J. Smith-Cameron is a Tony-nominated stage, film and television actress. She recently starred in Sundance-winner Nancy directed by Christina Choe, for which she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Independent Spirit Award. Previous film credits include Antonio Campos’ Christine, Frank Whaley’s Like Sunday, Like Rain, and Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. On television, Smith-Cameron was most recently seen in HBO’s Succession, which is about to start shooting its second season in NYC. She previously starred as Janet in Sundance’s Peabody award-winning series Rectify, and has appeared in numerous theatre productions on and off Broadway, including Juno and the Paycock (Joe A. Callaway Award and Drama Desk nomination), Our Country’s Good (Tony® nomination), As Bees in Honey Drown (Obie award, Drama Desk and Outer Critics nominations), and most recently, Peace for Mary Frances opposite Lois Smith.
It’s January, 2017. A new president is inaugurated as the country implodes in turmoil and division; I go to the Women’s March with my teenage daughter, and make my first steps of activism in the Trumpian age. The next day, I pack my bags and go off to shoot Nancy, in the snowy landscape of Upstate New York.
The whole movie is a quick shoot; my entire part will be over in two weeks or so, but with much crammed into each day. Nancy is the story of a serial imposter, played by Andrea Riseborough. Before I leave, I do an image search for Andrea; she’s very pretty, petite and looks very different in every role.
When I arrive on set, I find she has a mostly shaved head with bangs and a tiny pigtail or two, which might have been blue. In the movie, she’s wearing a strange but fitting Patti Smith-style wig. Off camera, she has a Newcastle accent; as Nancy, her voice is ringer-perfect American.
Steve Buscemi plays my husband. He seems nice and down to earth and shy, like me.
Shooting seems to be going OK.
Halfway through shooting on my fourth day, I get a text message. A friend, Robby, says he must speak to me on the phone. I ask if it can wait till I’m done shooting. He says unfortunately not.
With a weak stomach, but not at all suspecting what I will hear, I call Robby back. He tells me shakily that the actor Kevin Geer, my best friend, has been found dead, apparently of natural causes (heart incident presumed). I stutter something back to him.
I first met Kevin Geer when I was in my early 20s and had just moved to New York. He was born in Reno and started acting in Los Angeles, getting parts as a teenager in film and television. He drifted east to New York in time, learning that he loved acting in the theatre, as well. I was a young actor recently arrived from down south, and miraculously had scored a Broadway job after about nine months of floating around the city, auditioning and feeling anonymous and invisible. Out of that job, I got my first agent, and I met Kevin the day I went to sign my contracts at the agent’s office. That day, I remember him grinning and friendly and warm, and I felt rescued and like I’d met my first real New York Actor Friend.
I went on to realize that Kevin embodied the New York actor; he was alert, talented, versatile, observant, funny, outgoing; he played in crazy off-off-Broadway edgy stuff, but also important plays on Broadway and hit commercial plays. Over the years, we would run into each other at an audition and go out for tea, spend several hours talking and then he’d walk me home, blocks and blocks out of his way, only to stand outside my apartment building to talk for another 40 minutes. This is how he was with everyone. We knew each other well, but it wasn’t until about 10 years after I’d met him that we went on a cross-country road trip from New York to L.A., an experience that bonded us as soulmates forever. He was to be a confidante, a mentor, a neighbor (eventually), a co-star in a couple of plays, a friend to my husband and daughter, a regular at our opening nights, a fixed attendant at all Christmas Eves and New Year’s parties for years and years. He was colorful and unique. He was both an open book and a mysterious figure. Though every actor in N.Y.C. knew him, sometimes I felt I was one of the only ones who really knew him. He brought me a gardenia for every opening night or fancy occasion – a signature gesture of his; he would race to the Flower District at dawn on the morning of your opening night and buy a tray of gardenias to pin on all of our lapels. He had a million stories, and he could stay up all night and tell them. He was larger than life. He was almost the definition of someone who lived life fully, who was fully awake, fully alive. He put me back together after losses and defeats and celebrated with me when things went my way. I was that lucky person who had the best best friend.
I am called to touch-ups and back to set. In the scene we’re about to shoot, I’m welcoming Nancy/Andrea to our home with an over-the-top home-cooked meal. Nancy is nervous and can’t eat — she’s overcome and feels out of her body and tense and asks to go to the bathroom because she is so nervous she feels sick to her stomach. Andrea, the consummate film actress, chats and asks smart questions. We all talk about the scene and make choices and think about it and rethink it. We shoot it a few times.
But I, like Nancy is in the story, am kind of just going through the motions: nervously, shyly, eagerly, trying too hard; it’s supposed to be Nancy that is feeling false and scared and strange; my character, Ellen, is supposed to be calm and open and welcoming — but in truth, I have just heard my best friend has died and I am in utter disbelief. I absolutely cannot fathom that Kevin could be dead. It is, first of all, just very unlike him to be dead. He’s not the type to die young! He took good care of himself, was literally full of life. To make everything worse, I had not seen him in an unnaturally long time, for us. I could have spent Christmas Eve of that year with him, as Kenny and Nellie, my husband and daughter, and I often had done in the past, but instead we went to Virginia to be with my mom, who was in hospice. I needed to cover for my brother’s family whom Mom lived with, as they were going to his wife’s relatives for Christmas. I had gratefully, if sadly, elected to go to Mom; all three of us Lonergans were very, very close with Mom, too. It was to be her last Christmas. That was expected; I couldn’t have known it was to be Kevin’s, too.
I spend the rest of the shoot day in total shock. Somehow, miraculously, as long as the camera is rolling, I’m very, very in the scene. But when the camera moves and they relight, I go back into zombie-like form. Andrea, the wizard, picks up on something, she asks if I’m OK. I look at her blankly and say, “Um, I just learned my best friend died.” She says, “WHAT?” I stare at her limply, as if: I know, right? How can that be true?
The irony is very sharp because in our fiction, in the story of the film Nancy, Andrea plays a lost soul, unmoored, looking for an identity, who stumbles upon Steve and myself, hoping to pass for our lost daughter. My character, Ellen, wishes so fervently that this will prove true that she can’t contain her hope; Steve’s character, Leo, is wary and worried Ellen’s heart will break anew.
I’m so fucking grateful to be in this alternative universe, this fictional set of circumstances where I can pretend I’m someone else. It’s a weird mirroring, distorting and jarring — in real life, I’m the imposter unable to live in her own life; at least for this long, extended never-ending moment of monstrous impossibility.
Ironically, today it is Andrea who is present and calm and professional; I am only able to breathe once the camera is rolling, when I am someone else.
This goes on until we must stop to set up the next scene. I call Kenny. He has heard somehow and has made arrangements to drive up to where I am. I tell him I’m OK, he doesn’t need to come, somehow I’m OK, just working, working, working, like a maniac. He says he’ll see me that night.
I’m fine until I get to the hotel. I run into Steve in the hotel bar and admit to him what happened. He stares at me, confused. Kenny walks in and at that moment, I fall apart, finally myself again.
Kenny arranges with the assistant director to change the shooting schedule for the next day. (I notice, from my spooky freaked-out distance, how mighty and true-blue my husband is.) That night, like a teenager, drink goes to my head and I’m sick afterwards for hours. I sleep till noon and Kenny tells me when I awaken that it’s OK and if I feel up to it I can shoot that evening. I go back to sleep. I do get up and shoot during the second half of the day. And I am so grateful for it.
We finish our shoot. I get back to New York City the day after Kevin’s church has had a mass for him. If I’d known, I might have been able to trade that hungover day for the day of his mass, but somehow the scheduling wasn’t discussed with me; I feel irrationally bitter and pissy. I’m just beat up and lost.
I go right to Kevin’s church. Kevin was a true Catholic, a part of him I didn’t share in, but it fascinated me. Once, years before, traveling in Italy together, Kevin and I wandered up to a small, ancient church in the Tuscan countryside. With total assurance, Kevin asks the priest to bless us. (I don’t know, is this a thing? I’m not religious at all, much less Catholic; who knows?) He agrees, and there in churchyard, the sun beating down and bees buzzing in our ears, my then five-year-old daughter skipping around nearby, the young priest bows his head and utters an Italian prayer, my friend beaming at my side. And today, here I am shivering in the February chill, looking around Our Lady of Pompeii, on Carmine Street in Greenwich Village, and yet the church’s austerity recalls that day. It is empty except for one young mother who is praying as her toddler runs back and forth in the pews. I wonder why they said the service couldn’t have been held tonight? The church is open, and available. Maybe the priest wasn’t? I feel a wave of anger and loneliness. But then I just sit in the pew and pray. Not to God, exactly; what I do is try to talk to Kevin. But because I still can’t believe he’s dead, the talk is one-sided and not so satisfying.
It takes me months to believe he’s gone. It still doesn’t really compute, now, nearly two years later.
I see Nancy for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. I sit in the premiere, holding my friend Lily Thorne’s hand tightly; later that spring, I am to play her mother in her first, mostly autobiographical play, Peace for Mary Frances, and again the closeness of a fictional mother-daughter dynamic is palpable.
I get caught up in the movie. Suddenly, as Ellen is warmly reassuring Nancy, I remember: Oh, my God! That was that day! It’s that scene! That day I, J, was outside of my own body, clinging to this strange chance that acting gave me … to rest in Ellen’s kindly, trusting, loving mind. How fucking lucky that all these years of learning and practicing my craft bore me up that day; that awful, awful day in snowy January. That day is painted one way in my memory, and another, alternate way in the film. So weirdly true to the theme of the movie: sometimes a fictional persona can be more present and more authentic than the person who smiles up at you from your own passport.
Acting is a funny way of life, for sure, but I would not trade anything for it. There’s something profoundly humbling about it; it’s always the first day of school, always life in a twilight blink. A deeply human, momentary, passing connection to one’s character, to one’s fellow actor, and to one’s audience. This is definitely how Kevin would have explained it, too.