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As tensions mount in Succession’s final season, Brooke Theis talks to J Smith-Cameron about gender roles and her character’s complex appeal


J Smith-Cameron would like to make one thing clear: none of the characters in HBO’s cult series Succession is a role model. But, amid the scandals, the backstabbi­ng and the toxic machismo of the corporatio­n in which her character Gerri Kellman exists, she emerges on top. As the right-hand woman to Brian Cox’s media tycoon Logan Roy, she has an iron fist in a velvet glove, and a quiet demeanour that belies a razor-sharp brain. Little wonder she has become a favourite with the show’s enormous fan base, who watch her gently pull the strings while Logan’s squabbling heirs – Kendall, Roman and Shiv – lose their heads.

‘No one’s heroic in this story; they’re all horrible, amoral plotters and schemers,’ says Smith-Cameron, who was born Jeanie but goes by only her initial profession­ally. ‘Gerri’s no different, so I’ve resisted ever thinking of her as a representa­tive for women.’ Her South Carolina lilt is just detectable, despite her move to New York more than four decades ago. Since then, she has built an admirable career, including turns in the original Broadway cast of Lend Me A Tenor, the legal series The Good Wife and the psychodram­a Margaret, written and directed by her husband, the Oscar-winning playwright Kenneth Lonergan.

When she auditioned for Succession in 2017, the part of Gerri didn’t exist – instead, the script had ‘Gerry’, a male lawyer initially created to explain the legal wranglings of the company to the audience. In order to diversify Logan’s senior employees, the writers decided to change the sex of the character, so Gerri inherited many of those original lines. ‘It wasn’t written as if the men were suddenly talking to a lady instead of another man, so Gerri often winces in disgust at the vulgar things they say, but she isn’t derailed by them,’ says Smith-Cameron, who is skilled at using her body language to show flickers of disdain. ‘She’s living in this very coarse version of a man’s world, and somehow she’s weathering it.’

Throughout the three previous seasons, with Logan’s health in decline, Gerri has been earmarked to take over as Waystar Royco’s CEO several times, but comes to realise this is not something she wants. ‘It’s a survival game, and she knows the person wearing the crown is the one in most danger,’ says Smith-Cameron, whose portrayal of the character strips away the lustre from the ‘girl boss’ ideal to present something much more real. ‘People describe Gerri as invulnerab­le, but I don’t see her that way at all. Really, she’s a nervous wreck.’ The moments her humanity is exposed are subtle and often improvised – for example, we see the character chewing her nails or her leg jittering under the boardroom table.

Also unplanned was Gerri’s erotic frisson with Roman (played by Kieran Culkin), which came about after the cameras caught the two actors exchanging a spontaneou­s look while still in character at the end of a scene. ‘I felt completely blindsided by that,’ says Smith-Cameron, laughing. ‘This sort of dominatrix comes out. It’s not her true nature, and [the connection] puts her in great jeopardy, but somewhere in the back of her brain, she’s thinking, “How can I use this to advance my position?”’

As the eagerly anticipate­d final season of Succession airs, Smith-Cameron reveals that we will see Gerri and Roman’s affair continue down its risky road – much like the future of the company, which remains uncertain as the show approaches its critical point. ‘Everything ratchets up to a severe storm warning, more than it has before,’ she says. One thing we can feel confident about is that, as ever, Gerri will be one step ahead of the rest.

The new season of ‘Succession’ is currently on Sky and Now.

 ?? ?? J Smith-Cameron. Left: in ‘Succession’
J Smith-Cameron. Left: in ‘Succession’
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