, having first met him on the set of her husband’s 2003 play This is Our Youth. 

Over the course of filming four award-winning seasons, Smith-Cameron tells me the whole cast and crew became “very attached to each other”. She describes Sarah Snook’s recent one-woman West End debut in The Picture of Dorian Gray as “dazzling, a real tour de force”, and tells me that she also has plans to see Jeremy Strong’s Tony-nominated performance in An Enemy of the People, but only after she catches Brian Cox in a Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Aside from the original cast, Smith-Cameron has grown particularly close to Zoe Winters, who plays Kerry in the final two seasons of the show, describing Winters as her “Succession bestie”.

Beyond her fellow actors, Smith-Cameron has heaps of praise for the showrunners. She agrees that the writing of Succession landed somewhere between stage and screen, with “language [that] was so heightened in scenes with real back and forth, whereas oftentimes in film and TV, you just have these little snippets, or sometimes there’s no words at all. People really had scenes and debates and they really used words, which is kind of refreshing.” Given the challenging task of mastering such fast-paced, quick-witted dialogue, Smith-Cameron notes that “it’s not by accident that a lot of the cast, really all the cast, had their roots in theatre.” 

Her favourite line in the show? The effortlessly chilling “but it doesn’t serve my interests” she delivers in the season 3 finale as she crushes the Roy siblings’ plans. Credit for that piece of dialogue goes, of course, to Jesse Armstrong, but the show’s creator isn’t entirely in Smith-Cameron’s good books: “that son of a bitch is never going to write a sequel to Succession.”

With my personal dreams of a Gerri-centred spin-off left in tatters, the question remains just what is next for J. Smith-Cameron. The answer is that she has no time for resting on her laurels, preferring to move on to the next project, as is the way of her industry. “You kind of have to keep starting over, you don’t get a job and stay there for years and decades. You have to keep going out and hunting for food: that’s perseverance.”

Up next on the agenda is to complete her conquest of the stage on both sides of the Atlantic, as she makes her West End debut as the eponymous Juno in Juno and the Paycock opposite Mark Rylance this coming October. Smith-Cameron’s excitement to take on the role is palpable, and the broad press coverage that her casting has received is testament to how much her profile has grown in recent years. Looking at a longer-term picture, Smith-Cameron tells me that she and her “Succession bestie”, Zoe Winters, are looking at getting behind the camera by writing their own project together. Smith-Cameron is tight-lipped when probed for any further detail. “I don’t think I should reveal,” she demurs, with the enigmatic rationale that “if we talk about it too much it evaporates.”

Evaporating screenplays aside, you immediately get an impression of total normalcy when talking to J. Smith-Cameron. She name drops Matthew Broderick and Mark Ruffalo in such a way that it makes it feel as if you too could be their friend. She is not one to lavish in her celebrity status; she comes across simply as someone who loves their craft, and does it exceptionally well. The ice-cold coyness of Gerri Kellman is a million miles away from Smith-Cameron’s natural affability, but the actress’ understanding of the character is down to a precise science. She can clearly be counted as one of Gerri’s biggest fans: she tells me that one of the friends who inspired the character is currently looking for a job. Her advice? “Oh, just tell them that the person who played Gerri based the character on you.”

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