The Untold Truth Of J. Smith-Cameron

You probably know her best as Gerri, the ice cold executive of Waystar Royco in "Succession." Even though J. Smith-Cameron is currently experiencing a burst in popularity thanks to the role, she's actually been around for a while, quietly churning out stellar performances both on stage and on screen. The actress began her career in the theater, with numerous iconic roles in plays such as "Wild Honey," "Our Country's Good," and "Crimes of the Heart" (via Playbill). Despite her stage success, she was certainly not what you would call famous — she was, as she told The New Yorker, a "bread-and-butter actor," whose only career aim was to earn enough to live.

Soon, of course, Smith-Cameron began appearing on screen, too, with dozens of roles in both film and television. In 2011, she starred in "Margaret," a film by her husband, the playwright Kenneth Lonergan, and from 2013 to 2016, she starred in the critically-acclaimed "Rectify" (via IMDb). Smith-Cameron has certainly paid her dues, and, after almost four decades in the industry, she's finally getting the recognition she deserves. Want to learn a little more about her? Here is the untold truth of J. Smith-Cameron.

J. Smith-Cameron's first love is theater

Most of us probably would have never heard of J. Smith-Cameron if it wasn't for her fan-favorite turn as Gerri Kellman on "Succession." However, at the beginning of her career, the actress probably wouldn't have had it any other way. Her first and greatest love has always been the theater. In fact, TV was never even on her radar. Some of her favorite roles on stage include "As Bees in Honey Drown," which was her breakout role, and "Juno and the Paycock." "[That] was a big thing for me," she told Andy Cohen.

Of course, these meaty theater roles didn't always come with much widespread recognition — but, then again, that was never her aim. "You could play Shakespeare leads and get amazing reviews at some impressive venue, but then you do 'Law & Order' and that puts you on the map," she told W Magazine. "I've shifted into being a television actress, but I would have never seen that coming because theater is my great love."

She's a southerner who became a New Yorker

J. Smith-Cameron was born in Kentucky and raised in South Carolina, but, for years now, New York has been her home. As she explained on the "Death, Sex & Money" podcast, she first moved to New York City in her early 20s to pursue an acting career. Apparently, she's lived in the SoHo area ever since. "If you're an actor or any artist or in any creative type position and you come to New York, just that action alone is a huge achievement," she said. "It's so bold, it's so brave to do it."

Of course, Smith-Cameron hasn't been able to shed her southern roots altogether. While she loves parts of southern culture, she acknowledges that the South also has a problematic history. As she said to Garden & Gun, "I have this weird hate/love thing about the South, to be frank."

The actress keeps her creative instincts sharp between roles

J. Smith-Cameron hasn't always been famous. Like any working actor, she's had a few periods without work. As she told the "Death, Sex & Money" podcast, she and her friend Kevin used to spend hours on end chatting in a local diner. "When we were between gigs and we were just auditioning, actors have a lot of time to fill without trying to fall into a desperate void in your mind ... we would come in this diner and nurse a cup of tea and a corn muffin for many hours," she said.

Smith-Cameron also spends her "off" time reading. "Read, read, read, read, read, read," she told the "Back to One" podcast. "Not necessarily dramatic literature, just reading." Another thing Smith-Cameron does is simply to people-watch. "Every time I get on the subway, I mark people, you know, I study them," she said, explaining how it's the perfect chance to "study human behavior." It's clear that Smith-Cameron is always keeping herself in a state of readiness for whatever role comes her way next — no wonder she seems to slip so seamlessly into each new character she plays.

She's happy to be an unexpected Hollywood sex symbol

J. Smith-Cameron didn't expect to find fame in her 60s with her role in "Succession" — after all, as she told Awards Daily, she was only initially booked for four episodes. Another thing she didn't expect was to become something of a sex symbol, thanks to her character's bizarre pseudo-relationship with Kieran Culkin's Roman Roy. In a 2021 interview on "Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen," a fan asked Smith-Cameron what she thought about her "MILF title." "Well, I have no issue with that," she said laughing.

In fact, the actress seems to relish the opportunity to bust some of the stereotypes about who can be a sex symbol. When someone tweeted, "Why do younger men get attracted to women over 40?" she replied simply, "Why not?" The comment got over 1,500 likes — what a total icon!

She got into acting because of a dare in high school

Watching J. Smith-Cameron on stage or on screen, it's hard to imagine her being anything but an actor. However, it turns out, there was a time when acting wasn't even on her radar at all. "I was a shy kid who wore glasses and played the violin and didn't have a best friend, so it was rocky," she told Garden & Gun. However, all of that changed thanks to a dare. "My sophomore year this senior girl behind me in Spanish class dared me to audition for the school play."

Before she knew it, Smith-Cameron was starring in "The Diary of Anne Frank." After years of anonymity, she found herself becoming the center of attention. She was even featured in the local paper. "My whole social profile, if you will, changed," she told Garden & Gun. From then on, Smith-Cameron knew that acting was the only thing she wanted to pursue. Sounds like she owes that girl from Spanish class an awful lot!

J. Smith-Cameron came up with an iconic line in Succession

A main reason that J. Smith-Cameron's performance as Gerri in "Succession" has captured the hearts of so many fans is her character's relationship with Roman. In one of the show's most iconic scenes, Gerri berates Roman during a phone call while he masturbates on the other end of the line.

One of the names that Gerri uses during the phone call is "slime puppy." As Smith-Cameron told Joe, this phrase has become one of her most iconic lines. And, it turns out, she was the one who came up with it! "I call Kieran a slime puppy, which was an improv of mine. Yeah, so, that's my contribution to English literature," she laughed. In an interview with The Guardian, she went into more detail about the moment of inspiration. "We were talking on the phone and as Roman was, shall we say, finishing, we'd run out of dialogue, so I said a few different things. That one made it into the cut," she explained. Thank goodness it did!

The script always comes first for J. Smith-Cameron

J. Smith-Cameron is a words woman. For her, the allure and appeal of acting always begins with the script. "When I was first acting, I kept gravitating to theater because that's where the real writing was," she told Tell Tale TV. "I don't know when I'll get another opportunity to do that kind of specific character — those kind of well-written scenes again."

In an interview with The New Yorker, writer Rachel Syme called her a "playwright-forward actress" to which Smith-Cameron replied, "You've completely perceived me ... It's always the writing." In the same interview, Smith-Cameron explained that the script is part of what makes "Succession" special. "I don't mean that to sound pretentious, but it's more about the words [than other TV shows]," she said. In fact, Smith-Cameron is even married to Kenneth Lonergan, a world-famous playwright! Clearly, it really is all about the words for her.

The actress has many roles she considers her favorites

While most of us will immediately think of Gerri Kellman when we think of J. Smith-Cameron, the actress has had plenty of other roles in her time. And, for her, some of those roles were even more interesting than Waystar Royco's stone cold general counsel.

"Outside of 'Succession,'" she told The Guardian, "I adored 'Juno and the Paycock' in the off-Broadway production." Another favorite part was as Janet in "Rectify" — "because she was so repressed," Smith-Cameron explained. And, finally, Smith-Cameron mentioned "Margaret," the film by her husband, Kenneth Lonergan (just one of the real-life partners of the "Succession" cast), in which she plays an aging actress. That role, she said, "was incredibly multifaceted — and Kieran Culkin was in it too, which brings us full circle." Sounds like Smith-Cameron has really enjoyed playing such a wide range of characters over the years. And, for us fans of Gerri, it's clear there are plenty of other films and TV shows for us to see!

The star loves interacting with fans on Twitter

Fame isn't something that J. Smith-Cameron ever expected — especially so far into her career. However, when she became something of a breakout star of "Succession," she embraced all of her new fans with open arms — mostly by interacting with them on Twitter.

Smith-Cameron has over 40,000 followers and posts frequently. She also follows and retweets quite a few "Succession" fan accounts from time to time. When asked about her love of fan-Twitter by Town & Country, Smith-Cameron explained, "I love when people do romantic montage videos with music. The inventiveness of 'Succession' fans on Twitter and Instagram is so impressive!" And, to The New Yorker, she explained that, while adjusting to all of her new superfans on Twitter was a little "weird," she was just trying to enjoy it. "I'm trying not to get too caught up in it. I didn't work for this. I didn't really aim for this. So it's kind of a lark," she said.

J. Smith-Cameron met her husband in an adorable way

J. Smith-Cameron has been married to Kenneth Lonergan since 2000. You probably know him as the playwright behind films such as "Manchester by the Sea" and "You Can Count on Me" and plays like "This is Our Youth." As the actress explained to The New Yorker, their meeting was suitably theatrical. "When we met, we had a little snappy exchange," she said.

Apparently, they had been attending an evening of short plays. One of Lonergan's new works was presented, and he was also acting in another play. Smith-Cameron was intrigued by his play and wanted to learn more about him. "Then I passed him in a stairwell, and he was carrying his bike," she recalled. "I said, 'Your play reminds me of a William Inge play or something.'" When Lonergan said he didn't know who Inge was, Smith-Cameron asked him if he went to college, a question that was met with a resounding, "'Yes!'" to which Smith-Cameron replied, "Well, I didn't, and I know who William Inge is!" the actress recalled. As she put it, it was like something "right out of a Preston Sturges film."

She loves swimming in New York

You probably wouldn't have guessed it, but J. Smith-Cameron is a big fan of swimming. When she was asked about her favorite hobby on the "Death, Sex & Money" podcast, she explained that she and her husband have a home in Long Island, New York, where they plan on spending more time as they get older. Smith-Cameron loves it because she gets to swim. "I swim a lot during warm weather and [in Long Island] there's the ocean, there's the bay and there are swimming pools out there so that is the obvious easy answer but also, it's in the Hamptons," she explained.

Even though the Hamptons are becoming a little crowded, she went on, it still feels like a real escape from the city. "It's still filled with natural beauty. It's a very beautiful, lush place," she said. It all sounds pretty lovely if you ask us!

J. Smith-Cameron made the character of Gerri in Succession her own

J. Smith-Cameron makes the part of Gerri look easy — but, of course, the high-powered woman in a world full of locker room talk could have easily been played very differently. In an interview with Marie Claire, Smith-Cameron explained how her version of Gerri came to be.

Apparently, the role was initially written to be a man called "Jerry," but the production team decided to have a few women audition, too. So, Smith-Cameron received scripts that included tons of corporate male banter. "I thought that Gerri would be very used to being one of the guys, but also be disgusted," she said. "So when I did my audition tape, I was doing that long-suffering thing that now has become part of Gerri's behavior, which is like, 'Gross'" ... "but yes, I'm with you." It was the perfect approach to the role, and, of course, she got the part. And thank goodness she did — it's hard to imagine "Succession" without Gerri as we now know her.

J. Smith-Cameron was not always her name

J. Smith-Cameron has an unusual name — after all, she goes by the initial "J" rather than a full first name. Of course, this wasn't always what she was called. "I was called Jeanie when I was growing up," she told The Christian Science Monitor. "And in high school, I felt that it was a little girl's name."

When Smith-Cameron went to college, she decided she needed a change. "When I signed up for the auditions, I just put 'J,' period, Smith [her family's last name]," she told The New Yorker. The name gave her a certain "mystique." Smith-Cameron eventually realized that "J. Smith" was too common a name. So, she took Cameron, another name from her family, and became "J. Cameron." "Then I made a Victor Nuñez movie, and it went to the New York Film Festival," she recalled. "He put 'J. Smith-Cameron' in the program. He kind of made it up." Even though Smith-Cameron didn't initially love having a hyphenated last name, it stuck, and it's been her professional name ever since.

The best advice she ever received is to 'be bold'

J. Smith-Cameron has learned a lot over the years, both about acting and about life in general. But the most salient advice she's ever received has been to "be bold." "That was hard for me because I was kind of shy," she told Forbes. "I came out of my student days wanting to be real and believable. I had a sort of modest aesthetic." Numerous people, including her sister and her husband, encouraged her to make bigger, bolder choices in her work. "It took me a while to really incorporate that advice," she said.

Perhaps her struggle with being bold is why Smith-Cameron looks up to her "Succession" co-star, Kieran Culkin, so much. As she once told Page Six, "He is so bold and so inventive and free. I'm full of admiration for him."

One thing's for sure: Smith-Cameron has certainly embraced some bold acting choices in "Succession." And we can't wait to see what bold moves she makes next!