'Succession' Star Unpacks the Show’s Strangest Relationship and That Cringe-Inducing Dinner Scene

SUCCESSION S02E03 Still J. Smith-Cameron - Publicity - H 2019
Peter Kramer/HBO

Succession's Gerri is beginning to break out from behind the shadow of her tyrannical boss.

In the latest episode of the HBO satire-drama on Sunday, J. Smith-Cameron's general counsel to Waystar Royco not only snaps back at her terrifying boss Logan Roy (Brian Cox), but she and Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin) deepen their strangely sexual relationship, initiated in an episode prior. When Roman seeks her out for a reprisal of the phone sex they in the fourth episode, Gerri at first appears disgusted by his pass at her — before making it clear her revulsion is play-acted to turn Roman on. She orders him to go to the bathroom "until you have done something with yourself" while continuing to berate him.

These events represent a turn for the character, who was a savvy corporate operative largely loyal to Logan in the first season (as it behooved her to be). By the second season, however, Gerri, like Sarah Snook's Shiv, pushes back publicly against the aging media titan — she's not a fan of his interest in buying rival media company PGM — while secretly helping Roman learn more aspects of the business. Gerri knows on which side her bread is buttered, of course, but still stands up to Logan during the third episode's hazing session in Hungary and is spared the humiliating competition to which Tom, Greg and her colleague Karl are subjected.

This rebellion comes from the fact that Gerri is "feeling a little bit more vulnerable than she's used to feeling in terms of her status with the company," Smith-Cameron says in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. "That colors everything that unfolds, including her burgeoning new relationship with Roman."

In an interview with Smith-Cameron that took place before the series' fifth episode aired, the True Blood actor explained that she's known Culkin for a long time — they worked together on Margaret, written and directed by Smith-Cameron's husband Kenneth Lonergan, who also directed Culkin on Broadway's This Is Our Youth — which helped their rapport on set. She also discussed the fifth episode's "cringe-y" dinner scene, Jeremy Shamos' improvisational skills and what else we can expect from Gerri this season.

Did you ever foresee Gerri's relationship with Roman Roy playing out the way it has or did that come as a total surprise?

It was both. By the time it got to the end of season one, it seemed as if our characters had developed a rapport. And at the end of season one, there was one time when we had finished our dialogue at one of the receptions [scenes] in England, and we just had a little repartee that isn’t in the show, but I think the [production] recorded it all; they didn't say "cut." I was drinking a "martini" and then we had a little riff about how you can't order martinis in Europe outside of London. He walked away, and I looked back as if to look at his ass, to check him out. And apparently he did the same thing to me. I guess the writers were sort of amused by it — that's what I heard. They didn't know how to use it in those episodes and that story arc but they noted it.  

Cut to us shooting [episodes] 201 and the scenes that were meant to be in Japan, where Gerri and Roman are doing damage-control press and meetings because of his satellite disaster. We’re looking on the iPad to see Kendall's statement about the takeover, and Mark Mylod, who's the director, says, "Cozy up to him, get quite close to him; no, really cozy up, a little foreshadowing.” And then we cut, and I asked, “What on earth do you mean, foreshadowing?” And he went, "Oh my god, no one's told you? There’s going to be something that unfolds between Gerri and Roman." I was always on the edge of my seat, waiting to see what would unfold with Gerri and Roman as the season goes on.

How did you make sense of their relationship?

I think from Roman’s point of view, he’s got some very complicated sexuality issues, and from Gerri’s point of view, I think it has do with that fact that, either consciously or unconsciously, she's a little bit out of the inner circle. She used to totally have Logan's trust and this season she feels that "he doesn’t want to hear what I have to say. He keeps me around, but he doesn't like hearing [honesty]." I think maybe an alliance with someone in the hierarchy is beneficially useful to both Gerri and Roman, whatever their ambitions turn out to be.

How did you and Kieran Culkin play that scene where you're having that illicit conversation between a door? Was it hard to get right?

It sure was hard. I am completely in awe of Kieran Culkin: He is someone with amazing facility for being spontaneous and extremely accurate. I don’t know what was difficult for him or easy for him, but he seems uninhibited by all things — he's always doing revolting stuff on the show.

For my part, I didn’t really know how to play it. I said to Michelle Matland, our costume designer, who is really good at thinking outside the box about things, I went, "I just don't know how to think about this relationship," and she goes, “Oh, I imagine Gerri doesn’t, either.” And I thought, "Well, that is something to say." Even though you have to play your intention, what if your intention is changing 180 degrees moment to moment? You just have to trust that and try to navigate that. I don't know how well I conveyed that, but that's how I made sense of it.

Episode 5 was very intricately worked out, where it starts with [Roman] being very crushed with what Shiv blurted out around the dinner table, and then he makes his ulterior motive known and I’m horrified and I realize the more I scold him the more turned on he gets. I think it's very moment-to-moment for Gerri. It flips on a dime back and forth being almost a little seductive and then a little disapproving and then incredulous and then back around again. I don't know if she's totally 100 percent interested, but she’s bemused by it and maybe thinks, even though he’s kind of a ridiculous character, that he’s funny, charismatic and he's a Roy, so maybe there's part of her that is genuinely amused and impressed by that development.

How much of the interactions between the two power families in this episode — the Pierces and the Roys — was improvised and how much was scripted?

There is always a lot of both. Around the dinner table, which I find to be one of the all-time most cringe-y, dangerous Roy family disasters, with Tabitha and Roman talking about their sex life in front of the Pierces and Shiv blurting out what she does at the dinner table, it was incredibly tense and funny and dangerous. Even though the two families are out of sync with each other, among the actors there was a great feeling of joviality on the set because there was a great amount of respect for our guest actors, all of those people who play the Pierce family. On my end of the table, Jeremy [Shamos] was just nonstop improvising, as we had to, because while the dialogue was going on, we were having all the side conversations. Jeremy was just absolutely hilarious: We were choking on our dinner and biting our cheeks trying not to break character and laugh at Jeremy. And so it was this really balanced evening of being really impressed and amused by your fellow actors, and then being on a tightrope in terms of what was being revealed in the family dynamic.

As we see in this episode, Gerri is one of the few characters who can take a lot of abuse from Logan Roy and also give it right back to him. Do you think she has a few lessons to teach the Roy children?

Definitely. Part of what’s so irksome about the Roys is they feel above the law, like some other real-life dynastic families we know of. It doesn’t occur to them that they have anything to learn or that they are ever in jeopardy. I don’t know that they're listeners, but I do think Gerri does [listen]. Maybe Roman would listen to Gerri, which is maybe why they have a strange, twisted sympatico. He's on the rise: He's tired of being thought of as the buffoon, and he's quite clever, just a Little Lord Fauntleroy; no one takes him seriously, and I think he’s getting close to having had enough of that. I think you see from episode three, when we’re in Hungary and I give him advice, that the dynamic picks up.

On a more general level, tell me about your first reactions to Gerri's evolving role this season.

I noticed right away in episode 201 that Gerri did not quite have the status with Logan that it felt like she had had last year. It became clear to me as we began work on the season that that’s how it is when you work for Logan, for everyone: it blows hot and cold and you're in and out of favor and it shifts about. I think that's because Gerri is a little bit more outspoken, finally, about how she feels about trying to acquire the Pierce company. I think he doesn't want to hear that, but I think it's in the back of his mind that Gerri is knowledgeable and realistic. Gerri is feeling a little bit more vulnerable than she's used to feeling in terms of her status with the company, so I think that colors everything that unfolds, including her burgeoning new relationship with Roman. They both have a common goal, which is what's their place of fitting into the hierarchy at Waystar?

Where can we expect Gerri to be headed this season?

You know at the end of Casablanca when you see Claude Rains and Humphrey Bogart watching the plane go off with Ingrid Bergman, and Bogart says to Rains, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”? I feel like that is beginning to be the overall feeling between Gerri and Roman. However much the romance or sexuality is a component in it, it remains to be seen. But I think they’re beginning to really be allies and part of it is deliberate and part of it is unconscious. Part of it is a real, interesting, symbiotic connection that is unfolding throughout the season, not a deliberate business strategy. Also, the business is petering in this really dangerous area, and I think that that gives Gerri room to exert her expertise down the line.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.