“Me and My Evil Twin”: Succession’s Brian Cox and J. Smith-Cameron on Season 3
Succession’s third season opens with the Roy family in shambolic disarray, joyfully described by Waystar-Royco’s CFO as “full Baskin Robbins 31 flavors of fuck.”
The family business is in immense legal, financial and emotional jeopardy—but one threat that doesn’t rear its head this season is COVID. The pandemic wildly delayed Succession’s third season, which was scheduled to begin production just as the U.S. went into quarantine. In March 2020, on the weekend before the country shut down, Brian Cox sat in a Los Angeles hotel room critiquing then-President Donald Trump and asserting that the series is about “the long death of the patriarchy.” His character, Logan Roy, “will go out with guns blazing,” he told me back then with a wry smile.
A year and half later, Succession season three is finally hitting HBO and Cox is talking to me via Zoom along with co-star J. Smith-Cameron, who plays Logan’s ever-faithful corporate associate, Gerri Roman. There’s no hint of COVID in the the show’s fictional timeline, though I couldn’t help wondering whether Waystar Royco’s ATN network would politicize the crisis like some real-life right-wing media outlets have.
“That’s up to the editorial of ATN,” Cox declares, momentarily transforming into Logan Roy before my eyes. “If they do, it’s their decision. I will stand by whatever decision they make.” Eyes twinkling, Smith-Cameron chips in, “He doesn’t like to cramp their style.”
Hear more of the interview with Cox and Smith-Cameron, and a full discussion of the season premiere, on the latest episode of Still Watching:
The question of who daddy loves most still hangs over Succession this season, but there are other existential issues looming. Can the Roys keep control of the company? Which family members will end up in jail? Can Tom and Shiv keep their marriage together? And will Kendall ever rap again?
Although Gerri has become a fan favorite thanks to her darkly kinky relationship with Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin), the unspoken bond between Logan and Gerri increasingly feels like a key element of the show. Both Cox and Smith-Cameron are consummate theater actors who bring an exquisite level of subtlety to these very different roles. Below, they talk to V.F. about their characters’ emotional backstories, ethical lines and next moves.
Vanity Fair: Season three starts literally up in the air, destination unknown for Logan and his entourage. When asked about what Logan is thinking at that point, Gerri says, “He’s talking about his mom a lot.” Is Logan wobbling, as he might say?
Brian Cox: There’s no question he’s shaken, if not stirred. And I think it suddenly dawned on him what’s happened. Isn’t it funny that as soon as he says, “You’re not a killer,” to Kendall, [Kendall] goes out and kills him? I mean, it’s so obvious. And in a way, that’s partly why he’s amused and partly why that whole Mona Lisa smile [in the last moment of the season two finale]. But I think he’s prepared for anything, really.
It just suddenly occurred to me, from the viewer’s point of view, we never hear him talk about his mother. So it’s an interesting idea that he’s talked about his mother to J., who probably even knew his mother, because she was probably around at that time. In a way, things [that] are personal all happen off stage. We never see it.
How would you describe the relationship between Logan and Gerri?
J. Smith-Cameron: A bit like an old married couple. I feel like they’ve worked together in very close scrapes many times to good advantage over the years. And they are a kind of yin and yang equation that works out very well for the company. He is the inspired maverick, and she’s the careful person who dots the I’s and crosses the T’s and keeps everything tidy and in order.
I made up this backstory, which we haven’t really discussed, but I imagine that Gerri had a husband a little bit older than she was, or maybe significantly, who might’ve been a colleague or a financial advisor, or someone you played golf with that you liked. And so, you hired me kind of— I was part of his legal team, maybe as a young woman, and maybe we never quite had an affair, because of the husband. And by the time he passed away, that moment had passed, but maybe there was a flirtation or an attraction. There’s definitely a bond there.
Cox: I think the thing about Logan is the one person he really trusts is J.—Gerri, I mean. He behaves appallingly to her, and he’s very offhand and very presumptive with her. But I do think at the end of the day, they’ve been through it together.
Smith-Cameron: It appears to me, from my character’s point of view, that you’re surrounded by yes-men, and you’re desperate to kind of get the temperature, and that Gerri—albeit I choose my words very carefully, and I might be scared out of my wits—but that I can be relied on to give you an honest read.
Gerri seemed like she was leaning towards Kendall’s camp at times in previous seasons. And this time around, she very much sticks with Logan. Is it safer for her?
Smith-Cameron: I think that Kendall seems to be a total loose cannon to Gerri. He seems doomed to me. No matter how exasperating Logan may be for Gerri at times, she knows his strengths are just exactly opposite of hers. She’s not the same kind of risk taker but he’s always right about this. So if push comes to shove, I will always put my bottom dollar on him. And I know there was a point in season one, the awful Thanksgiving dinner where he’s bad to the grandson, and I talk to Kendall kind of surreptitiously on the balcony and say, “I’ve seen all I need to see”—that vote of no confidence where I’m briefly on their team. But when push comes to shove, I just almost instinctively step back across the line.
She’s very devoted to Logan, and it’s because he has something. He’s some kind of business genius that she can’t put her finger on, and she trusts it. And then she sees a flicker of that in Roman that she hopes to foster.
Cox: And I think also Roman, he’s the loose and hidden cannon in the whole family. I really do think that, because he’s shown certain considerable things, particularly in dealing with the kidnapping, and seeing through the fallacy of that money. That’s there; you can’t move that now because he’s done that. We can’t go on about what happens [later this season], but there’s a moment in the show which [happens] because of what Logan feels about [Gerri]. He’s a bit rude about it, but he protects her.
Roman did start to come into his own in season two, and the sexy Gerri-Roman relationship was very exciting. I noticed HBO put out promo photos of duos for season three, and Gerri and Roman’s was definitely among the most popular, if not the most popular. How much room is there for improv in those scenes with you together, J?
Smith-Cameron: Quite a lot of room. The whole [flirtatious] dynamic came out of an improv that wasn’t used, but was observed [by the writers]. And Brian will agree, I’m sure, that Kieran is a kind of improv genius. He is a genius. And he’s also incredibly quick with lines. So not only do they write him what they call alternate lines to try—pages of them that he learns quickly—but he also can just improv delightfully. And his character is improvisational as well. He doesn’t check himself, everything comes right out of his mouth. So I think that that whole relationship was actually born out of Roman’s improvisational nature, and Kieran’s improvisational nature. The writers got a kick out of that idea and ran with the ball.
Cox: The interesting thing about [Kieran] is he had never improvised before. For years he clearly had these talents, but nobody asked him. It was like an open field day for him because suddenly, these talents, which he was very nervous of… You cannot compliment Kieran, by the way; he doesn’t like compliments. But that’s what’s interesting about him, to see how he’s just expanded in the role. And of course, their relationship is just a wonderful, funny and original thing. It’s probably the most original thing in the show, that relationship.
Smith-Cameron: And Brian, I think that you and Kieran have this same thing in common, which is rare: they’re both very released and free as actors. And I’m not saying that to butter him up, but it’s really true. I think the whole cast is very skillful, but these two have a sort of freedom and ease where they can have a spontaneity in a moment that just takes your breath away. So I think he kind of takes after the old man in that way.
Cox: Very much father/son in that way, yeah.
The show has these amazing group scenes and there’s some in this episode. Those scenes kind of give everybody a chance to spread out and have some fun. Are they tightly choreographed?
Smith-Cameron: There is this leitmotif to the show, which is: there’s Logan Roy, and then this ship of fools. There’s like this motley crew running around, not knowing what the fuck is going on and bumping into each other. We see that circus every episode in some combination, several times. And it’s one of the joys of the show. And it’s very Jesse Armstrong-ish. It’s very Jesse.
Cox: It’s genius. It absolutely is genius. And of course, Mark [Mylod, the director] is so good at photographing that and really getting that. He does this thing called the freebie, which drives me nuts, because I always think it’s a freebie, you know? I always work like that.
The freebie is when you just let it go and do it the way you want?
Smith-Cameron: The first scene I ever shot for the show in episode two of season one, we did the scene, and then I don’t think he coined the phrase freebie quite yet, because it was very early on. He said, “Okay, this time, just mess it up.” He’s like, “Just put it in your own words a bit.” So it’s messy by design. And sometimes people who aren’t as free as Kieran and Brian find unexpected things bubble up from the freebie.
So many actors in the cast have stage experience, which isn’t always true in television.
Cox: Our show, there’s an improvising feel about it. But there’s always clarity from the actors, because they are real, real actors.
Smith-Cameron: In theater, there’s a beginning, middle and an end, and there’s very high stakes. And each episode is a little like a separate play with the beginning, middle and end and terribly high stakes. And so, theater actors do have this commitment to roll up your sleeves and go for broke. And I think that, really, all of us that I know of have theater training.
The Roy’s business is under investigation. Gerri is asked to sway the White House and maybe lean on the DOJ. What kind of ethics does she have?
Smith-Cameron: I think she has a lawyers’ ethics, like: if I can argue it, it’s ethical. She knows the government is that way, too. Even though they’re supposed to be run by laws, we can see that a lot of times they feel above the law, our politicians. And this show kind of exposes that. So I think she knows exactly who she’s talking to. I also feel like I’m sent in on a bit of a doomed mission, but Gerri’s often with Logan, like, “Play me, coach, I’ll give it a try.”
Cox: Gerri is the ethical face of Waystar RoyCo. She really is. And that’s what Logan understands, is that people believe Gerri. And she never lies. She just slightly obfuscates.
Logan and Kendall are again at war. It’s interesting to me that Logan doesn’t immediately decide to use Kendall’s deadly car accident against him.
Cox: I don’t think he’ll be using it, because in a way he understands how fragile his son is. He’s still deeply irritated, and the sense of betrayal, it’s beyond reason. But I do think at the end of the day, he has an ethical thought about that.
Smith-Cameron: Brian, people are always asking you: does Logan love his children? I absolutely concur with you that [he] absolutely, passionately does love them. [He] also sees them with a cold and objective eye, knows what their limitations are. But I think he really, really loves Kendall.
Cox: There’s no question about it. He does love his children, and that’s what makes it doubly hard for him because he doesn’t express that love. He’s never been expressive, because actually the truth of the matter is he’s never had that love expressed to him. The kids are very important, which is why they’re doubly disappointing, because he keeps hoping.
People go on about what a horrible man he is, and I go, “Well, actually, if you look at it, all he’s done is to want a successor, and he’s wanted it from his own family, and he’s done his desperate best to get that. With [Shiv] in the Pierce household, if she could just shut the fuck up, it would’ve all been okay—but no, she always opens her mouth and puts a big foot in it. That’s her problem. [She] becomes untrustworthy. Of course he’s vile, he’s horrible. He has all his bombast about him. But there’s also a tight rope that he’s also walking.
I can tell you have a lot of affection for your characters.
Cox: I think it’s necessary, because they’re complicated. There’s no question that every character has their demons. At the same time we love their humanity. They are full of the flaws and full of all of that—of course that goes to Jesse [Armstrong] and the team. As J. rightly said, they did that first improvisation and they pick it up and they say, “Ah, yes, we can take that forward.” I offer them stuff and they say, “Fuck off!”
Smith-Cameron: It’s a little bit like a National Geographic special, and they’re watching the animals, and they can use some impulses.
Cox: That’s a very good analogy. We are like animals on a National Geographic special.
Brian, you told me a year and a half ago that you were at a #MeToo lunch, and you were stunned to be surrounded by women wanting to videotape you telling them to fuck off. Do you still get asked to insult people?
Cox: It’s happening all the time, I’m almost making a living out of it. It’s kind of weird. I remember it started when I was doing The Great Society at Lincoln Center and I would come out at night and a 17-year-old girl and her 17-year-old boyfriend would be there and he said, “Can you tell us to fuck off, please?” And I’d just go, “Fuck off.” Of course, you could actually really be telling them to fuck off, but they’re happy. “Oh, he’s told us to fuck off!”[laughs] … It’s such an odd thing. It has affected me. I used to swear a bit, but now I can’t see the joint between me and my evil twin.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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Published at Mon, 18 Oct 2021 02:00:00 +0000
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