As the shrewdly strategic Gerri Kellman, the general counsel and interim CEO of Waystar Royco on HBO’s Succession, J. Smith-Cameron is always planning at least three steps ahead of the competition. It’s a useful strategy for climbing the corporate ladder, but to advance her career in the New York theater world in 1985, Smith-Cameron had to hone an entirely different skill set: learning to live with uncertainty.
After making her Broadway debut in Crimes of the Heart three years prior, 28-year-old Smith-Cameron was moving on up — to a bigger agency, and hopefully, to bigger roles. But she was still living paycheck to paycheck. “As a young actress, ingenues are a dime a dozen,” Smith-Cameron, now 65, tells Bustle. “I had to just take jobs — I couldn’t really design what I wanted to do.”
But life at 28 was more than a mad dash from one audition to the next. She was becoming a seasoned New Yorker, and landed one of the parts she’d always wanted. “I had good times and definitely bad times,” Smith-Cameron says. “[It’s] just an incredible time of being like, you were in college or in high school, but you’re still young. Your body’s young and healthy, but you’re beginning to get battle-scarred.” The scars weren’t all bad, either: “It gives you a little smoky flavor of experience about you. It makes you actually a really attractive, interesting person.”
Below, Smith-Cameron talks about moving to Queens, doing her makeup for free at Bergdorf’s, and how she got her own smoky flavor.
Take me back to 1985, when you turned 28. How were you feeling about your life and career?
One big milestone was that I got cast as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. It was at Syracuse Stage, but that was a part I’d always wanted to play. They had been trying to cast a younger person in their early 20s and had not found anyone who could do the verse. That was a very formative experience for me because I remember thinking, “I’m a little bit older than they mean to cast and I’m not going to get this job.”
I remember preparing for it the night before and figuring out what I was going to wear and getting in bed and my eyes snapping back open and thinking to myself, “You didn’t prepare enough. You didn’t prepare like you thought you could get it.” And I got right back out of bed and started rehearsing the monologues again in my nightgown. I went in the next day very tired, but I got the part. It wasn’t something that would move my career forward in any way that anyone outside looking in would notice, but it was a big turning point for me.
What was your lifestyle like, living in New York?
There was a real sense of figuring out how to live in New York. Where are you going to live? How are you going to find a doctor? How to figure out the subways, how to hail a cab, how much to tip a cab, all that stuff is part of it. You can’t own New York in whatever your career is until you’ve kind of gotten used to New York. People used to say to me that it took about seven years to figure out where you wanted to live, who your agent was, what was your neighborhood.
By the time I was 28, I was hitting that. I got some good jobs, but I was also hitting reality — going up for things I didn’t get, but they were bigger auditions. I also got married, not to my present husband, but my first husband was a short-lived marriage right around that time. I had a sort of spacious apartment in Sunnyside, Queens — this big pre-war elevator building with a dishwasher.
Knowing that you might end up doing a play out of town, how did you deal with that transient type of lifestyle? Did you thrive in that environment, or was it a difficult adjustment?
I think both. It was a magical time, because there’s so much possibility and you can try on so many different things. You’re still meeting completely different kinds of people from completely different walks of life than you’re used to. And just the thrill of beginning to work and make money and be able to afford to go out to eat or to upsize your apartment — it’s just a huge time of discovery.
But I think it is also sort of this vulnerable, lonely, scary time. I remember I got burgled when I lived in Washington Heights. Being in your 20s is this really exciting time, but also a war zone. Most people in their 20s go through [it] — their romantic lives are like a horrible hellscape, up and down. I was no different.
What did you splurge on at 28?
I guess every once in a while I’d buy some new outfit to audition in or something, if I could afford it. We’d go out after the theater a lot, like to Joe Allen. That was maybe a spurge.
When I lived in Washington Heights, I would come into town, say for a little rehearsal or for a voiceover audition, and I’d just be wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and maybe no makeup. And then I would get a call for an audition — a real audition — and I would go to someplace and try to find an inexpensive crew neck sweater or something. Then I had a routine: I would go to the Plaza Hotel. You could go to the restrooms underneath, they were very posh and there was an attendant who would hand you a towel and so forth, but you tipped. It was one of those bathrooms that had toiletries.
So I would carry my toothbrush with me. I would go wash my face, brush my teeth, put on my new inexpensive top I bought, and then I would go to Bergdorf’s to the makeup counters and apply makeup, and then I’d go to my audition. I knew which hotel lobbies you could use the bathroom in and hang out in and look at your audition script. That was my little secret existence.
I’ll never get equipped for it. It’s a weird feeling. I mean, it’s really nice to be in a hit show for a million reasons. And I’m really proud of my character because I kind of made her up; I created her in a way. So I take a lot of satisfaction in that it’s successful and that it has taken off with people. And I really love that my character speaks to women and oftentimes really young women who find her, I don’t know if role model’s the right [word], but just that she’s such a survivor. She’s wily and she’s crafty.
What advice would you give your 28-year-old self?
I would tell my 28-year-old self to be a little less judgmental of herself. There’s just such pressure in our industry to be Barbie doll perfect figures, with even-featured cookie-cutter looks. Less so nowadays, but certainly I felt that when I was that age. I look up pictures now and I’m like, “I was nice-looking.”
I was so hard on myself and not ambitious enough. I was sort of sheepish about really trying for not just big parts, but a certain kind of part. I was kind of abashed, and I think I would try to address that with my 28-year-old self. I’d be like, “Be a little bolder and don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re stacking up pretty good for what you’re trying to do. You’re coming along. It’s always bumpy.”
What would your 28-year-old self think of you now?
I think I would be delighted, because I think I thought that people in their 60s were all washed up when I was younger. When I turned 40, I was worried about that, and I got some great parts then. And the same when I turned 50 and when I turned 60. I think I would be delighted by all of that — that I wouldn’t have thought, “Oh, you don’t have to just play Auntie Em when you’re older.” Nowadays, things are a little different — people are more open-minded.
You can have people thirsting after you on Twitter at 65.
I mean, never cut yourself short and don’t be afraid of the future!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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