How improv created that Gerri-Roman chemistry on ‘Succession’

When “Succession” was showered with 14 Emmy acting nominations for the show’s third season, it not only broke the drama series’ record of 12 in the same year, held by “The West Wing” — as did The West Wing any Series record of 13 in the same year held jointly by “Roots” and “Rich Man, Poor Man” — it made a first-time nominee out of series regular J. Smith-Cameron, the Roy family general counsel Gerri Kellman , plays and who’d previously been overlooked in seasons 1 and 2.

During a video call from the East Hampton, NY home she shares with her husband — playwright and Academy Award-winning writer-director Kenneth Lonergan — the veteran stage actress says that while she’s “as excited as I can be ‘ but she has no idea why the television academy decided to recognize her work this year.

“I’m a little bit proud that I basically created Gerri,” continues Smith-Cameron (née Jeannie Smith), adding that in the original pilot script Jerry Kellman was simply one of several male suits whose personality has yet to be defined. “But I was cast in that recurring role and somehow managed to land in every single episode this season. I came up with this little figure. The glasses were my idea. The pursed lips, the eyebrows, the contempt I had for the Roys. I brought that with me, and the writers really went for it. They really answered that call.”

In Season 3, not only was Gerri named interim CEO of the Roy’s media empire Waystar Royco, but she also ventured further down the dangerous path of her provocative but inappropriate flirtation with the most recent Roy heir, the award-winning Bad Boy Roman became Perfection by Kieran Culkin. Both storylines brought Smith-Cameron’s Gerri to the fore, which no doubt caused the Emmy nominees to finally take notice of the actor’s work. The latter story arc was a direct result of Smith-Cameron and Culkin’s longstanding relationship.

Over the years, Culkin had appeared in a handful of Lonergan’s plays and films, some of which starred Smith-Cameron. Although the two never acted against each other, “there was a lot of camaraderie,” she says. “The first scene I shot in ‘Succession’ was with Kieran. I remember being so grateful because I kind of knew him, knew his rhythms.”

Late in Season 1, during one of the usual filmed improvisations that the cast of “Succession” were beginning to enjoy, Smith-Cameron and Culkin ended a scene by both intuitively turning around to admire the other’s butt. Their odd chemistry was undeniable, the show’s writers loved the shtick, and that’s how it stuck.

“As soon as we heard we were going to have this subplot, we feigned flirting on set,” recalls Smith-Cameron. “It was clearly not a me-too situation. It helped break the ice for all those weird scenes that we had to play.”

“She’s my mommy friend and she calls me her baby man,” says Culkin, who calls from the set just before filming a big scene with Smith-Cameron in Season 4 in what he describes as a really tough episode . “What’s pretty funny about J. is that part of her process is just doubting herself and having to speak absolutely everything when she’s always, always really great in every moment. … She is an absolutely great scene partner.”

If the global phenomenon “Succession” brought Smith-Cameron an otherworldly level of fame that she’s still processing, the Gerri-Roman flirtation catapulted her into cougar/MILF territory. “I know it mostly because I’m on Twitter,” says the actor with a grin. Expressing how wonderful it is that both she and her Gerri have entered the canon of women of a certain age who are rightly viewed as silver sex symbols, Smith-Cameron says, “I agree with you. I think it’s great. … There’s a new category of knowing, tough, experienced women between 40 and 75 who really appeal to men and Women.”

Not surprisingly, Smith-Cameron and Culkin have both been sworn to secrecy about what’s in store for the Roys – and Gerri and Roman – in Season 4. “Instinctively, he really got under her skin,” she says. “I think he does have promise. I had this line in Season 3: “If anyone is Logan, it’s Roman.” He’s got that spontaneous, reckless troublemaker instinct, like Logan. And that’s why I really think she wanted to channel the sexual energy into an impressive business partnership.”

That aside, Smith-Cameron also understands that Gerri — who had clearly asked Roman to stop sexting her — feels newly betrayed for mistakenly sending NSFW images of his anatomy meant for her to his dad’s phone sent, unleashing the anger of the older Roy.

“After Season 3 is over, I’m not sure what to wish for because he would have to prove himself to me,” she says. “It was a big betrayal of her, so I don’t know how you can pick up the pieces of it. I can’t speak for Kieran, but I feel like there’s still a lot between them. There’s probably still some sexual tension there. It would be a shame if more didn’t happen, but I don’t know what they’re up to.” How improv created that Gerri-Roman chemistry on ‘Succession’

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