Whereas the two men still struggle to dodge the Roy family’s daggers, Gerri has learned that in such an environment, it’s best to learn how to throw them yourself. The character, played by theater veteran J. Smith-Cameron, has become a fan favorite for her snippy one-liners and slight unpredictability.
“She’s the one character I can think of who is really at the heart of the power infrastructure, but she’s not actually a Roy,” Smith-Cameron recently told The Washington Post. “She’s there by merit and by skill and by earning it. There’s a part of her that I’d say is always looking out for No. 1 and for a way to finesse the situation so she stays alive in the game. It’s not a given, the way it is for Kendall, apparently, or Roman.”
While Gerri therefore aims to stay in the good graces of aging Waystar Royco chief Logan Roy (Brian Cox), her relationship with the less powerful, foul-mouthed Roman (Kieran Culkin), Logan’s youngest son, is more playful. Smith-Cameron describes a moment from earlier this season, in which Gerri retrieves a hungover Roman from his bedroom during a corporate retreat, as “almost parental, but there’s a twinkle in her eye. There’s a sort of intimacy. … They’re both uncomfortable with it, but they clock it.”
Showrunner Jesse Armstrong hit the gas on that dynamic in the following weeks, a testament to the show’s ability to keep viewers on their toes. In last week’s episode, after Roman fails to have phone sex with his girlfriend (Caitlin FitzGerald), he calls Gerri and pleasures himself while she peppers him with insults, like calling him a “slime puppy.” In Sunday night’s, they re-create the bizarre situation in person, with only a bathroom door separating them, while staying at the residence of a rival media family.
It’s a rather jaw-dropping scenario for Gerri to find herself in, given how guarded she has been in the past season and a half. Smith-Cameron still doesn’t know what to make of it, having only found out about the writers’ plans for Gerri and Roman after she was directed to “cozy up” to Culkin while filming the first episode of Season 2: “Go on,” she recalled being told. “It’s a little foreshadowing.”
“They had this idea that the relationship was going to evolve, but I still didn’t ever really know where it was going,” she continued. “I’ve never really known how to think about it. Gerri is an extremely careful person who wouldn’t ever consciously do anything rash that could come back to haunt her. And yet, I think she’s always into cultivating business relationships, or she’s always trying to find her hook.”
Could she be manipulating Roman for professional gain? Perhaps. Such a concept is never out of the realm of possibility for characters in “Succession,” who are known to act often and furiously in their own self-interest. But Gerri does seem to genuinely care for Roman in a rather perverse way, and vice versa.
Their first on-screen interaction took place in the second episode of the series, while Logan was still in the hospital. Gerri swings by because of her professional ties to the Roys, but also as a friend of the family, given that she and her late husband were named godparents to Shiv (Sarah Snook), Roman’s sister. Roman, teaming up with Shiv to prevent their brother Kendall (Jeremy Strong) from becoming interim CEO, approaches Gerri to see how she would respond to being offered the position.
“You do a good job, Gerri. You’re a really good job doer,” he begins, quickly admitting that he “suck[s] at the whole corporate flirt thing.” She declines the offer — probably because, as she eventually reveals to Kendall, Waystar Royco is in major debt — but Roman still compliments her by describing her as “stone-cold” and “killer.” She raises her eyebrows and remarks, “Who says you don’t know how to flirt?”
The show’s writers sometimes seek inspiration from how the cast members improvise while filming, or how they behave around each other in real life, Smith-Cameron offered as a theory on where the new dynamic between Gerri and Roman might have come from. The two actors interact with ease, as they’ve known each other for a while; Culkin has worked multiple times with Smith-Cameron’s husband, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, including on the 2011 film “Margaret.”
It’s not the only way in which the actress would have shaped the character: Gerri, after all, was initially written as a man’s part. While not nearly as powerful as Logan — who, largely due to Cox’s portrayal, dictates the company’s direction with a certain Shakespearean thunder that Smith-Cameron likens to “King Lear” — Gerri still has a strong hand in devising corporate strategy. “Succession” has been praised for its competent female characters, who rise above the sea of man-children.
“The individual women that they’ve written are just powerful in that they’re so specific,” Smith-Cameron said. “Shiv and [Logan’s formidable wife] Marcia — they’re all so quirky. There’s a certain power in the sensitivity of those characters being not cliche. … They’re rich characters. They’re not just ‘the girls.’”
Gerri might have let her hair down this season — both literally and figuratively — but Smith-Cameron reiterated that her character probably isn’t doing so with complete abandon.
“She’s fielding it,” Smith-Cameron concluded of Gerri’s evolving relationship with Roman. “It’s a combination of being amused and intrigued. She’s an innately ambitious person, so I guess she’s also wondering if there’s some advantage to it. … That’s her whole life’s work: to stay in the forefront of that company, to stay alive. She’s like a cat who always lands on her feet somehow.”